CHARGE

All-elec­tric ve­hi­cles chal­lenge driv­ers to turn over a new Leaf

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY AN­DREA SACHS

I prob­a­bly looked sus­pi­cious as I cased the dark, empty build­ing on the out­skirts of Santa Bar­bara, the day barely awake. Lo­cat­ing my tar­get near the front door, I opened the trunk of my car and re­moved an ex­ten­sion cord with a gas-pump-style han­dle on one end and a three-pronged plug on the other. I stretched the 25-foot line from the hood to the socket I’d dis­cov­ered and made the con­nec­tion. A blue light on the dash­board flick­ered on as the power trick­led into the car’s veins. Mean­while, I dis­ap­peared into the shad­ows un­til it was time. Time to move on — to the next des­ti­na­tion, the next out­let, the next charg­ing fix.

Road-trip­ping by elec­tric car is an ad­ven­ture into the un­known, call­ing for in­ge­nu­ity, re­source­ful­ness and pluck, the op­po­site of the gas-fu­eled car vacation, with its pumps at ev­ery exit. In my bat­tery-pow­ered car, I moved like a mi­gra­tory an­i­mal from charg­ing sta­tion to charg­ing sta­tion, in con­stant search of sus­te­nance.

Elec­tric ve­hi­cles, or EVs, and the in­fra­struc­ture needed to mobilize them, are still in their in­fancy. Baby is just learn­ing to walk, or, in this case, drive. But I was ea­ger to ex­pe­ri­ence the emis­sions-free con­veyance that could rev­o­lu­tion­ize the clas­sic road ad­ven­ture. So a cou­ple of weeks ago, I set­tled into a Nis­san Leaf (so roomy, so quiet, so smooth) and drove around South­ern Cal­i­for­nia — more than 420 miles in to­tal, from Los An­ge­les to La­guna Beach, to Santa Mon­ica and to Santa Bar­bara. I set out with two goals, both a bit dreamy: never to run out of bat­tery life, and to bump into the Prius-driv­ing Leonardo DiCaprio, so that I could im­press him with the fu­ture.

Un­like hy­brids, EVs run solely on bat­ter­ies and re­quire fre­quent charges — the Nis­san Leaf needs one af­ter about 100 miles. Once the bat­tery is drained, the car is a life­less lump of metal and good in­ten­tions.

To recharge, driv­ers have a choice of op­tions, from pokey slow to pit-crew fast: Level I (120 volts, com­pat­i­ble with house­hold out­lets, 18 to 20 hours’ charge time), Level II (240 volts, cur­rently avail­able at a smat­ter­ing of pub­lic venues, about eight hours) and the much-an­tic­i­pated DC Fast Charge (480 volts, com­ing soon, less than 30 min­utes).

“When you start driv­ing the car, you just start look­ing for a charg­ing sta­tion,” said Tim Gal­lagher, Nis­san’s West Coast com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager. “It’s like your cell­phone: You just start look­ing around, and when you find a place, you just plug it in.”

To pre­vent a dystopian scene of EVs aban­doned in the heart­break lanes, the Depart­ment of En­ergy has handed out $129 mil­lion in grants for erect­ing Level II and Fast Charge sta­tions around the coun­try. By year’s end, the agency ex­pects to have 20,000 sta­tions in more than 20 cities, of­ten in set­tings with pleas­ant di­ver­sions — malls, mu­se­ums, gro­cery stores, ho­tels, restau­rants, Cracker Bar­rel — to lessen the pain of wait­ing.

This, my neo-green friends, is the fu­ture land­scape. But at present, the net­work of sta­tions re­sem­bles a Lite-Brite board with a short­age of pegs.

