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(Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
(Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

Electric Mini left this driver drained Add to ...

As I drove away from BMW Canada headquarters in Markham in an all-electric Mini E, I felt emancipated - I was no longer a slave of the fossil fuel cartel. The skies looked suddenly bluer, and the birds seemed to trill a happier note.

I've driven plenty of hybrids, but they were a compromise. The Mini was hard-core electric. No gas backup. As I cruised south toward Toronto, I noticed a new Green label on the HOV lane. Over I went, zooming past lines of gridlocked, carbon-spewing dinosaurs.

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I'd worried that an electric car would be sluggish. It wasn't. The Mini E felt like a full-size version of the slot cars I played with as a boy. I zipped up to 140 km/h without trying. And after years of riding behind internal combustion engines, the quietness was awesome - all I could hear was the hum of the tires, and the wind rushing past the windows.

But I did realize that there was a price to be paid - sooner or later, the Mini would need a charge. I checked the charge indicator needle and found it had moved several centimetres toward the zero end of the scale. I'd only travelled 35 kilometres! This was my introduction to Range Anxiety, which would be my constant companion for the next several days.

A technical rep had assured me that the Mini E had a range of 160 kilometres on a full charge. But the battery was only at 70 per cent when I picked it up, and the trip downtown had cost me at least 15 or 20 per cent. Now the indicator needle seemed to be sinking before my very eyes, and I had no way to refuel.

A few days before, I'd spoken with Ian Clifford, CEO of Zenn, a company that made electric cars, and is now working on new power storage systems. "There aren't very many people who realize how batteries work," he said. "There are still a lot of issues."

Although electric motors are simpler and more efficient than internal combustion engines, the battery that powers them is a sticking point. Vehicles are governed by some immutable laws, including what's known as "energy density." The fuel tank in a gasoline-powered Mini is about the size of a suitcase, and weighs about 35 kilograms. That package can carry you from Montreal to Toronto - about 500 kilometres. The lithium-ion battery in my Mini E weighed at least five times as much as the gas tank, and consumed the entire back seat, but it could only carry me a third as far as the gas tank would - about 160 kilometres. And that was under ideal conditions - cold weather, a hilly road or high speeds could reduce that range significantly.

For now, the math favours gasoline. And so does the world, with its millions of gas stations. Where do you go with an electric car that can take 24 hours to recharge?

In theory, my wife and I are ideal candidates for an electric car. We live in the heart of downtown Toronto, and commute just a few kilometres to work. We should be able to commute all week without recharging. And the battery-filled back seat wasn't really a problem - our daughter had just left for a three-month teaching stint in Australia and our son was off at university.

As I headed over to my wife's school to pick her up at the end of the day, the battery was at 35 per cent. I was confident we'd make it home. Even so, our garage was a welcome sight. I pulled out the charger and plugged it in. I had already installed an experimental device from a company called Zerofootprint to determine how much the electricity for a charge would cost: the Talking Plug would measure how many electrons were being pumped into the Mini E, and put the results on the Internet.

The next morning, my phone rang. It was Zerofootprint, the company that was monitoring my electricity usage. According to them, the Mini had consumed zero power overnight.

I checked the charger, which was displaying an error message. Uh, oh. Ideally, I would charge the Mini with a dedicated 240-volt socket. But I didn't have one, so I was using the Convenience Charger, which let me use a regular outlet.

I called BMW. They asked me if I was using an extension cord. I was. It led all the way from my house to the garage (I had to do it this way to connect to the Internet so Zerofootprint to monitor my power). I bypassed the extension cord and plugged the Mini into one of my garage outlets. No go.

I tried a different outlet. My breaker switches popped, plunging the garage into darkness. I reset them. The breakers blew again. I started to sweat. In four hours, my wife and I had to be up in Vaughan for a hockey fundraising dinner. It was at least 35 kilometres each way. I knocked on a few neighbour's doors, hoping their outlets might work, allowing me to pump in enough electrons to make it to Vaughan and back. No one was home.

Now we were desperate. I decided to use the Mini's remaining battery power to drive to a rental car company. The owner was locking up for the day, but took mercy on us - he gave us a black Ford Fusion that had just been returned. The carpets were dirty, and the gas tank was nearly empty. But we could fill it anywhere.

As an experiment, we tried plugging the Mini into an outlet at the rental agency's outlet. But it was no-go again. We got into the Fusion and headed for a gas station.

I returned for the Mini two days later. I looked at the charge gauge - there was 10 per cent left. I decided to chance driving to my wife's school, then to my office, a distance of 12 kilometres. Would we make it? I couldn't be sure. To conserve every last electron, I told my wife to turn off the heater and stay away from the power windows.

My automotive life was now ruled by Range Anxiety. Which sucked, because the Mini E was an incredible car in many respects. It was silent, it was clean, and it would probably run for a fraction of the cost of our Honda. But living with it was an exercise in terror. And it made me realize that the power had to come from somewhere. What if everyone I knew got an electric car? How could the grid supply enough power to charge them all? And how green would it be? Much of the power would come from fossil-powered stations, then come to us through a grid that would sap part of the power. Then it would go into batteries that took up half the car, but still couldn't power a lengthy trip.

There are solutions, but they're not here yet. Experts told me about super-efficient storage capacitors that could hold 10 times the energy of existing batteries, and battery-swapping stations that could get you back on the road in minutes. But when would that happen? The capacitors aren't ready yet. The battery-swapping stations will require manufacturers on a standard battery format. And they'll take billions to build. Maybe some day.

For now, the electric car is limited to the vehicular margins. David Letterman zips around his high-end neighbourhood in his super-fast, battery-powered Tesla. But his garage has a dedicated socket, and he has gasoline-powered cars for longer trips.

I'd considered playing it safe by keeping a gas-powered vehicle in our garage as a backup. But I decided to go whole hog - I left our Honda at BMW headquarters in Markham. The Mini E would be our only car. Now I realized that I'd never make it back to Markham with less than 10 per cent charge.

An hour later, the Mini E was being winched up on to the back of a diesel-powered tow truck. I climbed into the cab with the driver for the ride north. It seemed criminal that it had to end like this. In its own way, the Mini E was great. But its convenience charger (a generic piece that isn't even made by BMW) wasn't. Maybe my garage's ancient power supply had destroyed it. Either way, I had come to a conclusion: The electric car is ready. The world isn't.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

Follow on Twitter: @cheneydrive

 

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