Nov. 17, 2010 at 2:50 AM ET
What could be worse than getting a robotic nagging for letting an electric car's batteries run down too low? How about finding out that your cell phone's battery has run out at the same time?
It's just a good thing that I was at the rendezvous point for handing back my Nissan Leaf when the car started nagging me -- and when I found out that the iPhone was dead. If this happened by the side of the road, I have a feeling it would have been a long, long night. As it was, all I had to do was walk into the hotel lobby and ask the clerk to ring up my contact, Dave, who was waiting to load my borrowed Leaf onto a carrier truck.
When I started out tonight on my final Leaf trip, the car calculated that I had enough juice for 29 more miles. Since the distance from my office in Redmond, Wash., to the hotel in Kent was 19 miles, there should have been an ample cushion. However, Dave told me when I took the car on Sunday afternoon that the miles seemed to shrink away precipitously once the Leaf dipped below the 25-mile range. I was prepared for a taste of "range anxiety," the feeling you get when you're uncertain whether you're going to make it to your destination before the power runs out.
I made sure the car was in eco-mode (which boosted the estimated range to 31 miles). I also turned off the climate-control system, kept the radio off and turned down the glow of the dashboard. I was probably more conservative than I needed to be: Amid the stop-and-go, rush-hour traffic, the Leaf performed like a champ. Because of all the power-saving measures, the car made it to Kent with 20 miles remaining on the meter.
My range anxiety eased, but I was still curious what would happen if the batteries were run down further. So I drove beyond the rendezvous point and went down a couple of arterials to burn up the miles. At the 18-mile point, right on cue, two little orange warning icons lit up on the instrument panel, and the range estimate started blinking: "18 ... 18 ... 17 ... 17 ... 16 ..."
I still wasn't quite finished. I kept driving up and down the highway in front of the hotel. The numbers dwindled further. Finally, at the 8-mile mark, a voice piped up: "Very low battery. Would you like to search for a nearby charging station?" The same message popped up on the display screen.
I punched in a search, but there were no charging stations nearby: The screen just showed the locations of outlets where the car had previously been charged. Other messages followed, along the lines of "battery level is low" ... or "cannot provide information because of your low battery." Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. (This posting on PluginCars.com provides pictures showing what the low-battery dashboard looks like.)
More ominously, the range read-out stopped showing numbers and started blinking a series of dashes instead. I have to say it was unnerving to miss out on the mileage countdown I had been watching so closely over the previous hour. That's when I decided to call it quits and turn into the hotel parking lot.
Dave was glad I stopped when I did. He needed enough power in reserve to drive the car onto the truck, and drive it off again in San Francisco, the next stop on Nissan's "Drive Electric Tour." That's where my Leaf will get a thorough checkup and recharging.
The tour continues for another month, in California, Arizona and Texas. Maybe you'll get a chance to drive my Leaf at one of the tour stops. And then what?
I asked Dave what Nissan would do with the cars after the tour ends. "They'll crush 'em," he told me. It turns out that, because the cars are not standard production-line models, they can never be sold to the public.
But don't tell the car that. I can't imagine what it would say if it ever found out.
Keep checking our Green Innovation section for more about electric cars, and don't miss the earlier postings about our "Electric Road Trips" with the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page or following @b0yle on Twitter. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto,"my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.