Be­fore set­ting out on my jour­ney, I spent weeks scour­ing the Web for pub­lic charg­ing sta­tions. I found dozens in places I’d visit even with­out a hun­gry EV: Long Beach Aquar­ium, the Bev­erly Hills Hil­ton, the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum of Los An­ge­les County. Yet I soon learned that these charg­ers had been built around a decade ago, for the first gen­er­a­tion of elec­tric cars. Try­ing to use them with newer mod­els, you’d have as much luck as plug­ging into a dough­nut hole.

I fi­nally had a break­through with Cal­i­for­nia-based Coulomb Technology, which built its first sta­tion two years ago in San Jose and posts a live map of its work­ing fa­cil­i­ties na­tion­wide. Nis­san deal­er­ships are also out­fit­ted with Level II sta­tions, and in a pinch I could use a reg­u­lar out­let at my ho­tel, ide­ally charg­ing while I slept, ate break­fast, went for a long walk on the beach, read a book and counted to one mil­lion.

I was on the free­way headed south to La­guna Beach, my char­iot float­ing on a cu­mu­lus cloud amid the dark thun­der of traf­fic. I had just cov­ered a sparkling sec­tion of coast­line, fromMan­hat­tan Beach to Pa­los Verde, and was feel­ing lan­guid in my sun­lit sanc­tu­ary. Sud­denly, I snapped to at­ten­tion; I needed to make a very im­por­tant call.

“Hi, Tim. My bat­tery’s low. Do you think I can make it to the charg­ing sta­tion in New­port Beach?”

My Nis­san ad­viser asks me a ques­tion.

“The range dis­ap­peared. It’s just a flash­ing bar.”

An­other query.

“I just passed Hunt­ing­ton Beach.” A some­what grave re­ac­tion. “ Oh, re­ally? I won’t make it? Get off at Bear Road. To South Coast Plaza. Charg­ing sta­tion near Crate and Bar­rel. Got it. Thanks.” Oh, sugar . . . snap. I was now seized by “range anx­i­ety,” an ob­ses­sive fear that the bat­tery life will drain and you’ll never make it home in time for “Amer­i­can Idol,” much less bed. Trust me, it’s not a hal­lu­ci­na­tory head game.

I had, how­ever, packed a bag of tricks gleaned from vet­eran EV driv­ers. To con­serve en­ergy, the wise ones told me, skip the air con­di­tion­ing and the heat, drive on the slow side, turn off the lights and the ra­dio (my very last re­sort), and don’t brake on hills. By scream­ing down an in­cline, you can “ hy­per­mile,” gen­er­at­ing more en­ergy than you’re us­ing. It’s a neat trick (I rec­om­mend it on the roller-coast­ery Kanon Dume Road) that re­minded me of bik­ing down my par­ents’ steep drive­way withmy feet high off the ped­als. Fi­nally, em­brace traf­fic. “On the free­way or in traf­fic jams, stay four to six car lengths back and coast,” ad­vised Marc Geller, co-founder of Plug In Amer­ica, an EV ad­vo­cacy group. “You get amaz­ing ef­fi­ciency and can add 10, 20, 30 per­cent to the dis­tance.”

De­spite my con­cerns, I made it eas­ily to the Costa Mesa mall. I plugged the car into the Level II charger (free, though I had to call the charg­ing com­pany to ac­ti­vate the ma­chine), then rode the es­ca­la­tor to the top floor. I bought an icy drink and took it out­side to the open-air bridge. While my Franken­stein car volted back to life, I watched the sun draw the cur­tain on the day, leav­ing be­hind a swirl of cot­ton-candy pinks.

You know how pup­pies and ba­bies bring out the best in peo­ple, trans­form­ing cold strangers into coo­ing Sa­mar­i­tans? The elec­tric car casts that same kind of warm-hearted spell. As I drove around in my Leaf, out­siders just wanted to look at it, touch it, learn more about it and help me feed it.

