Finally, however, some red, white, and blue cars are advancing in technology and drivetrains, and are genuinely being cross-shopped with the Euro and Japanese stalwarts of the past. Ford is leading that charge (pun intended) with their whole lineup — and more specifically, the teched-out, fully electric version of their Focus.
The Ford Focus Electric is a brand new entry into the EV carpool lane and a big step for Ford; a test drive presented a unique opportunity to not only try out the car, but test the technology. We had a week with the EV in LA to find out what life is like when searching for charging stations, experiencing range anxiety (being stressed about not running out of battery power) and feeling a little superior when passing those world-ending gas-dependent smog machines is part of the everyday routine. We took full advantage, and our electric experiment produced intriguing results.
A quick overview, and the beginning of the great electric goose chase
As an EV, the Focus excels. The swift 100kW electric motor powers a smooth ride. For about $1,500, you can have a 240V charger installed at your home and charge the 23 kW-hr lithium-ion battery in about four hours — half the time of some EVs, and much quicker than the 20 hours necessary from a basic 120V wall outlet. As far as tech goes, the Focus is loaded: on-board “brake coaching” helps the driver recoup as much energy from regenerative braking — brake energy transfered back into the battery — as possible; the navigation unit displays recharge stations nearby (not always accurately, as we learned) and economical routes; and a smart phone app can lock and unlock, start and even locate the vehicle using GPS. Even the seats are environmentally friendly, made of recycled materials with cushions that use plant seed oils.
The Focus Electric is a kind of statement regarding how the EV should fit in rather than stand out.
As for the EV infrastructure, I experienced first-hand how frustrating trying to use public charge stations can be. Parking at the airport on the way to a trip, I thought happily, “I’ll just leave the car in one of the front row spots and charge so it’s ready when I return”. All 15 spots were full, and there were Leafs, Volts and plug-in Priuses sitting nearby. Obviously, demand was higher than supply at the airport. I left the Focus in the lot, uncharged.
After returning from the trip, I figured I’d charge up while grabbing some lunch with a friend. Using the on-board navigation feature, I located a grocery store nearby with a charge station. “OK”, I thought. “I’ll just park it there and walk a few blocks”. When I arrived there was a charge station — but it was made for the EV1 (see below) which uses a flat paddle instead of the industry standard plug. I couldn’t charge.
The death, and rebirth, of the electric vehicle
The term “EV” (electric vehicle) has been the buzz word of the auto industry lately — for all intents and purposes, electric is treated like brand new technology. Truth is, EVs first appeared in the mid-1800s as electric carriages; by the early 1900s, electric powertrains represented almost 30% of all cars produced in the US. Then, they all but disappeared — until 1996, when GM created their EV1. The successful, groundbreaking vehicle became infamous after it was was discontinued, taken back from lessees and eventually crushed, leading to protest from EV enthusiasts and environmental supporters. The whole fiasco led to the controversial documentary Who Killed The Electric Car?, which highlighted the apparent hamstringing of the EV by auto makers, the oil industry, national legislators and the state of California; together, those groups overturned a previous mandate from 1990 that had been vital in keeping electric vehicles alive.
Eighteen years later, Tesla introduced their Roadster and changed everything once again. Today, nearly every manufacturer has an EV or has plans for one — a far cry from 1990. Part of Ford’s approach to the EV and hybrid world isn’t to create a brand-new vehicle (i.e. the Prius or Nissan Leaf) but to offer electric powertrains as additional options for existing vehicles — just like in the past, for example, when one could select either a V-6 or a V-8 in a truck. The Ford Focus comes with either a traditional gas engine, or electric. Most people can’t tell the difference. It’s a kind of statement regarding how the EV should fit in rather than stand out.
Need Charge, Will Travel
Bad directions, false tips, and range anxiety
Back in the car, I left the defunct charging station and consulted the nav again. It showed me another charging point at a nearby community center. I took off with excitement; this was even closer to good lunch spots. Minutes later I arrived. No charge station in sight. Having wasted precious miles, experiencing range anxiety first-hand and running low on blood sugar and patience, I chose to take a break and eat.
As I sat at lunch I fumed internally. This is 2012. This shouldn’t be that tough. I decided to download an app with a more updated charging map. I found a few and downloaded them without a problem, but they were useless — most indicated charge points at the very locations I had just abandoned in disgust. After eating and having my friend tail me, lest I end up stranded on the side of the road, we decided to make a run for a CostCo that was recommended from an employee at my first failed spot (and also could be found on both the app and the car’s nav system). It was a few miles, but if I could get there and charge I’d be rejuvenated, relieved and infinitely less stressed out.
We arrived and drove all around the (massive) parking lot. Finally, we went in to ask. Not there! Evidently they had removed the same flat paddle style charger I found at the grocery store, but hadn’t installed the new ones yet. More miles wasted.
If it was this hard to find a charge in Los Angeles, with all its forward thinking, tech-savvy, open-minded culture, it’s no wonder you can’t buy an EV in every state.
My friend scoured another app with a promising location about two miles away: Electric Avenue in Venice. I called to verify and sure enough: sweet, sweet irony. Then I found out a membership was necessary. Could they sell me one? Nope. I had to do that through the company that owns the chargers. A vein in my neck was beginning to bulge. I looked online and spied a non-membership charging option at $2/hour. The site kept freezing when I tried to sign up using my phone, so I was forced to call. After spelling my name a few times and talking about Halloween costumes with the customer service rep, I finally got a code. We made the last-ditch drive to Electric Avenue. The next call would be to Triple A.
We arrived. There were two spots open. So far, so good. Plugged in, entered code, began charging. I breathed deep, raised my hands in joy and yelled in pure ecstasy. I went for a walk and sipped a decaf coffee to relax and ponder the past two and a half hours of my stressed-out life.
Pros, cons, the hard truth and our final verdict
Being electric comes with certain advantages: no gas, full torque numbers from a stand-still, nearly silent operation, and having trees smile at you. It also comes with some issues: most cost around $40K, minus a few thousand from tax incentives (if you qualify), and are married to range anxiety and painfully sparse EV charging locations.
If it was this hard to find a charge in Los Angeles, with all its forward thinking, tech-savvy, open-minded culture, it’s no wonder you can’t buy an EV in every state. Granted, I now know where to charge when I’m around Venice; undoubtedly, living with the car for more than a week would lead to more reliable charging spots around the city and less anxiety — and, yes, I do love an adventure. But that was not fun.
I am well aware that change takes time, and a million charge points can’t simply be built overnight. And, arguably, left to our own devices we would simply stay in the safe and known — which is part of the reason for the expiration of 18 years between the EV1 and Tesla. This is not good for humanity. The positive news in all this? With large manufacturers and startups like Tesla and Fisker getting in the game, the charge time, range, price and usage of electrics are all set to improve at a rapid pace. Chevy just released info on their Spark EV, which can fast charge 80% of its battery in 20 minutes.
All in all, Ford has created one of the best looking EVs below $50K; that is, until its brother, the upcoming Aston Martin-inspired Fusion electric, hits streets early next year. There is no “magic bullet” to reduce our fuel consumption, but super-efficient engines, hybrids, plug-in hybrids and EVs each serve their own role. It remains to be seen how much of a part each will play, but for now, if you have a predictable schedule and a charge point at work, or drive less than 70-ish miles during the day, the Ford Focus Electric could be a great method for getting around. Otherwise, it’s not for you.