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Feeling more at home on the (electric) range

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

The past three years have made a big difference for electric cars.

An all-electric Volkswagen e-Golf I drove during Michigan’s winter cold snap in 2015 required extreme “hyper-miling” tricks such as shutting off the heat, wiper and headlights to save battery power to combat my “range anxiety” on one 30-mile nighttime blizzard trip.

During this winter’s nasty cold snap I drove a Chevrolet Bolt all-electric five-seat hatchback on several two-hour trips, and it worked as well as any other car I drove during the holiday freeze, with one outstanding attribute: No range anxiety.

Coming to the realization that driving an all-electric car in Michigan can be as viable as a gas car is called the “mental shift,” according to Saline resident and Tesla Model X SUV driver Linda TerHaar. There are two roadblocks to electric car ownership, says TerHaar, who has been driving electric for 19 years: “Weather and range anxiety. Our friends and family are gradually being converted to electric vehicles once they see that for us these are not problems anymore.”

The e-Golf I drove three years ago had a range of about 125 miles on a full charge in good weather, but that dropped in half when the temperatures were sub-zero. The Bolt promises up to 238 miles, and delivered for me more than 150 miles when the temps were single digit. While I drove the Bolt around Metro Detroit it never dropped below 75 miles of range.

I credit this high level of charge partly because I plugged the Bolt into 120-volt house current (15 amps) every time I was home. The tall-hatch body had optional roof rails, too, which I used to haul plywood for house projects. A flashing light on top of the instrument panel alerted me when the battery was full every morning. I also used several of the 23 240-volt charging stations around Ann Arbor while at the office during the day to top up with electricity.

Short urban trips caused me no range anxiety, and other electric-car drivers told me they are now comfortable taking longer trips.

“You don’t need a gas station, you just need an electric outlet,” says TerHaar, who drove an electric Ford Focus to Stratford, Ontario, in 2015. “We did it because we could. We took a little extra time, and laid out the trip, stopping at a charger in Port Huron, and two chargers in Ontario.”

It takes a bit of searching to find chargers, say veteran electric-car drivers. Ann Arbor, for example, now has 23 level-two charging stations, up from the initial six installed in 2012, and those chargers have provided electricity to power local electric cars an estimated 1 million miles, says Charles Griffith, Climate and Energy Program director at Ann Arbor’s Ecology Center. That’s a tiny slice of the state’s car use: Michigan drivers have racked up about 400 million miles per year since 2012, according to Federal Highway Administration data, although charger use in Ann Arbor is ramping up steeply, adds Griffith.

In 2015 there were only 600 DC fast chargers in the U.S., in addition to the 358 Tesla Supercharger stations, and Michigan drivers had access to just three. Now Tesla has 13 DC fast-chargers in the state, with about half of those up north. Supercharger stations can often fill a Tesla’s batteries quicker than it takes to fill a gas car. Prices to fill a Tesla Model S range from a few dollars in Michigan to $8 per fill in pricier California, for nearly 300 miles of range, about a third of what gasoline costs.

“Range anxiety? You get over that quick,” explains Joe Willett, a Tesla owner from Howell who has put 44,000 miles on a Model S in the past 25 months. Willett has a two-hour daily commute, but likes electric cars because he’s been “feeling a little dirty buying gasoline since I was a kid.”

The front-drive configuration of the Bolt that I drove works well in snow. The Bolt’s tires were grippy in the frozen slush on Christmas Eve. Heat — all-important in cold snaps, and a surplus product we normally take for granted in gas cars — was in abundance in the Bolt.

Other reasons for an electric car in Michigan? Westlake explains: An electric car has about two hundred moving parts in the driveline. A gas car has a thousand, so there’s less maintenance.

He also adds that in New York City in 1909, horse-drawn carriages outnumbered cars hundreds-to-one. Just four years later, it was difficult to find a horse on that city’s streets.

Personally, after three years of sampling different electric cars, I’m now at the “mental shift.”