My 280-Mile Single-Day Nissan LEAF Roadtrip
I did something last weekend that was completely normal and uneventful for most Northern California motorists: I drove a car from San Jose to Sacramento and back. The only difference was that I was driving was a 100-percent battery-electric Nissan LEAF.
One of the recurring objections to pure battery electric vehicles is limited range, so I set out to Sacramento to see if the 2013 LEAF's real-world range (and the region's charging infrastructure) would be an onerous task, or smooth sailing. Full disclosure: Nissan offered me the use of a top-of-the-line loaded 2013 LEAF SL (MSRP $36,910 before incentives) for this medium-distance day trip, utilizing the current CHAdeMO Quick Charger in Northern California.
A Zero-Emissions Yogurt Excursion
The itinerary would take me from my house in San Jose, to Elk Grove, Calif., a suburb of Sacramento, 140 miles away. The first Nissan DC Quick Charger in Northern California had just been installed at Elk Grove Nissan. Here’s the important part: My wife wanted me to pick up a particular type of yogurt for her, which is only available at a few stores in the Sacramento Delta area. If EVs are ready for prime time, shouldn’t I be able to add errands like this?
The 280-mile round trip would be primarily freeway driving in 85-plus degree weather. In a conventional car, this trip would take about two and quarter hours each way.
I left the house with a full charge on the LEAF at 7 a.m. and proceeded northeast on highways 101 and Interstate 680 toward Sacramento. Traffic was already getting heavy with the usual weekend Tahoe traffic, and for the first leg of the trip, I averaged about 62 m.p.h. My first stop for recharging was in Concord at the Concord Hilton Hotel at 60 miles. Hilton has installed two Blink CHAdeMO Quick Chargers, and five of the slower Level 2 chargers that are available for anyone to use.
I arrived at the Quick Charger at about 8 a.m. and plugged in to charge with the car indicating that the battery had 21 percent capacity or 22 miles left in it. While the car was recharging, I went inside the hotel, used their facilities, had a cup of coffee and relaxed and read the paper.
The car was done recharging 32 minutes later, and with 85 percent capacity, I was back on the road again by 8:30 a.m.
I proceeded onto Interstate 680, then to Interstate 80 moving along with traffic that was getting heavier. I set the cruise control to 65, and settled in the slow lane. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. In fact, the LEAF is all but invisible on the road, with no one giving me a second glance despite the fact that I was cruising along in traffic, and using absolutely no gasoline.
When I left the Concord Hilton, I still had about another 80 miles to go. At freeway speeds I was going to end up a little short, so that would require a short stop in between Concord and Elk Grove to get just a bit more charge.
The next charging station was in Vacaville, Calif., at a city owned Park-and-Ride that is right off of the Freeway. That station has both a CHAdeMO Quick Charger and several of the 240v Level 2 chargers available at no cost to the public.
Unfortunately when I arrived in Vacaville at 9:00 a.m., the Quick Charger was offline, but the Level 2 Chargers worked just fine. I had driven 33 miles from Concord to get to Vacaville—that’s 93 miles from San Jose—and still had 42 percent battery capacity or 35 miles of range left. So I just needed enough of a charge to add about 15 miles of range to the car. I decided to charge for 30 minutes on the L2 chargers and see how far that would get me.
Against the Wind
I got back on the road again at 9:35, this time with only 65 percent capacity and 47 miles to go. Traffic on I-80 was becoming more and more congested, and traffic was slowing to about 55 m.p.h—great for the LEAF. The slower you go, the better range you get. Unfortunately the slower speed was offset by a strong headwind, and it seemed like the car was using more energy than what I had expected. Luckily, when I got into Sacramento proper, I had to turn south, so the headwind that I had experienced coming into Sacramento, turned into a great tailwind, and I regained most of my capacity losses.
At 10:30 a.m. I rolled into my destination, Elk Grove Nissan. The last trip segment had pretty much used all of my battery capacity leaving only 7 percent of the battery when I arrived.
While I was at Elk Grove Nissan I used their Nissan-Branded CHAdeMO Quick Charger, and brought the car back up to 85 percent capacity in 33 minutes. The Earth Day festivities at Elk Grove were great, but by 1:30 p.m., it was time to hit the road for the return trip.
Other than the inability to use the Quick Charger in Vacaville, the trip so far had been completely unremarkable. The LEAF performed perfectly, and I was able to drive at the speed of the traffic with confidence.
Getting Home All-Electric
The return trip was much the same, freeway traffic in Sacramento was very congested and slow, but once out of Sacramento, it was flowing smooth, and at the speed limit. I drove the LEAF at the speed of the traffic with no issues at all.
On the way back, I stopped in Vacaville to charge again. With the benefit of a tailwind, I would have had just enough charge to make it back to Concord, but since I had to stop and pick up my wife’s favorite yogurt at a grocery store within walking distance of the public chargers, I hooked up to a Level 2 charger for a 30-minute charge.
The Vacaville-to-Concord segment was completely uneventful, and while I was on my final Quick Charge of the trip in Concord, I did some shopping at the REI adjacent the Hilton. By 4:30 p.m., I was on the road back to San Jose, and arrived home by 5:30.
My round trip was 280 miles and my average energy economy to drive that distance was indicated at 3.7 miles per kWh. That added up to 75 kilowatt-hours for the total trip. I currently pay $0.15 per kWh for electricity so this trip theoretically cost me $11.35, or about $.04 a mile. But in reality, all of the in-route charging was free, and I only paid for the charge between my home and Concord, which was about $3.50. So the entire trip only cost about $.0125 per mile.
The trip added only about an extra hour to the journey, and while the recharging network worked for me, it is still a fragile system that is going through growing pains, which for the novice EV driver could be frustrating.
Since last year, there has been exponential growth in charging infrastructure, and 2013 and beyond will continue to see the build out of the public charging network. Its reliability will continue to improve. But despite this rapid growth, the public charging infrastructure is struggling to meet the demand of the rapid growth of plug-in vehicles.
In California, EVs are quickly becoming ubiquitous. Their novelty has worn off. They are everywhere, as commuter cars, daily drivers, and for many owners, their only car. Based on my drive this past weekend, I can say that EVs are a legitimate mainstream option in California. And as California goes, so goes the rest of the nation.
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