Sunday, November 14, 2010

Leafy love for Nissan's new electric car

A few weeks ago, I signed up for a reservation time to test drive one of the new all electric Nissan Leaf vehicles making the rounds of the country for road tests. The key in this little recap is that word 'reservation' since in my experience it implies being assigned a time to do something. Or not.
Still, I was very excited when I arrived midday on Saturday for my drive at the parking lot of a local mall with my 11 month old and car seat, as instructed in the signup details. I found several temporary structures housing the reservation check-in desk, informational displays and a coffee bar for those waiting to drive.

Each person who arrived checked in and was issued a wristband assigning them to one of three groups (getting ready, almost there, and something else, which I forget) preparing for the drive.

After about 45 minutes of waiting and chatting about electric vehicles and babies with other folks milling about, including other parents with babies and young children and car/booster seats in tow, my group was ushered into the first building to learn about the car and electric vehicle market.

It came as no surprise that in the green and green-friendly Pacific Northwest, Seattle is a hot bed of electric vehicle enthusiasm. According to our Nissan presenter, 1,200 charging stations are already scheduled for the Seattle area (for Leaf drivers' homes) and this city is part of a federal electric vehicle  project bringing another 1,500 public charging stations and 44 fast-charge stations. Other tidbits: the Leaf comes with an eight year, 100,000 mile warranty, the battery is fully recyclable, and like a Prius, the Leaf will feature regenerative braking. 

In addition, it will feature cool embedded cellular components that will allow drivers to use their cell phone to check the car's statuses, set it to send you text messages about car, like how much range left on the batteries, and also allow you to pre-heat or pre-cool the car remotely, check range, and set the climate control. It will come standard with GPS navigation to helps find the nearest charging stations and get software updates, because like gas engine cousins, this one is essentially a computer that you drive. All that connection between the car and your phone does require a cell subscription, which will be free for the first three years. 

In the final building, we learned about the biggest question people have: range. On a full charge, the Leaf should get about 100 miles, but like any vehicle, that fluctuates depending on driving style, coasting, whether you're using the A/C or heater use, etc. Given those variables, the presenter said the range is 70-130-ish on average. Pretty good and useful for most in-city needs.
Charging station. How cute and Jetsons-like is that? Also, my phone's camera still stinks. Or is covered in gauze.
Whenever you get a group  of people together, inevitably there's "that" person. Either the, "I'd like to reiterate what the previous person said..." (How about you don't, since they already said it?) or the "I'm a wonk and want to show off or be difficult for the those gathered by asking a question, usually rhetorical, about an obscure element of the topic at hand. Because I don't get enough attention and need you to make up for it with your precious time." 

My group had the latter, in the form of a guy who started carping about the difference between the battery return and credit system being used by Nissan compared to the Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle. Not content to note the difference, he rudely pressed the presenter on why Nissan wasn't doing their battery return system like Chevy.  Because marketing or outreach staff at the local level always know exactly why an international corporation makes a specific policy decision like that on a product, right? 

As the 30 or so others in the room looked about uncomfortably or in annoyance, the presenter finally cut him off with, "Yes, well I can't speak to why Nissan is doing it this way and Chevy is doing theirs that way, but we need to move on..." Looks of relief all around as we shuffled off to the next building.

Once there, we had a woman ask very stridently about whether the car would be using or contributing "dirty electricity." Judging by the puzzled looks around the room, even from Mr. Electric Vehicle Wonk, it wasn't a commonly known term. The presenter tried to answer, citing the car's zero emission status and the use of lots of hydro-electric power in the northwest, but acknowledged unfamiliarity with the term. 

The woman reiterated the importance of knowing whether the car used dirty electricity and finally, when pushed by the presenter and other people in the room on what exactly she meant, she said, "Well, I don't know. I could look it up (fiddling with her phone) but I've heard the term and want to make sure this car isn't using it. Or giving it off." Followed by crickets chirping and blank stares of annoyance.

Turns out (thanks Bing and Google!), the term refers to electromagnetic radiation from electricity used to power electronics. But here's my request to anyone doing any public speaking: if you're going to be strident about something, make it something you actually have the facts on. And preferably make sure it's not something which isn't commonly known and about which the jury is decidedly out and the scientific and health communities haven't found conclusive studies.

Judging by the faces of those around me, I wasn't alone in wanting people to take their questions offline if needed and just get to the test drives already. Because by this time, it had been nearly an hour and 45 minutes since we'd arrived, including trekking through three structures with Dylan in a carrier while I dragged a car seat. Although, major kudos to the young guy with the coffee cup who offered and carried it for me between one of the buildings and who apologized at the end for forgetting to do so at the end.

Our trek culminated in my group standing outside in the cold, in line again for the actual test drive of one of 13 cars. After 15 minutes of watching folks get out of line to go back to their cars for gloves, hats and jackets, I was among several people who finally gave up and left.
Me and Dylan, 11 months (25 lbs.)! As close as we got to the Nissan Leaf.

During the trip through the outbuildings, one of the presenters remarked, "Wow! You have one of the best-behaved babies to come through here! He's just hanging in there." He was. Dylan is a trouper and is happy to hang out in my Ergo carrier for extended periods. What's not to like? He's snug with mom who's got warm, comfort food on tap and who alternately provides fun games like peekaboo and "name that face part," or a running commentary on what's going on around him.

But more than an hour later, with at least 30-40 people from an earlier group in line ahead of us, I gave up and headed for my car, still dragging my car seat with cold-numbed fingers. I found the presenter to tell her, politely, why we and others were leaving.

"When I signed up for a noon test drive, I expected to be behind the wheel within 15 to 30 minutes of that time," I explained. "Holding us here then making us wait for nearly two hours defeats the purpose of reserving a time."

I suggested they might want to revamp the setup to better coordinate reservation times with the progress of each group. See? My customer service focus is applicable at work and in real life.

"Yeah, I understand your frustration," she said. "Can you wait just a little longer?" I replied, "You don't have kids, do you?" Seriously, keeping an 11 month old quietly engaged for nearly two hours without any electronic toys and no tantrums? Lady, we're well beyond "grace period."

Ah well, I tried. Despite the poorly organized test drive event, the Nissan Leaf is still on my lust list and I heard nothing but good comments from those who had managed to drive one. It's fairly roomy inside, I love the cell phone synchronizing options and it would definitely fit the bill for most of the driving I do during the week. I'll just have to curb my enthusiasm until they're in show rooms and try again. On the upside, I still dig my Nissan Murano and if the Leaf is a success, maybe the technology will be extended to larger models in the Nissan Line. Fingers crossed.

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