15 months after buying the very first affordable, mass produced, fully electric car sold in the United States, Olivier Chalouhi of Mountain View, California, still loves his Nissan Leaf.
We've been tracking this French-born entrepreneur since December of 2010, and since then he's logged 15,000 miles cruising around Silicon Valley without a single mechanical problem. Initially, he said he wanted the car to help the environment and reduce dependence on foreign oil. Now, thanks to new rules that allow electric cars to use California's carpool lanes, he says he'd buy a Leaf just for that perk.
"The carpool stickers are saving me a half hour to an hour of commute time every day," he says.
During our most recent visit, it was pouring rain, but the Leaf handled just fine. "It has good traction, it brakes really well."
And as he passes gas stations posting ever-rising prices, Chalouhi knows he's saving money, too.
He charges his car nightly in his garage, a process that takes about 8 hours. That extra juice has raised his electric bill about $60.00 a month, but he pays monthly what many drivers pay weekly for gas.
Even so, plug-in vehicles have hit some bumps, with poor sales causing GM to halt production of its Chevy Volt for 5 weeks. The Nissan Leaf also missed its sales targets last year, though it's just become the first all-electric vehicle to become available in all US markets. Both cars cost in the $30,000 dollar range after rebates and tax credits.
But most electric vehicles still inspire a sort of "range anxiety." The Leaf, for instance, gets fewer than 100 miles on a charge. To play it safe, Chalouhi usually only drives about 40 miles to and from his job. Uncertainties about distance, and the availability of plug in stations away from home, have many car buyers worried about being stranded.
Across the country, cities like San Francisco are installing more charging stations, and auto analysts say, as with any new technology, building mainstream interest takes time.
"I think we are going to an increased electrification of the vehicles no matter what. Then, how much, is still a question," says Francis Sprei of Stanford University Precourt Energy Efficiency Center. "If you find the perfect battery you will maybe get a full electric vehicle that can have a range of 300 miles. But you can also end up with solutions in between, that will mean we'll be driving maybe 80% or 90% of our time on electricity, but still have some internal combustion engines there as a safety."
There's no question the first owner of the first Leaf is sold on the car and the technology. Chalouhi says his next car will be all-electric, too, and he wrapped up our rainy day interview with a glowing review of his Leaf: "I feel privileged because the driving experience is so nice."