December 1999


Guilt- and gas-free

An ESD researcher reports on a unique car rental experience and road test

by JONATHAN SCURLOCK

Ihave been to the future, and driven the car of tomorrow.

And it’s a lot of fun!

Swooping around Los Angeles’ spaghetti-shaped freeways in total silence, feeling like a character in a science fiction TV show, I was greatly impressed by the ride and performance of General Motors’ totally electric EV-1.

Designed for today’s drivers, the EV-1 is nevertheless forward looking, since this automobile produces absolutely no pollution at the source. (We’ll overlook the power plants that actually produce the electricity for the moment.) Think about it: A guilt-free Mustang for the Millennium.

I had half a day to kill in Los Angeles, so I had planned to visit friends in San Pedro, a suburb about 30 miles south of the city center. I was pleased to find out that alternative-fuel vehicles (electric and natural gas-powered cars) are available from EV Rentals at the airport. Personal service was the order of the day—I went straight to the front of the line and was given a 15-minute briefing on how to operate the car, how to optimize battery life (basically a light right foot—the EV-1 is more than fast enough) and where to find public charging stations.

The EV-1 has a thoroughly futuristic Jetsons-like interior—digital instruments, a “joystick” transmission shifter and a deep curving windshield—unlike the more conventional electric vehicles which were also available in the parking lot (you can rent an all-electric Toyota RAV-4, a Honda EV-plus or a Ford Ranger pickup). Pulling out onto the San Diego Freeway and dropping a dance music tape into the stereo, I felt a broad grin spread across my face—I hadn’t had this much fun in a rental car for years. Shutting off the music for a moment, the silence was eerie—just a slight whine and the tires rumbling over the pavement.

The range of the Mk I EV-1 is claimed to be 90 miles, but EV Rentals find the majority of their heavy-footed clients get about 55 miles at best on a full charge. I didn’t do badly, returning the car with about 40 miles still to go after a round trip of some 60 miles, and only about 45 minutes spent plugged in to the public charging station in San Pedro.

Watching the on-board power gauge, it was not hard to drive economically, using the EV-1’s coast-down regenerative braking whenever possible. The new Mk II EV-1 (soon to be available for rental, also) has nickel-metal-hydride batteries instead of the conventional lead-acid type and should be capable of nearly 100 miles between charges in the hands of renters. Best of all, the EV-1 costs no more than a regular mid-sized car to rent, and you don’t have to find a gas station on the way back to the airport.

For anyone travelling to L.A. for business or pleasure, I thoroughly recommend the experience. Perhaps ORNL should be thinking about getting some EVs of its own for evaluation under Tennessee conditions.

Contributor Jonathan Scurlock, a researcher in the Environmental Sciences Division, rode his bike to work last Earth Day.

Jonathan Scurlock gases up...er, charges up...his rented EV-1.