Be­fore I ar­rived at La Casa del Camino in La­guna Beach, a staffer named Jamie had scouted out out­lets around the prop­erty: one on the side of the inn, near 30minute street park­ing; an­other across the street in the park­ing lot of a large build­ing; and a third be­hind the ho­tel, in a se­cluded drive­way sur­rounded by trop­i­cal plants and staff mem­bers on a smoke break.

I chose the last spot and fol­lowed Jamie there. He helped me snake the cord un­der a porch banis­ter and into a plug I would never have no­ticed. When I checked on the car later, some­one had sweetly placed an orange cone be­hind it, like a piece of choco­late at evening turn­down.

Free to ex­plore La­guna Beach, I filled my hours peer­ing into the win­dows of art gal­leries and track­ing down as many of the city’s 65-plus pieces of pub­lic art as I could on foot. In the morn­ing, I set­tled be­side the ho­tel fire­place and ate a bowl of oat­meal thick­ened with fresh mis­sion figs and fresh straw­ber­ries. To squeeze out a few more miles, I loafed on a park bench atop a hill blan­keted in flow­ers and over­look­ing the ocean.

On the drive back to Los An­ge­les, I made only one pit stop, on Bal­boa Is­land, a man-made is­land born out of a sand­spit be­fore World War I. It’s so tiny, a marathoner would have to cir­cle it more than 13 times to com­plete a race.

The is­land’s bench-lined main street is a paragon of bliss­ful de­nial — of calo­ries (frozen ba­nanas and tiramisu on a stick), of in­clement weather (shops sell beach­wear for South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s eter­nal sum­mer) and of ris­ing gas prices (many res­i­dents tool around in elec­tric carts). My tour of town also in­volved hooded glances for out­lets. I scoured back al­leys (those carts have to charge some­where, right?) and the fire sta­tion. I was elated to fi­nally find the Shang­hai Pine Gar­dens Res­tau­rant, which de­served four stars not for its Kung Pao chicken but for the plug nes­tled be­neath a large pic­ture win­dow.

On a res­i­den­tial street near the main drag, I told a man stand­ing on the porch of a house seem­ingly dec­o­rated by whim­si­cal elves about my quest. “I wish I hadn’t just tossed the key to my aunt’s house through the win­dow,” he said apolo­get­i­cally. “I could’ve let you in to use the garage.”

He sug­gested that I wait — his Aunt Joan was get­ting her hair fluffed and would be back shortly. I as­sured him that I had enough power, but just in case, he had me jot down the name of a church thrift store with three nearby lo­ca­tions. The shops, he said, had out­door out­lets. And be­ing a church, well, that was part of their mis­sion, to help those in need.

If I had the power to can­on­ize saints, I would be­stow that ti­tle on Penny Flem­ing, the guest ser­vices man­ager of the Ra­mada Limited in Santa Bar­bara. I knew it was a chancy move to drive to this town, which has lofty green as­pi­ra­tions but no Level II charg­ers and no con­firmed Level I sock­ets. Cross­ing the Pa­cific seemed eas­ier than cov­er­ing the nearly 100 miles back to Los An­ge­les.

To pre­pare for my evening ar­rival, I called the ho­tel from the Nis­san deal­er­ship in Simi Val­ley to in­quire about my now fa­vorite amenity. Penny, af­ter a bit of re­search, in­formed me of an out­let at the front of the ho­tel, though park­ing was not al­lowed on the fac­ing street. I then asked her about switch­ing my room to the ground level so that I could stretch the car’s 120-volt ex­ten­sion cord through the pa­tio doors and into the room. She said she would try to re­ar­range the room as­sign­ments. Score: Room 117 was now mine, com­plete with park­ing spot and a VIP cone.

Now came the hi­lar­ity, with­out the laugh track.

First, the car’s cord came up a few fin­ger-lengths shy of my room’s TV out­let. Penny whipped out an­other ex­ten­sion cord, long enough to reach the far side of the room, but when we plugged it in, there was no en­ergy surge. She dis­ap­peared, re­turn­ing with an­other line that worked but had only two in­den­ta­tions; we needed three.

