Finally, a quantum leap in transportation efficiency

Published Tuesday, August 1, 2017 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

A quantum leap in transportation efficiency arrived in our driveway last month, in the form of a new-to-us plug-in hybrid car.  Here’s a firsthand account of the experience so far.

Range

When most people think electric vehicles, two words come to mind: range anxiety, the (legitimate) fear of running out of battery power before reaching a destination.

According to Natural Resources Canada, over 20 battery powered vehicles (BEVs) are now available in Canada.  With the exception of the new Chevy Bolt and numerous Tesla models, most offer ranges of between 100 and 200 kilometres on a full charge – great for commuting, but not quite up to long-haul travel.

On the other hand, range anxiety is definitely not a concern with plug-in hybrids, vehicles that have both a plug-in battery and a small conventional engine.  All but two of the 19 models available in Canada have ranges of over 550 kilometres on a full charge and a full tank; many can go over 800 kilometres.

My new vehicle?  A plug-in hybrid that 1) runs exclusively on battery until the battery is empty, and only then switches to gas; and 2) has a sufficiently large battery to handle my everyday needs.  In other words, it’s fully electric for local driving, with a gas engine available for long trips.

Cost and availability

BEVs and plug-in hybrids are available in NB – but because we’re not a large market and no provincial subsidies are available to help offset their cost, they remain fairly rare.  They are, however, common in Quebec and Ontario, thanks in part to significant provincial incentives that have been in place for several years.  

And I can attest that used or off-lease BEVs and plug-in hybrids are fairly easy to find via the internet, at prices below typical SUVs and trucks.

Efficiency

A quantum leap?  Well, my faithful, now-departed 2003 Toyota Echo was rated at 6.2 litres per 100 kilometres.

My new plug-in is rated at about 5.5 litres per 100 kilometres when running on gas – already an improvement.  But running on the battery is where it shines: about 2 litres per 100 kilometres, or three times the efficiency of my previous vehicle.  Three times!  

(It’s true that electric vehicles are only as clean as the power source they rely upon; let’s call that a work in progress as NB and the world transition to renewable sources of electricity.)

So far, my car’s battery has easily handled my regular commute, meaning the vehicle’s engine goes days without even starting.  The regenerative braking system – which recharges the battery while slowing the vehicle – means my brakes will last a very long time.  The car is also bigger, more comfortable and much peppier than the one it replaced.  

Playing the efficiency game

If my experience so far is any indication, plug-in hybrids have another huge benefit: they educate their drivers.

The instrumentation panel on my previous vehicle was bare-bones: speed, fuel and temperature gauges, plus some warning lights.  Now I’m finding myself looking at panels that give me all of that, plus:

  • Real-time feedback about where power is coming from, whether battery, gas motor or (when braking or going downhill) wheels, and where it’s going  
  • Real-time feedback about how much energy I’m using at any given time.  If I tramp on the gas, a little symbol immediately shows my fuel economy plummeting; if I go lightly, the fuel economy soars.  It’s a compelling, game-like way to help me discover how I can improve my driving habits and get better mileage (and it’s working – I’m actually starting to exceed the vehicle’s rated fuel economy).
  • Total fuel economy since last charging the battery – great for comparison purposes.

So what about the charging part?  That’s coming next time.