Testing Electric Car Share

Self-driving cars, smart intersections, car sharing, electric vehicles. . . only five years ago these personal transportation options seemed too far in the future to impact our region today. But for the past few weeks, Thrive 2055 staffer Ruthie Thompson has been among a group of people who have been beta testers for Chattanooga’s new electric car share system: Green Commuter.  Below is what happens when a vehicular Luddite tries a new technology for the first time.

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Green Commuter Chattanooga’s Nissan Leaf

I love cars; small, zippy, five-speed cars that you can rip around mountain roads on a crisp, fall day. I love nothing better than a 1.8-liter inline four on a light chassis that responds to a gentle nudge of the steering wheel and a quick double clutch.

So when I was given the opportunity to beta test Chattanooga’s new electric car share system, I was skeptical. Surely, these electrics could not be as much fun as my ’93 Miata. And surely, a Nissan Leaf would not go up and down our region’s mountainous terrain without sucking all the life out of the batteries and leaving me stranded on the side of the road.

What a surprise then to find that on my first test drive I came down Walden’s Ridge with MORE battery power than I went up with. And I had a blast. How did that happen?

Green Commuter Chattanooga, which is scheduled to open to the public this fall, is basically a short-term car rental. Leafs are parked at electric charging stations at locations in downtown Chattanooga and other regional hubs like the Chattanooga Airport and Southern Adventist University in Collegedale. The cars are available for hourly rentals 24/7. The whole rental process, from registration to check-in, is done through your smartphone.

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“Smokey” Hooked up to his charger.

I began my first beta test at the Shuttle Park South (Chattanooga Choo-Choo) station in downtown Chattanooga. After finding the cars and figuring out how to disconnect Smokey (yes, they have names) from the charger and then figuring out how to unlock the car with my phone, my husband and I took our seats, ready to experience the beautiful summer day in a brand new electric car! The dialogue went like this.

Me: “How do you turn it on?”

Hubby: “Push the button.”

Me: “Which button?”

Hubby: “The one by the steering wheel that looks like a computer switch.”

I pushed the button and the dashboard lit up. Hooray, it was time to go! Or not.

Me: Wiggling the gear knob back and forth, “how do you put it in reverse?”

Hubby: “I don’t know, let me try.” He wiggles the gear knob back and forth. Nothing.

This went on for about five minutes, wiggling the knob back and forth between park, neutral, drive and reverse, looking in the glove compartment for instructions, looking online for instructions and still nothing.

Hubby: “Try turning it on and off again.”

I do, and voila, the dashboard lights up like a computer game and the car sings a little “bing, binga, binga, bing” song. Turns out that you have to hit the “on” switch twice before the car is really on.

We found reverse, carefully and silently backed out of our parking spot and then headed toward a mountain.

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The Nissan Leaf EV NISMO RC race car prototype. Courtesy of Car and Driver.

There is a secret that I probably should not tell you: the Nissan Leaf drives like a mid-engine sports car, but without the vibration and noise that’s produced by an internal combustion engine. Because the heavy battery pack sits right under the cabin, the weight distribution gives the car almost perfect handling, which is good, because without sensory input from engine noise it is very, very easy to speed.

When we headed up Signal Mountain, the car sucked power like a vacuum, but it also handled the curvy road with ease. Coming down the hill, with regenerative braking and coasting, we were pleased that the Leaf regained all of the power that it had lost going up and a little more.

Between using Eco mode and power regeneration, we came back from our 20-mile drive with only 15 miles of the car’s range used. The cost would have been about $10 for an hour. A later beta test charged us $27 for two and a half hours.

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The new electric car share is just one more mobility option for commuters who are tired of congested interstates. It will now be feasible to take the bus or carpool to work and have an option available for an emergency trip to the kids’ school, or a scheduled doctor’s appointment.

Electric cars are here to stay. A new MIT study says that electric vehicles are capable of replacing 87% of the conventional vehicles in the market right now. Those would be the personal vehicles that we all use to commute back and forth to our jobs and schools, with just overnight charging.

If this changeover from conventional to electric were to happen right now, the study concludes that it would immediately cut U.S. gasoline consumption by 60% and our carbon emissions by 30%.

Making this changeover a reality right now is impossible, due to lack of available electric cars on the market. But ten years from now, it could be feasible. This spring, Ford Motor Company announced a new division called Ford Smart Mobility, founded to research and produce mobility options beyond the motorcar that made automobiles a commodity a century ago. Tesla and Chevrolet are going head-to-head to bring an affordable, long-range electric to the masses in 2017. And closer to home, Volkswagen says that they will be building electric cars in America by 2020.

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Chevy’s new Bolt has a promised range of 238 miles.

Green Commuter is just one more drop in a wave of technology that will change transportation in ways that have not happened since Henry Ford’s Model T first left the production line. As a region, we have the chance to use technology and develop a sustainable transportation system before our roads and air become so congested that we have no other choice.

Besides, we all might have some fun at the same time.
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Green Commuter Chattanooga officially launched on September 13, 2016 with a ceremonial plug-in at Hamilton Place Mall. Expect stations to be stocked with cars within two to three weeks.

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