Image Credit Martin Paquet
The Smart Electric Car is being launched in 2012, but 1500 of them have been released around the world for testing. 15 were allotted to Toronto, Canada, where Smart Canada, the local electrical distribution utility Toronto Hydro, and Pollution Probe, invited people to apply to become "ambassadors" and lease the cars for four years. I have always been fascinated by the Smart Car, and after applications and interviews was accepted.
Images credit Toronto Hydro
It's All About the Infrastructure
The chosen few were invited to an introductory event at the Toronto Smart showroom; It was a fascinating evening, where we learned that it is not just about testing the cars, but about the infrastructure, about how the utility will cope, what it will do to their grid. Raymond Chokelal of Toronto Hydro pointed out that electric cars have been around for a while, even to the moon, but if you don't have a support infrastructure then it isn't going to get very far.
The utility wants to know how the car is used, where and when it is charged up, how it affects the grid and their loading profiles. To do so, they are installing separate electrical services and smart meters so that they can see exactly what we can put into the car, and when.
Raymond demonstrating the charging station. These would be installed in every participant's garage or parking spot, and are opened by a smart card that identifies the user. A few have been installed around the city, but not enough for us to avoid a discussion about "range anxiety", or the fear that we might run out of juice with nowhere to fill up. It is more psychological than real in many cases; Tom Odell of Hydro told the story of drivers in Tokyo, who were underutilizing their electric cars, never going more than 60% of their range. So charging stations were installed in the suburbs, where the drivers said they wanted to go; once they were installed the drivers happily drove greater distances- and never used the new charging stations.
I have always been intrigued by the Smart Car because it is such a clever bit of design. Mercedes really went back to first principles, recognizing that most trips involve one or two people, so they designed it around a cabin that could accommodate almost anyone (tall people fit in easily), and just lopped off everything else.
The electric smart car replaces the gas tank that is under the seating with a bank of lithium ion batteries that can drive the car for about 135 km (84 miles) under optimum conditions, at a max of 100 km/hr (62 MPH, limited by governor). If you turn on the heater in winter or the AC in summer, range drops considerably. I asked if it would make it to Guelph, 90 km away; Smart Director Richard Trevisan told me, only if I wear a warm coat and turn off the heat.
Melissa DeYoung of Pollution Probe picked an interesting group of Ambassadors; all kinds of ideas were flying round the table about how to deal with various problems and issues. How about tying into a car sharing program, so that for those trips where you do have to go over 100K, you can exchange cars? Let's set up a website and share addresses, so that we can charge at each other's houses! It really seemed that we were developing our own little social network as we sat there round the table.
It was then time for a test drive; Martin Paquet of Smart accompanied me and held my camera. The car is a lot of fun to drive, really comfortable, turns on a dime. It is also a bit strange; at every stop sign I was sure that I stalled. But it had more than enough zip; it is the perfect little commuter or city car. In the video, Martin explains how the instrumentation works, how the car actually feels better than the gas version because of the weight of the batteries.
Bill Tharp of the Climate Change Infrastructure Corporation has been driving the Smart Electric since December, and told us of his experience with it. He was asked about the lack of noise, an issue we have discussed on TreeHugger before. He says it is a problem at first, that a woman stepped out in front of him without looking and he was terrified (and braked in time). But he noted that as a driver you adapt, you look out for people and try and anticipate what they are going to do. It becomes habit. He also noted that in this age of iPods, even drivers of regular cars have to do the same.
I have been dismissive of electric cars in the past, claiming that they essentially run on coal. (In my post Seven Lessons From Lawrence Livermore Laboratory's Energy Use Graph I suggested that in fact Switching to electric cars may only exacerbate our problems. Pollution Probe's Bob Oliver makes a pretty convincing case that at least in Ontario, Canada, where we are weaning ourselves off coal, this is certainly not the case.
So Should I Lease It?
So it is such a cute little thing, who couldn't love that face? And it is such an interesting proposition; Hydro pays for the electricity, Smart gives four years of bumper to bumper service and support, even changing the tires for winter. Other than the (not inconsiderable) cost of the lease, it is worry and expense free.
But electric cars are not for everyone; I work from home and don't commute. I ride my bicycle year round, and believe bikes to be an even better low emission vehicle. The only time I really use my Toyota Echo is to take those 100K and longer trips out of town. We support our local retailers and do most of our shopping on foot. I just don't think I fit the profile where it makes sense.
But I am an incorrigible early adopter, and will spend the weekend thinking about it......
More at Toronto Hydro Smart Experience
More on the Smart Car:
TreeHugger Bonnie tried it last year: Test-Driving the New All-Electric Smart Car
Smart Cars: One Owner's Story
Little Known Fact: Thirteen People Can Fit Inside a Smart Car