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November 09, 2010

Interview With an EV Owner: Affordability

by Brian Foley


In 1998, Colin Summers, an architect who lives in Santa Monica, convinced his wife that they should get an electric car. They got one and never looked back. Today, they are the proud owners of a four-door Toyota RAV 4. While his wife primarily uses the car for her commute, Summers drives a Prius. They also have solar panels on their home. This is the first of three interviews with EV owners. For more info on becoming an EV owner, visit PlugInAmerica.org.

When did you get the car?

In 2004. We had a four-year lease on it and then we bought it. My wife has 57,000 miles on it. Before that she drove GM's EV1. So she's been driving electric for over 10 years now. It's our family car on the weekends, but she's the one who uses it during the week for her commute. I work from home primarily and picking up the kids from school is less than three miles, so I do a lot less driving. Right now for her it's about 20 miles each way.

What was your initial reason for getting an EV in 1998?

My love of technology and being an early adopter for things. That was the infancy of the Internet and just after Google appeared -- everyone had dial-up but we had an ISDN line, for example. When GM started marketing the EV1, they knew it was a big jump for people, which is why the dealerships would let you have one for the weekend. So I had them drop one off and I thought it was astonishing.

It's odd to look back and know that if GM just had just the nerve to stay with it ten years ago, they’d be so far ahead of everyone right now rather than needing bailouts from the government. They would’ve owned the market.

Anyway, here in Hollywood it’s nice to have an identity and not be just another person driving a Lexus SUV. So I convinced my wife that it’d be a cool car for her.

Can you describe the battery?

It's a nickel-metal hydride. When we first got it, it had a range of 120 miles and now it’s probably about 80 or 90, so it’s still useful for her. What's great is that it's a four-door, so on the weekends we're able to go down to the science center and the Natural History Museum in downtown L.A. -- and driving there and back, we don’t burn any gas at all.

Like the battery in your laptop, they slowly lose the capacity for a charge. When it's no longer useful you can replace the battery pack entirely, which is I think over $10,000. But, on the balance, the car has never needed any maintenance. It gets its brakes checked and tires rotated, but there are no oil changes, no coolant, no need to recharge your AC system. It just has never needed anything other than the basic check-up once a year.

Let's say I'm a typical middle-class citizen who makes $50,000 a year. Can I get an EV or is it still too exclusive?

This car is certainly not exclusive. It was leased as though it was a $35,000 car. So it was on par with the sporty model of the RAV 4. And then at the end of the lease we bought it for $20,000. So, to me that was within reach of middle-class America. When we got the EV1, I was watching our electric bills for what the jump would be, and it only went up $10 a month. At the time back in '98, the gas I was spending on my Saab was $120 a month. So we were instantly saving $110 a month, the insurance was cheaper, there was a $3,500 tax credit, and the maintenance was no cost at all. All of that slides it down to the middle class.

What's the biggest myth about EVs?

That there's a complexity with the vehicle. It's actually a simple machine. When people look at it they think, "This isn't a useful car to me." But the truth is for a two-car family, 90 percent of the driving they're doing is easily within what an electric car can do. Our family can probably get away with two electric cars -- and once or twice a year we’d need to rent a car for a weekend trip to the desert or the Bay Area.

Describe the process of charging your car. For anyone who's never even seen an electric car, I'm sure it's hard to imagine.

It's incredibly simple. There's a little flap on the front of the car. There's a button inside that you press, similar to what you open for your gas tank flap. You push it and the flap pops open and then the charger -- there's a plastic paddle and you slide it into a slot in the front of the car and the car and charger communicate with each other. And it tells the charger the state of the battery and how much current it needs and it slowly charges itself up. Completely, it takes about three hours, but it goes up to 80 percent in less than an hour.

Do you and your wife even think about gas prices anymore?

Well I do, because I still need gas with my Prius. But that’s one of the things that she talks about. She loves that it’s been 10 years since she’s stopped for gas somewhere.

Photo courtesy Colin Summers.


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