Beltway Horror: The WSJ In The Grips Of Range Anxiety

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt
beltway horror the wsj in the grips of range anxiety

This could be the week that separates the electric hype from the electric truth. Real EVs get in the hands of real drivers for real reviews. Our Dan Wallach drove the Tesla Roadster. Our very own Ed Niedermeyer wrote his “GM’s electric lemon” review of the Chevy Volt for the New York Times. (He didn’t really drive the thing, but the article really drove some to drink, up the wall, nuts – their choice, it’s a free country.) And Joseph B. White of the Wall Street Journal laid his hands on a real Mitsubishi i-MiEV, for a real life test drive under the grueling conditions found within the Washington Beltway.

Japan’s Nikkei [sub] thought that article so remarkable, that they immediately put it on their wire. That article will be making the rounds.

White being a good journalist, the headline says it all: “Trying To Unplug And Drive.”

Trying. In case some readers don’t grasp the fine irony of someone who dates himself as part of the Windows 95 generation, the subhead lays it on a bit thicker: “Getting the Feel for an Electric Car May Include a Flicker of ‘Range Anxiety’.” Now we’re walking.

Of course there must be the requisite remarks that the i-MiEV is „powered by lithium-ion batteries, which in turn are recharged by the electric grid. The electric grid, of course, relies on a variety of fossil fuels, mainly coal and natural gas.“

Having said that, our intrepid reporter braves the environs of shopping mall city inside of the Washington Beltway. He was warned that “in Japanese city driving, Mitsubishi says the car can travel 80 to 100 miles on one charge. But a Mitsubishi spokesman in the U.S. says on higher-speed American roads, the cars tend to get 40 to 75 miles per charge.” How far will he get when visiting the historic Tyson’s Corner Mall?

First, a problem presented itself: “The MiEV I drove was a Japanese model, which meant the steering wheel was on the right. The gauges – including the display that told me how many miles I had left before the battery charge ran out – presented data in kilometers (a useful way to dust off those multiplication skills).” There wasn’t much to multiply.

The temperature outside was zooming toward the high 90s, so I turned on the MiEV’s air conditioning. The car cooled off quickly, but the range meter took an alarming dive. I was barely out of the driveway, and I had lost six or more miles in range.

Mr. White quickly found another baffling item:

The one thing that is unusual is the effect of the system that harvests braking energy to recharge the batteries – regenerative braking. The car could just coast freely when you eased off the throttle. But that would waste the energy it took to propel you to speed. So the MiEV uses the drive system as a power generator when the car is braking or decelerating. The MiEV takes an aggressive approach to this. Lift your foot off the power pedal and the car slows down abruptly. Even going down a steep hill, it’s not possible to just coast without annoying motorists behind you.

Fair and balanced, White notes one good aspect: “The MiEV is a more practical vehicle than the electric car that’s been getting a lot of buzz lately, the Tesla roadster. The Mitsubishi is designed for maximum space efficiency and flexibility, as are many other Japanese city cars such as the Honda Fit. I was able to get two adult bicycles in the back of the MiEV thanks to the fold-flat rear seats and the high roof line.” The room for the bicycles is there for a reason.

After “making two round trips from D.C. to Arlington, Va.” (for those not familiar with the area: you cross a bridge and you are done) “the combination of driving and maximum air conditioning use had put it somewhere in the mid-20-kilometers range.” Time for a recharge. White finds a “standard wall plug near the driveway at our apartment.” No high voltage pod.

The next morning, “the MiEV wasn’t dead, but it hadn’t recharged either. The plug I tapped into didn’t work.” Mr. White better call an electrician. Or have his wife check the fuse box and the GFI. Or just don’t trust any old wall-plug in the driveway. For whatever reason, the i-MiEV greeted the morning uncharged.

Undeterred, White and wife “set out anyway for a bike trail in Rock Creek Park, about 3 miles away.” A harrowing scene, right out of the Exorcist, a movie that had been shot in the neighborhood. (Actually, that ivy-covered house was that of my former in-laws. I should have heeded the warning.) White also should have been more careful:

But once again, it became apparent that I was burning off range faster than I was covering ground. The round trip was well less than 20 kilometers. But on our way back, the dash display began flashing a big E at me, accompanied by an icon showing a plug.

This was my first real-world experience with “range anxiety,” the term automakers have coined for the discomfort that strikes early electric vehicle owners who misjudge how far they can drive between charge-ups and fear getting stranded. We made it home without incident – also without air conditioning. I can attest that range anxiety is quite real, especially if you are the kind of person who can’t remember to recharge personal digital appliances far less mission-critical than a car. My oil-free weekend was over. We jumped in the gasoline-fueled Saturn and drove 150 miles round trip on a quest to find a perfect wedding gift. Why? Because we could.

Back in a generous mood, White thinks it might all be his own fault: “I may just not be ready to live the life electric.” Especially not with a dead wall socket in the driveway.

Maybe Mr. White isn’t Windows 95 generation after all. XP or Vista maybe. A veteran of the Windows 95 times wouldn’t have wasted the chance to subtitle the article “Plug and pray.”

