Making short-range electric cars more useful with staging lots

Nissan has turned over a new Leaf, which finally has a long range

Having an electric car with more than 200 miles range makes a huge difference; you generally don't pay much attention to charging in your ordinary urban travel around a fairly large city. But a lot of electric cars have much smaller batteries, with ranges from 70 to 110 miles. Because of the disadvantages, these cars are very cheap right now. You can pick up a used Nissan Leaf that's only 5 or 6 years old for well under $7,000!

That Leaf will do you fine for your driving in your immediate area, including most people's commutes or daily errands. But it won't work for the longer trips in your area. Living in Silicon Valley, the issue is the trip to San Francisco, which is around 80 to 100 miles round trip, and up to 120 "EV miles" because high speed highway driving uses up energy faster than average. It's a no go. If you do that sort of trip often, such a car is not for you.

But what if you do it rarely, or would only need to do it in this car rarely? There are a few options available to you:

  • In two car households, if the other car is longer range, just make sure that car is available for the person making the longer trip. (Tools to help a family plan for this could be valuable.)
  • Transit plus Uber can be an option for many, though it does not compete with private cars for time in many cases. You must travel on its schedule.
  • You can just use Uber or Lyft on those trips. This is expensive -- around $150 for the round trip! But if you only do it once or twice a month it may be less than the savings of having such a cheap car.
  • Use a rental car on those days -- usually nor much more than $40 plus gas around here. This is still a hassle, though with a "membership" many car rental places offer a fairly seamless experience, just grab a car and go. They could do better. You may also be able to convince airport car rentals (which have the most seamless service) to let you park your electric car in their lot.
  • Car share services like Zipcar have seamless pickup. Their rates include gas and range from $10/hour to $70/day. You should be able to park in the spot you vacated if they are nice as each car has a permanent spot just for it.
  • Also possible is to take your short range car as far as it will go (perhaps 35 miles one way, but even that pushes it in an old Leaf) and then Uber from there.
  • High speed charging is often available but adds a delay of 30 minutes or more. In some areas, it starts to make sense to take the train.

Best of all, though, is finding a parking space near your destination with charging. Often no such space exists. But even if one does, you need a guarantee. To show up and not be able to charge is a disaster. It's rare to find spaces that can be guaranteed or reserved in advance. The risk of not being able to charge may be low but the risk is still too high. In addition, most spaces, for good reasons, have rules about staying in the spot after you're full. You only need about 3 hours, often less, and if your trip is longer, it's a problem.

It can also be the case that level 1 charging (ordinary 15 amp house plug) which can gain about 5 miles or range per hour, can do it if you park for 5 or more hours. That's more readily available. If your car can do 70 miles, and you pick up 25 more, that might be enough depending on your situation.

You can also pick up a used BMW i3 with gasoline range extender for about $17K now. That removes all the range anxiety, but is not in the "super cheap" category.

Valet charging lot

Here's a solution, and some variations. There are a number of lots with charging on the outskirts of most central business districts. Enough chargers that you can be sure of getting one. So just travel to one of those, and as you approach it, summon your Uber/Lyft. Plug in, grab your ride and get to your destination. The parking on the outskirts is probably cheaper than parking at your destination, and using Uber means not hunting for parking and being dropped right at the door. You might add just a few minutes to your trip.

The problem is, these lots are not set up to support this kind of driver. In particular, they want you out of the spot when you're done. There are a few answers to this. One is to have a valet who moves cars in and out of the charging station as needed. That way if you are coming for more than a couple of hours, you can even not plug in when you arrive, but tell the valet when you need to leave, and they will get you charged by then.

Even easier for the valet would be a garage where each station has cords that can reach multiple spots. It's pretty easy to set up a station which can service two spots. If not against a wall it's easy to handle 4. With longer cords, you can even do 8, if cars put their port near the station. Also good can be a station which has 2 or 3 cords able to reach 4, 6 or 8 spots. Then you don't need to leave your key with the valet. When one car fills up, the valet switches them. You may need to pay a valet fee if you will need this service.

(On some cars, you can't remove the charger without the key, for security, which means leaving your keys.) This is a very low work valet, so ideally this is somebody with another job who just drops by the charging every 30 minutes to swap plugs or move cars.

Cheapest of all would be a system where later arrivals can park at the same charger, and move the plug themselves from a car that's full. This doesn't work if they get there and the other cars are still charging, however, when their owners return, those owners can be required to switch the plugs. The on-site valet can be needed only very rarely.

Yes, these Uber rides will cost a bit more than what the owners of regular cars and long range cars get to do. But you picked up this car, fairly new, for under $7,000. You're saving a bunch.

Also important, if the lot ever fills up, is the ability to make a reservation for a spot. With a valet, this is less of an issue. A lot could also have a fast charger to really keep the valet at work.

Gig work

A final option would be to have a way to hire gig workers to do the valet service. You park somewhere in reasonable range of your destination. You plug in and Uber away. The gig worker moves to the garage -- which does not have to participate -- and moves your car when needed. Ideally gig workers get to do several cars in the same garage to make it efficient. This requires your car have some sort of "soft entry" system which lets the gig worker open your car with his or her phone, similar to the ones put on peer to peer carsharing cars. This is fortunately a solved problem.

Short range cars?

While most early electric cars had this sort of short range, OEMs have learned that people want long range cars. Perhaps short range cars were a mistake that should go out of production. Because they are lighter, they use less energy. Long range cars have a big battery but only use most of it a few days a year, which is wasteful. (It's not entirely wasteful, because as Tesla pioneered, you cycle through the banks of a battery so the pack lasts longer because it's bigger.) Fast charging is also getting better -- Tesla just introduced a 250kw charger, and other companies are promising even faster charging rates, able to make the fast charge option more practical. (Alas, though a new Tesla charger might add 1000 miles of range per hour, it can only do that when the battery is empty and if the battery is Tesla sized.)

For now though, solutions to make the short range car have more value are worth doing.


So, instead of buying one Tesla, you could buy six used Nissan Leafs (Leaves?).

I'm not sure what you'd do with six used Nissan Leafs (Leaves?), though.

The Leaf was designed with a much poorer charging system than people build today. As such, it's battery degradation is more. Most of these cheap Leafs have seen 1/3 battery degradation or more. When they were new you could take them a bit further, now they are good only for pretty local trips and trips to places with assured charging. But they can still be useful. I think for a lot of people only with one car, such a car could make a tolerable 2nd car, or 3rd car for a family, and the price is right. You get a car that sold for over $30K.

Keep in mind that taxpayers probably paid for $10k of that $30k.

How hard is it to swap out the battery?

Probably more cost effective to just buy a used hybrid, though.

Yup. And the government gave tons to ICE car companies which screwed up their business and corporate welfare to oil companies and a lot of other things too. I'm not at the point of telling people they are morally bound to turn down different cheap cars because of the subsidies.

The new battery is $5500. Almost as much as the car. The problem is that the Leaf was never particularly long range. But yes, you will get 90 miles instead of 60. A bit hard to justify since the Leaf's bad battery design ( part of why it is this cheap ) will cause your new battery to lose the range 6 years from now too. At that price, Nissan gets to recycle the old battery, so they're doing OK on it. If they replaced the charge control system with a modern one, it could make more sense.

It takes about 3 hours.

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