A Smart Ride
The future is here. It’s cheaper than I expected, and it’s so small that you could fit two in a single parking space. I find it plugged into a wall charger in the subterranean garage of a midtown Manhattan office tower. It’s called the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive, or ED, and it’s one of the first mainstream, all battery-powered cars to hit U.S. roads.
New Yorkers, of course, have seen Smart cars before. The gas-powered version grabbed headlines two years ago for its ultra-parkability, but it handled poorly and wasn’t much on gas mileage. Electrification fixes both of those problems. The ED’s cost per mile -- the electric equivalent of mileage -- is among the best available. And the added weight from the batteries improves the car’s handling, while electric motors zip it up to speed more confidently.
Sliding behind the wheel, I scan the plastic dashboard for the high-tech display that’s become a signature of electric vehicles. Toyota’s Prius set the standard with an animated diagram of the energy flowing through its systems. But the ED disappoints on that front: The first giveaway that you’re in an electric vehicle is a pair of simple analog gauges perched atop the dashboard showing the status of the battery. "Well," I think, "that’s one way to make drivers less distracted."
Despite being one of the smallest cars on U.S. roads, the Smart ForTwo is surprisingly roomy inside. The electric motor is tucked between the rear wheels, so there’s no engine under the hood, opening up plenty of height and leg room to situate my six-foot frame. Peering forward from the drivers’ seat, practically nothing is visible of the blunt hood out front. The side windows wrap in closely on both sides. The combined effect feels like I’m hovering in a bubble -- a sense exaggerated by the car’s silent motor.
Smart’s dimensions will never offer the tank-like comforts of an SUV, but as I dart through holes in traffic that no other car could fit and nimbly dodge potholes, even on slushy roads, I’m grinning. The ED may be pint sized, but it’s got great self-confidence, a plus for any newcomer to New York.
Visitors to Manhattan, San Francisco, Washington, and soon other cities can now borrow this eco-novelty for as little as $6 per hour thanks to Connect by Hertz, an hourly car-share program. That’s a real deal given that, while not yet for sale, EDs are being leased for $600 per month by Smart, a subsidiary of Germany’s Daimler.
It’s also a sign that the electrification of America’s vehicles probably won’t begin in suburban driveways. Consumers are more likely to get their first exposure to these high-tech vehicles as rentals in cities. Rental companies are eager to burnish their green cred while tapping public interest in the novel vehicles. "Hertz is the first to provide consumers with electric vehicle access on a global scale," said Mark Frissora, Hertz’s chairman and chief executive officer, in a statement. "We look forward to… making electric mobility a reality for consumers worldwide."
The five Smart EDs that Connect by Hertz has for rent in New York City are just a start. Over the next two years, it plans to add 1,000 battery-powered cars nationwide. Enterprise Rent-A-Car likewise aims to buy 500 no-gas Nissan Leafs for its fleet. Even the exotic Tesla Roadster -- the battery-powered, $109,000 super car -- can be rented out for $25 an hour through Getaround, a new car-sharing startup. Plug-in hybrids such as Chevy’s Volt, which rely mostly on batteries but also have a gas engine for extended range, are now or will soon be offered by Avis, Enterprise, Hertz, and ZipCar.
Other than the Tesla, electric vehicles have been practically invisible since GM’s ill-fated EV1 made a short-lived splash in the mid 1990s. This time, they’ll stick around, says John O’Dell, senior editor at Edmund’s GreenCarAdvisor.com. Both policymakers and auto execs like their efficiency, low-carbon emissions, and lack of reliance on foreign oil for gasoline. Even when drawing energy from coal-fired power plants, their carbon footprint is lower than petroleum-fueled cars, according to a joint study by the electric industry and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"Governments in China, Germany, Japan, and the U.S. -- all driven by worries over oil dependence and climate change -- are setting sales quotas, incentives, and efficiency standards aimed at electric vehicles," O’Dell says. Global automakers that don’t have battery-powered models ready to meet the new standards, he adds, risk being barred from those markets.
