An electric car in Michigan winter requires vigilance

Phil Berg

Of the more than 600 DC fast chargers in the U.S. available to electric car drivers, in addition to the 358 Tesla Supercharger stations, Michigan drivers only have access to three.

There is a Tesla-only fast charger in St. Joseph on the far west side of the state, and a DC fast charger at the Nissan dealer on Jackson Road in Ann Arbor, as well as one at the Nissan Technical Center in Farmington Hills.

However, you can refill the battery of a Tesla or one of the other 10 electric cars on the market now at hundreds of places here, using what's called a Level 2 charger. The difference is that the fast chargers (most of which use a 480-volt, high-current supply) take around 30 minutes to fill your car's battery, while the Level 2 chargers (which run on a 240-volt, mid-level current supply) can take from three to four hours or more.

Most electric cars can make it from 60 to 90 miles between charges (or 208 to 270 miles in a Tesla), which is great for drivers who have fixed commutes and can charge their cars on a Level 2 charger in their garage. But it's a challenge for those of us who like road trips, and so the sparse distribution of chargers makes it look like Michigan is a bad climate for electric driving.

But that's not true. Batteries make heat as they move electrons, and so they're not as efficient in tropical climates. Take that, Florida. Plus, air conditioning is a huge electricity hog, and smashes cruising range in electric cars. There is another reason to drive electric cars in Michigan as I found driving a Volkswagen e-Golf during the recent arctic weather here in January: Electric cars focus your mind back on driving.

First, I became my own smart energy system: At night and during our dark grey days, I found myself turning off the e-Golf's headlights at stoplights. Luckily the VW's bright LED daytime running lights keep the car visible to other drivers. I kept my foot off the brake pedal as much as possible, keeping the brake lights cold and dark. These are not the safest things to do, which is why no manufacturer or salesperson will tell you this.

I also wore long johns, and didn't dare use the heater fan, which I feared was an electricity gobbler. I got used to the cold years ago on 45-minute bus rides to classes at the University of Minnesota (the other “U of M”) in downtown Minneapolis. Back in the days of carburetors, a lot of parking lots in the Twin Cities had 120-volt outlets so drivers could plug in their engine block heaters while parked, vastly increasing the likelihood the car would start and also keeping the antifreeze and oil warm. Everyone there wears long johns.

I kept the radio off, and I constantly searched the car for other wasteful uses of energy. One nuisance feature I wished I could kill was the parking proximity warning system. It bugs me that precious battery energy is being wasted making useless beeps at me whenever I get close to a snowbank. I also didn't use the washer/wipers when the windshield was slightly dusted with snow, figuring that I'd just brush it off when I stopped at home. Luckily, the e-Golf's windshield is electrically defrosted, too, so it doesn't use a fan motor.

The e-Golf uses electric-assisted steering, like most new cars these days. I didn't try to restrict my steering for fear of burning through too many electrons, however. But I thought about it. I opened the door to get parking lot tickets rather than burn electrons using the electric window motors.

What really bothered me was that the electric door locks would lock the car automatically, which locked the power connector in place every time I was out unplugging and winding up the extension cord. I curse paranoid new-car buyers who over-rely on security devices, especially electric ones.

I got used to parking at the dozens of dedicated electric vehicle plugs in downtown Ann Arbor. I drove at 45 mph on rural Pontiac Trail when no other cars were behind to minimize aerodynamic drag. And at that speed, I could see deer at night with low beams only, no need to add power-sucking high beams. And when there was no traffic, I let the car roll through stop signs. Shhhh.

Overall I drove the car several hundred miles around Ann Arbor, motivated when I realized I didn't pay anything for fuel during those miles, and that the e-Golf was fast and fun. Not wasting money, evolutionary psychologists agree, is a lot more happy-making than earning a same amount. So while it sounds like it was a lot of hassle to drive electric, the feeling of satisfaction more than made up for that. On the self-righteous scale, it's a bit like being a vegetarian.

After getting used to switching off everything in the e-Golf that I didn't need, I found myself following that behavior even when I wasn't driving: I was turning off room lights when I wasn't using them, not letting the water run while I brushed my teeth, and buying fewer paper towels, light bulbs, and making a bigger effort to re-use plastic wrap and baggies in the kitchen.

As I drove the e-Golf, I began to enjoy being involved in the act of paying attention to driving, even if it was only to conserve electrons. I think the focus on autonomous cars is leading to the kind of blind driving we're doing now: texting and surfing with our smartphones at every chance. No matter how good technology gets, it still can't predict the future like a human driver can. Chevy's new Volt will let the driver play a big part in saving energy, and that engagement in driving is what I'm really excited about. I know exactly how long I want to choose to sit inside a cold car, and no car will ever know how to predict that.