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The lessons of driving an electric vehicle go beyond mere transportation. Behind the wheel, the author explores what our driving habits say about our community.
Winter in Vermont is challenge enough, but last winter I decided to take on an extra challenge: driving an electric vehicle (EV). I had heard that EVs were fine in theory but expensive, impractical and above all vulnerable to cold — exactly the opposite of what we need in Vermont. Having just finished writing a book on commuting, though, I knew how wasteful, filthy and expensive gasoline vehicles are, so it seemed worth looking into. I called EVermont, a division of the state Agency of Natural Resources that has been charged, so to speak, with helping to develop electric transportation in Vermont, and arranged to lease an electric pickup truck for the winter months and use it to commute to the university.

My first concern was that I live about eleven miles from campus in Essex Center, and the EV I leased, a blue-green pickup with the Vermont license plate EV1, had a range of about twelve miles, depending on how hilly the journey was and how fast I drove, so I needed to recharge during the day.

Here the university was ahead of me. UVM’s Transportation and Parking Services staff, it turned out, were all in favor of EVs—so much, that they even leased one themselves, a cheerful little yellow pickup called EV 2. John Casey, parking services supervisor, invited me to plug my cable in at their charging point on the crown of the hill where EV2 recharged overnight.

The Transportation and Parking experience with EV2, it turned out, was entirely positive, as these are ideal circumstances for running an EV: EV2 ran a predictable work route of limited radius, less than twenty miles a day and all on campus, so the vehicle was never far from a mechanic and never more than a mile from a top-up charge if necessary. “She’s done real well,” said Bob Winegar, parking operations coordinator.“We’ve even got her rigged up to do jump starts.” He pulled up the hood, and there, like a fossil, was an old-fashioned car battery, ready to jumpstart a dead fossil fuel vehicle, no animosity in evidence.

The Transportation and Parking experience proves that it’s not a question of whether EVs work. EVs work perfectly well. The cart that delivered milk house-to-house thirty years ago when I was growing up in England was an EV, so quiet all you could hear were the bottles rattling in their crates and the whine of the tires. Perfect use of EV technology: limited range, predictable route, lots of stopping, urban setting that needed as little exhaust as possible. They were even pretty cheap, I imagine, as every dairy in the country seemed to use them, so the economies of scale were with them.

No, the current exploration of electric vehicles is all about expanding the role of the EV beyond milk floats, fork lifts and golf carts—and the problems all lie at this frontier. Range. Speed. Versatility. Multiplicity of route and of purpose. As soon as I took EV off campus and tried to use it for a commute that reached almost the limit of its range, I ran into three sets of problems.

Infrastructure. We have had a century to adapt our lives — distort our lives, rather, and our surroundings — to accommodate the gasoline car, and now we have the infrastructure it demands: gas stations every couple of miles, convenient parking lots. As commuters we can almost forget fuel, it is so readily available. Not so with EV. In theory Burlington supports EV use by providing three public EV charging points, but one was out of order when I tried it. The one at UVM was over half a mile from my office instead of the 100 yards I was used to walking from the faculty parking lot, and in January the wind coming up over the crown of the hill went right through me like a storm of neutrinos.

Equipment. The first time I took EV home, I parked at the head of the driveway, plugged into the outlet, and strode down to the house with a feeling of deep satisfaction. Suddenly, all the outside lights went dark. The breaker had flipped. I flipped it back. It flipped again. I called the EVermont mechanic, who told me that EV was sucking more amps than the breaker wanted it to. “You could replace it with a 20-amp breaker, but then your house would burn down.” My wiring, like that in half the houses in Vermont, was antique, and couldn’t cope with the strain of a full EV charge. I disconnected one of the chargers behind the front seat and the charging went okay, but half as quickly. Before the first month was out I had to dig the cable out from snow and even ice, hacking away at the ground with my heel, and the outlet at home periodically vanished under snowdrifts. This is briskly invigorating at ten degrees, a reminder of our pioneer life up here in the northern tier, but at twenty-five below it loses its charm.

Turnaround. Part of my education was that commuting is not linear: we don’t just go in and out at predictable times, we have to make varying and often unpredictable diversions. If I needed to make a run downtown during the day, I had to schedule it so that EV1’s battery had recharged enough, and would have time to recharge again before the trip home in the evening. (A full recharge took up to five hours.) More radically, when both my wife and my daughter fell sick at the same time I gave up on EV altogether for nearly two weeks because the recharging issue meant that I couldn’t drop everything and drive one of them to the doctor if necessary. I found myself thinking of the absurdity of recharging; surely it made more sense to have battery packs that we can lift out and drop in a new one, recharging one while we use the other? But batteries will have to get a lot lighter and cheaper first.

In the end, the great value of driving EV1 was not its practicality but the education I got as a result of its impracticality.

First, it showed me that the car, no matter how clean, is only ever going to be the third-best form of transport in the clean-earth stakes, after walking and riding a bicycle.

Second, driving with one eye on a battery gauge was a constant reminder that driving devours natural resources. Haste is expensive: if I came into work at ambient traffic speed, I was almost out of juice by the time I reached campus. If I drove in at the speed limit (with cars piling up behind me, honking, waving fists) I used thirty-five percent less energy. Hills, too, are expensive. One hill alone, the short, steep hill up past Pine Ridge School into the village of Williston, at forty mph ate up a whole two amp-hours, an eighth of my range. If you can just power up and down hills, you feel as if you own the landscape; in the EV I had more respect for the land, and for the process that was getting me across it. The usual gentle pressure on the gas and the surge uphill must be burning a sudden slew of hydrocarbons and firing them out into the world, without my knowledge. It also shows how overpowered most gas cars are: why own a car that will go at over 100 mph if more than, say, sixty mph is unsafe and a waste of our natural resources?

Third, having a limited range reinforces a sense of community. Instead of going nine miles to Home Depot, which would have required a recharge while I shopped, I went to the local hardware stores. It took more stops and the goods cost a little more, but the money stayed within my community. At times like that you realize how badly town planning errs in promoting traffic, pollution, and the abuse of space.

Finally, EV showed me what lousy technology gas cars use. The electric motor has far fewer moving parts to go wrong, and involves no firing, no combustion, no exhaust, no transmission, no gear-changing, no waste heat. This is the noise an EV makes when you start it up and pull away: nothing. The only sound is the tires whispering on the road as you roll calmly along. It’s as if gasoline cars were just what we made do with until the real thing came along.

Tim Brookes is on the faculty of UVM’s English Department and writes for National Geographic, National Public Radio, and Vermont Quarterly.