A $7,500 federal tax credit for all-electric vehicles is spurring their adoption here. As part of a commitment to put more than 1 million plug-in cars on the road by 2015, the White House last month sweetened the pot further, proposing a suite of incentives, including converting the tax credit into an outright rebate so that consumers can get the money at the time they buy, not when filing tax returns.
For now, though, battery-powered cars barely show up in America’s huge auto market. About 1,300 were sold in 2009 (the most recent year for which data is available). Sales are predicted to grow quickly to 90,000 cars by 2015, predicts market analyst JD Powers. By comparison, sales of gas-electric hybrids hit 292,000 in 2009 and are on track to exceed a million over the next few years. Toyota’s Prius accounts for more than half of all hybrid sales.
For all the hype, electric vehicles are a technology in flux. Just as the earliest gas-powered cars -- think the Model T -- were clunky, the first generation of mass market electric cars are limited in performance and dominated by designs adapted from existing gas models. The good news is that Smart’s ED microcar may mark the end of an era when electric cars were synonymous with small. Here-now and here-soon models, including Nissan’s Leaf and Ford’s electric Focus, both of which I checked out at the recent Detroit Auto Show, are comfortable, full-sized five-passenger vehicles.
Smart’s ED embodies much of the promise and many of the shortcomings of first-generation electric vehicles. First among those questions: how far can it go? For this car, the answer is 80 to 90 miles, depending on whether you’re driving aggressively or cranking the AC to Arctic temperatures (not a problem this month). That’s plenty of range for most, given that drivers travel an average of about 30 miles per day in the United States. Range is even less of a concern in cities, where trips are shorter. While "range anxiety" may be a persistent concern for car-commuting suburbanites, today’s EVs are well suited for urban driving.
Recharging is the other big question. For my test car, plug-in duties are handled by the attendants at the commercial garage where the ED sleeps. A wall-mounted unit, made by ChargePoint -- one of a growing number of charger makers, including AeroVironment, Coulomb, EcoTality, and GE -- sprouts a hose-like cable that plugged into the car where a gas cap would normally be. This station feeds 240-volt power into the car, recharging it to 80 percent in under four hours and fully in about eight.
The success of electric vehicles will depend hugely on how public recharging networks evolve. As part of a $100 million federal program, The EV Project is building thousands of charging stations in Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona, Texas, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C. Private players are emerging to be a major provider of such infrastructure, too. "For a store or movie theater, installing recharging stations isn’t a huge cost, even if they give away the power, and that lures customers in," says O’Dell. "If you had an electric vehicle, would you go to the coffee shop with a free charging station, or one without?"
During my own test drive, the ED felt sure footed hitting highway speeds. But once I rolled into Queens, the preponderance of trucks and SUVs on the road reminded me how small the ED felt. It’s three feet shorter than BMW’s MiniCooper. EVs don’t have to be tiny, of course, but many of the more affordable, early models are, because smaller, lighter vehicles require fewer of the costly batteries that drive up their price.
Midway through my e-road trip, I pulled into the parking lot of the Bel Aire Diner, a Queens classic with a phone-book sized menu.
Getting out of their beefy trucks, two similarly beefy drivers stopped, in unison, to grill me about why my little car was sporting plug symbols on its sides. Their mild skepticism shifted into tentative enthusiasm when the discussion moved to fuel costs. With gas inching back up toward $4 per gallon in the city, both griped about the eye-popping, three-digit costs of filling up their dreadnaughts a few times a month.
When they asked me what it would cost to fuel my e-car, I made some quick mental calculations. "Maybe $20 or $30 depending on your daily distance?" I said.
"Thirty dollars per fill up?" shot back the guy in the big red Ram pickup. "No," I replied, "Per month."
"What? You should buy lunch then!"
Maybe next time.