Electric cars: plug and drive

by Peter Griffin / 27 November, 2012
Despite some clever advances, electric cars are taking time to catch on.
Electric cars - plug and drive

Reefton seemed an entirely appropriate setting to make a pit stop in an electric car. The tiny West Coast town was the first in the Southern Hemisphere to receive electric power in 1888. The electricity didn’t come from a coal-fired generator, as I had expected. Instead, water from the Inangahua River was fed through a tunnel to a turbine at the Reefton Power Station, providing power to electric lights around the town. But as I rolled silently into a railway yard in Reefton last week in the Holden Volt, the town provided a stark reminder of the reality this new generation of electric cars is here to face. Huge piles of black coal, en route from a West Coast mine to a furnace somewhere, sat awaiting removal.

The motor vehicle industry is trying to reinvent itself with technology that reduces our reliance on fossil fuels. By 2019, the US Government will have spent US$7.5 billion on tax breaks and incentives to encourage its recently bailed-out car makers to ramp up electric vehicle production. The poster child for the green motoring revolution, the boxy Toyota Prius, a hybrid electric and petrol vehicle, is finally turning a profit for Toyota. But the only Prius cars I have sat in are taxis.

Electric cars are still an unusual presence on our roads. That’s despite New Zealand being well suited to electric car technology. Over 70% of our electricity comes from renewable sources, mainly hydro, and many New Zealand homes have a garage, which makes plugging a car into the mains convenient. What we don’t have is scale. The technology is coming along in leaps and bounds. The Prius forged the way with the hybrid. Last year saw the debut here of the Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, fully plug-in electric-only cars with a range of around 150km.

The Holden Volt is a slightly different prospect. It has an electric motor powered by a large T-shaped lithiumion battery pack that sits under the back seat and gives you 87km of driving. It also has a petrol-powered generator that kicks in to recharge the battery and power the wheels. The advantage over the electriconly cars on the market is that the Volt avoids the “range anxiety” that comes with a car that can travel only 150km on a charge.

As I made my way down the South Island last week, after borrowing a power point at the hotel reception to charge the Volt overnight, I began to appreciate the difference efficient driving makes to power and fuel consumption. My heavy foot meant I didn’t get the 87km of range from the fully charged battery – more like 65km. The dynamic efficiency gauge – a green orb on the Volt’s display in front of me – reminded me of how inefficiently I was driving.

Gradually, I learnt how to get the most from the fuel on board, accelerating smoothly and coasting where possible. The Volt has regenerative braking, which captures some of the energy lost when you hit the brakes and feeds it back into the battery – a virtuous cycle if ever there was one. The Volt is a pleasure to drive and comes loaded with technology – satnav, DVD player, lane departure warning system and rear-view camera. But it is almost as though Holden has loaded up on the gadgets to help justify the $85,000 price tag. The i-MiEV and Leaf sell for around $60,000 each. The Volt, however, is no shopping basket, more understated sports car.

Holden’s aims are modest – it hopes to sell 20-30 Volts in New Zealand in the next year to kick-start something bigger. GM, Holden’s US parent, is still losing money on the Volt, which debuted in the States in 2010. But it wants to build as many as 500,000 cars with electrification technologies a year by 2017. Analysts question the economics of Detroit’s heavily subsidised electric car push. It seems there’ll be much more red ink spilt before we can affordably go green.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


First look: Poké Poké
Health Minister dismisses chocolate fundraiser ban
71842 2017-04-28 09:07:08Z Nutrition

Health Minister dismisses chocolate fundraiser ban…

by RNZ

Should schools be selling chocolate to raise funds? The Health Minister says it's ok, but nutrition experts disagree.

Read more
Film review: Denial
71718 2017-04-28 00:00:00Z Movies

Film review: Denial

by Peter Calder

The dramatisation of a Holocaust denier’s libel suit is both engrossing and moving.

Read more
Danish dramas versus Kiwi soaps
71634 2017-04-28 00:00:00Z Television

Danish dramas versus Kiwi soaps

by Jeremy Rose

A quarter of Denmark's population regularly watch Danish TV dramas, while the highest-rating Kiwi drama attracted an audience of just over 250,000.

Read more
A film fest, a stage classic and other highlights on Auckland's agenda
71779 2017-04-28 00:00:00Z What's on

A film fest, a stage classic and other highlights …

by India Hendrikse

What’s on in Auckland: Crystal Castles, a design and architecture film festival and lots of other excellent events to put in your diary

Read more
How do New Zealanders rank as philanthropists?
71583 2017-04-28 00:00:00Z Business

How do New Zealanders rank as philanthropists?

by Sally Blundell

Kiwis take little persuasion to give to a good cause, but the demands are ever-growing. How much money gets to where it’s really needed?

Read more
The fitness industry is on the eve of digital disruption
71733 2017-04-28 00:00:00Z Technology

The fitness industry is on the eve of digital disr…

by Peter Griffin

As technology changes the way we do business, the effects are extending from the office to most parts of our lives – including how we keep in shape.

Read more
Seeking out San Francisco's tasty gems