I was about to start look­ing through the Yel­low Pages for a horse that could pull the car back to Los An­ge­les, but Penny was not giv­ing up. She found a third cord, plugged it in and . . . the lights on the surge box started to glow. Then they went dark. She pushed the plug in harder; the lights beamed. Not fully trust­ing this ar­range­ment, she switched the dou­ble ex­ten­sion cord to an out­let on the night­stand lamp. We closed the pa­tio door and se­cured it with the chain lock, leav­ing a small gap for the snake. When it was lights out, the green dot of the charger stayed bright, a North Star twin­kling on the Ra­mada’s car­pet.

Strangely, I started to look for­ward to the EV sta­tions. Be­cause of their un­ex­pected lo­ca­tions, they led me to places I might oth­er­wise have ig­nored.

With­out the prospect of charg­ing, for in­stance, I would have blown past Simi Val­ley en route to Santa Bar­bara. Yet I sought out the Nis­san deal­er­ship there partly be­cause of its prox­im­ity to the Ron­ald Rea­gan Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary and Mu­seum.

On the trip back south to Los An­ge­les, I swung into the Ox­nard deal­er­ship, where I sweet-talked my­self a ride to the Chan­nel Is­lands Har­bor Farm­ers Mar­ket and picked through crates of cit­rus and straw­ber­ries grown a few towns over. To give my­self — I mean, the car— ad­di­tional time, I walked a long stretch of Man­dalay Beach, climb­ing the life­guard tower to watch for gray whales.

At the Santa Mon­ica Pier, near the slow-spin­ning Fer­ris wheel, I parked in an ex­clu­sive EV spot, hooked up and walked down to the orig­i­nal Mus­cle Beach. Here, I met Paul Scott, a Santa Mon­ica res­i­dent and a found­ing mem­ber of Plug In Amer­ica, who’d driven in on his elec­tric mo­tor­cy­cle. A rangy ac­ro­bat, he showed me how to swing like a ca­puchin on the trav­el­ing rings, a long row of metal hoops that re­quire fierce up­per-body strength and a faint at­tach­ment to your teeth.

In Los An­ge­les, the con­ven­tion cen­ter, which dom­i­nates a large pie slice of down­town, is home to a des­ig­nated EV area. It also ad­joins the hy­per­ac­tiv­i­ties of the Sta­ples Cen­ter, the Grammy Mu­seum (a jam that you hope never ends) and the new L.A. Live, a pul­sat­ing en­ter­tain­ment district that can’t seem to find the off switch. By the time I fi­nally re­trieved the car, the mileage range was up to 96, more than enough to make it tomy next des­ti­na­tion.

I steered the car onto Wil­shire Boule­vard, blend­ing in with the evening traf­fic. For the en­tire ride, I kept my eyes on the road, not once glanc­ing down at the bat­tery gauge or scan­ning the sides of build­ings.

JONATHAN ALCORN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

PHO­TOS BY JONATHAN ALCORN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

SANTA MON­ICA

SWING

At the pier, above, charg­ing an elec­tric ve­hi­cle can be a high­fly­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. The park­ing

lot is steps away from the orig­i­nal Mus­cle Beach, where am­a­teur ac­ro­bats mon­key around on trav­el­ing rings.

A PLUG FOR SIMI VAL­LEY :

At left, em­ploy­ees at the Simi Val­ley Nis­san deal­er­ship hook up a Leaf en route to Santa Bar­bara. The charge can take sev­eral hours, enough time to visit the nearby Ron­ald Rea­gan Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary and

Mu­seum.

CAR-FREE MO­MENTS:

While your car juices up in La­guna Beach, you can frit­ter away time gaz­ing at the ocean land­scape, far right. On the drive back to Los An­ge­les, de­tour to tiny Bal­boa Is­land,

right, whose down­town is worth a pic­ture (or a paint­ing).

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