Robert’s LEAF diary - week 17: Getting grilled over electrics (quite literally)

Robert is still trying to work out what happens when a LEAF gets torched. Hopefully not his.

By Robert Llewellyn on August 19, 2011 10:03 AM

Although many aspects of driving the Nissan LEAF are relaxing, calm, quiet and very low on the stress-ometer, it’s often when I’m not in it that I get a bit tetchy.

I have no one to blame but myself - I nailed my colours to the mast of the battery electric vehicle and it’s entirely my fault if people ask me stuff about it. For 99% of the time, when I drive into a car park, pull up on the street or visit friends there is no mention of the car, disruptive technology, battery replacement cost or range anxiety. No one knows, they’re not interested and they don’t say anything. If they were later asked by secret agents what car Robert was driving, I think most of these people would say, "I think it was blue."

I have to remind myself that, quite sensibly, most people aren’t interested in cars. They may use them to get about, they may worry about the cost of fuel, road tax and the difficulty in parking them, but other than that, they have become a seamless part of our lives, like it or not.

The problem only occurs when even people who have no interest in cars discover that the Nissan LEAF is electric.

When someone I normally talk to about gardening, parenting, relationships, architecture or Obama’s chances of re-election finds out the car I arrived in is electric, this becomes the topic of conversation no matter what I say.

“I think Obama’s in with a chance." I’ll say almost pleadingly.

"What happens when the batteries run out?"

"Honestly, I know he’s been compromised into oblivion by the Tea Party nut-bags but he’s still got a year to go, anything could happen before the next election."

"Aren’t the battery replacement costs prohibitive? I read something about that."

I sigh and shrug - there’s nothing I can do to steer the topic and I dive in, answering the questions as best I can.

People who don’t even drive - who hate cars altogether and think they’ve ruined the world - want to know what electric cars are like and are full of questions. So I explain the cost of running the car giving, comparative pence per mile statistics. I explain about the battery technology, the history of electric cars from 1900 onward, the turning point when Charles F. Kettering invented the starter motor, which made the previously deadly, dangerous and unreliable petrol engine easier to live with. (Mr Kettering’s best friend was killed when trying to crank-start an early petrol engine.)

I explain about the national grid and charging at night and how there is now more information coming out about the benefits to the grid we’d see with a mass adoption of electric vehicles. I try and underline the important point that the cleaner the grid gets, the cleaner the cars get, something which can never be achieved with oil burners. I point to the work the likes of Ecotricity are doing with their re-charge network, I inform them that refining petrol uses vast quantities of electricity, that by continuing to buy oil at the level we do now supports some of the most corrupt and cruel regimes on the planet.

I explain the rudiments of Cambridge Crude, which is the development of a charged liquid that can literally be pumped into a ‘battery tank’ to re-charge a battery; the fact that there are around 30 electric cars hitting the market in 2012; that range extended plug-in electrics are likely to have a huge impact; that more and more investment and innovation is taking place around wireless charging making it possible to charge a car without wire or charge posts.

They nod and listen intently, sometimes praising me for my wealth of knowledge on the subject and sometimes just yawning quite openly. I can usually bore even the most ardent enquirer into the ground in about thirty minutes. I am a veritable global database of information housed in a sagging middle-aged male body.

But just occasionally they’ll hit me with a doozy.

"So what happens if you’ve parked your car on the street and there’s a riot and someone sets fire to it?"

This, I admit, is a very new question but I’ve been asked it twice in the last week. I tell them I have no idea. I imagine it will burn but I don’t think it will explode as an oil burner does. I don’t actually know that. I’ve seen footage of an electric Volvo smash into a concrete block, but I haven’t seen footage of a fire test on an electric vehicle. This is clearly something I’m going to have to discover. But not - just in case my son reads this - with the Nissan LEAF currently re-charging in my garage.

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