(While I’m at it, I need to get something off my chest. Mitsubishi better find a new name before selling the car in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, certain parts of Pennsylvania, Argentina and Uruguay. “Mief” translates to “stink” in German – and you know about our predicament with f, v, and w. That iMiEV could be mistaken as “I smell.” Or worse.)

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  • JimC JimC on Aug 01, 2010

    Has anyone thought about range anxiety and renting a gas powered car for special trips? There are "0-car family" people, normal people, who actually exist, getting around town by metro, bus, taxi, bicycle, and walking (!). For big trips people like this might rent a car to travel out of town for a long weekend, for example. I can confirm that such freaks do exist (not me though) and their outward appearance is similar to everyone else (except possibly a lesser incidence of obesity) :) Something I think we all would agree on- I believe there is some connection in North America between very low oil prices in the 1990s and the current sidewalk-less, bus-less sprawling suburbs, with SUVs in the driveway, driven on long commutes by single occupants (yes, stereotyping). What about people who are in between both of those extremes? Families who live a moderate distance from most of their day-to-day needs and wants and don't have to contend with unpredictable D.C./LA/Atlanta traffic. These golf carts on steroids (with a stereo and nice seats) might work for some of them. Food for thought folks.

    • Steven02 Steven02 on Aug 01, 2010

      I doubt the people you are describing would be that interested in owning one of these. They already don't need them. I am sure that they will stay with their rental cars when they need to take long trips. Would you want to buy one, then not use it? Many of these people don't have a place to plug it in or park the car. Lots of extra expense to own a golf cart on steroids.

  • Lokki Lokki on Aug 02, 2010
    I’m always struck by the implication that these cars are only going to be bought by one car families, who are going to be left stranded if they need to go more than 50 miles There are “0-car family” people, normal people, who actually exist, getting around town by metro, bus, taxi, bicycle, and walking (!) You guys give me the giggles. Yes, it's totally practical to spend $30K on a second vehicle of very limited utility. Particularly for singles or young couples, or any couple with two jobs. You bet. And the one car family? I encourage you to live the lifestyle you espouse. I applaud you. Do it so I can enjoy watching. I've lived in Tokyo and lived the 'no-car' lifestyle. It requires an infrastucture which doesn't exist in the U.S. (except for a few pockets). You shop every day, because groceries are heavy when you carry more than a day's worth. Plus the fun of carrying grocery bags while carryin an umbrella. You shop at department stores and have anything over 5 pounds delivered to your house. Commuting by train? The trains run every 3 minutes,until the last train of the evening. Don't miss it. Oh, and here's an inside joke. Do you know how to fold a newspaper so you can read it while standing up in a crowded train? Have you ever seen someone fall asleep standing up and not fall over because the train was so crowded he couldn't fall? You're gonna love it. Trains in the U.S.? Here in Dallas, you have to drive to the station. When the gas prices increased, train fares were increased because of heavy usage. Bah. In Atlanta the train system only had a useful station at the museum or the dead heart of dead downtown. All other stations required you to drive away from them to get to any shopping. In case you’ve forgotten, oil is not the only feedstock to make gasoline. We can make gasoline out of natural gas and coal. In fact, coal gasification technologies have been out there since WWI. One of my close friends is a PhD who was working on coal-gassification. It's cost effective when oil hits $40 per barrel. He recently abandoned the research after developing a process that could be scaled up commercially. The reason the research was abandoned? Political restrictions were a factor. However the main reason he abandoned it is to work on making fuels from natural gas. The US has a 600 year supply of natural gas, easily obtained. He is working on turning it into liquid fuels (generally diesel). The cost of turning it into 'regular diesel' is low enough to make it worth while since it can be used by existing vehicles and the existing infrastructure. As for electric vehicles, he laughs. You make coal into electricity, and then move it to the vehicles' battery, and then use it to run the car. Energy losses all along the line. Additionally, as has been pointed out above, there are physics-based limits to what you can do with batteries. To say that there will be improvements is certainly true, but all the easy improvements have already been found. Now we're down to incremental improvements. You're dreamers. Enjoy your dreams, but don't mind me if I giggle. /rant off.

  • Jdt65724922 How can a Chrysler E-Class ride better than a Chrysler Fifth Avenue?
  • Lorenzo This series is epic, but I now fear you'll never get to the gigantic Falcon/Dart/Nova comparison.
  • Chris P Bacon Ford and GM have decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Odds are Chrysler/Cerberus/FCA/Stellantis is next to join in. If any of the companies like Electrify America had been even close to Tesla in reliability, we wouldn't be here.
  • Inside Looking Out China will decide which EV charging protocol will become world wide standard.
  • Chris P Bacon I see no reference to Sweden or South Carolina. I hate to assume, but is this thing built in China? I can't help but wonder if EVs would be more affordable to the masses if they weren't all stuffed full of horsepower most drivers will never use. How much could the price be reduced if it had, say, 200hp. Combined with the instant torque of an EV, that really is plenty of power for the daily commuter, which is what this vehicle really is.