Sometimes EVs Don't Meet Needs of Most Passionate Supporters

By · August 10, 2012

Bob Ostertag With Bike

Teacher and musician Bob Ostertag prefers real zero-emissions transportation, but he'll settle for a Chevy Volt.

Bob Ostertag wants badly to drive an electric car for one reason and one reason alone. "We just can't continue to use the internal combustion engine," said Ostertag, a musician and professor at the University of California Davis. Ostertag's musical roots date back to the 1970s New York experimental music scene, which he helped build alongside frequent collaborators John Zorn and Fred Frith. Today, he teaches a class in technocultural studies, integrating his background in music and media with climate science and the push to reduce global emissions. "I fall asleep thinking about climate science and wake up the next day thinking about it," he told me.

Recently, Ostertag set out to purchase his first EV, five years after getting rid of his gas-powered car and pledging not to drive again until he could do so in a zero emissions vehicle. For Bob, that meant a pretty big lifestyle commitment. "My commute takes about two hours by train and about an hour by car," he said. Partially in anticipation of buying a new EV, Ostertag outfitted his house with solar panels, hoping to cut grid-generated emissions out of his transportation footprint as well.

Since UC Davis is one of the nation's leaders in academic electric vehicle research, charging at work wouldn't be a problem―making the 73-mile commute from his San Francisco home theoretically doable in an EV. But when he set out to find a car, Bob ran into some trouble. After borrowing a Nissan LEAF from a friend, Bob realized the LEAF's range probably wouldn't be enough for his needs. Driving in Eco Mode at 50-mph speeds on the highway, Ostertag rolled into work with "zero charge left." Any unexpected stops or adverse range conditions threatened to leave him short of his destination―and his students waiting in the classroom.

Bob then set his sights on the Coda electric sedan, whose official range of 88 miles is closer to his needs. Unfortunately, he found the pre-production version of a Coda borrowed from the UC Davis fleet to be too noisy, and had an unpleasant experience with a salesman when he asked if there were any current Coda drivers he might contact to get their opinion of the car. As a new car company, Coda has yet to figure out how go the extra mile to convince prospective customers that their vehicles will live up to expectations.

The Solution, For Now

After briefly considering the Honda Fit EV (and deciding that its range still cut it too close), Bob "settled" for a Chevy Volt, due to its versatility and aggressive lease pricing. An avid kayaker and outdoorsman, Ostertag says he plans to use the car to get out of the city on weekends, but he can't bring himself to burn the two gallons of gasoline required to complete his daily commute in a Volt. Instead, he will stick to mass transit until his lease runs out and something better comes along.

Ostertag's experience parallels the dashed hopes of many would-be electric vehicle owners in the current market. Cars with 100-plus miles of range―like the Tesla Model S or forthcoming Rav4 EV―are beyond the budget of many drivers hoping to go electric. Cars like the Nissan LEAF, Mitsubishi i, or Honda Fit don't offer enough range to justify a price tag beyond $30,000, when those vehicles do meet all their needs.

For the time being, plug-in hybrids are helping to fill the immediate gap between the plug-in cars that hardcore environmentalists like Bob Ostertag would like to drive and the limitations of the current generation of EVs. Time will tell if plug-in hybrids will be the long-term solution, or if the price of pure electric zero-emission vehicles will drop, and its range will expand, fast enough to allow Bob's next car to run without a single drop of gasoline.

UPDATE: Bob contacted us to clarify that he is not actually a daily commuter, but rather teaches his classes two days a week, six months per year, which somewhat alters the circumstances described in the post. We apologize for the confusion.

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