This post, part of a series we're running all about electric cars, was written by Akweli Parker from HowStuffWorks.com.
Can you imagine being stuck in traffic for 20 hours straight? In a snowstorm? Well, that's what happened to thousands of Pennsylvania motorists in February of 2007 when tractor trailers jackknifed in icy winter weather, causing a 50-mile (80.5-kilometer) backup on the interstate.
But even that highway horror pales next to the 60-mile (96.6-kilometer), 10-day traffic jam on a highway headed into Beijing in August of 2010.
With all-electric cars poised to become a significant portion of our personal means of transportation, consumers and transportation planners alike will want to know: Can they survive major traffic jams?
Quite simply, there's no easy answer to that. It depends on the severity of the traffic jam, including its duration and distance, the model of electric car and its ease of charging and how you define the word "survive." After all, even the stingiest of gasoline-drinking autos will conk out if they run out of fuel.
Also, running accessories such as lights, and passenger-compartment heating and cooling will dramatically accelerate any traffic-trapped electric's battery depletion.
That said, we can point out the following with certainty:
- Unlike the idling of fossil fuel-driven engines, electric motors stop running when they're not being used to drive the car (hence the eerie silence of an electric or hybrid when you're waiting at a red light).
- Many electrics recapture energy through regenerative braking -- think of the stop and go conditions of a traffic jam.
- On the disadvantage side, accessories rob energy from the batteries and don't give it back. Yet those accessories perform often vital functions, such as keeping us sane with relaxing music, helping us keep our cool with climate control and helping us see in the dark with electricity to run our cars' lights.
- And then there is the electric car's infamously limited range -- how far it can go on a single charge?
This Automotive News piece, by way of Cnet.com, quotes a Nissan engineer as saying this about the 100-mile (160.9-kilometer) range Leaf: If stuck in stop-and-go traffic at about 15 miles per hour (24.1 kilometers per hour), on a cold day and with the heater turned on, it could go about 62 miles (99.8 kilometers).
… but then what?
If your gasoline-powered car runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere, or in a traffic jam, you can at least call for an emergency service to bring a gas can. But with electric vehicle charging protocols still somewhat of a potpourri, the chances of getting easily bailed out of a traffic jam are much slimmer -- a tow truck might be the only way home.
The solution (for now) is pretty much a no-brainer. If you plan on driving an electric vehicle, only use it for that majority of personal and work round trips that are between 20 and 25 miles (32.2 and 40.2 kilometers) and therefore well within its range. For longer excursions that absolutely require you to drive, versus say, taking a train, then perhaps a hybrid or an electric car with an internal combustion "range extender" might be the smartest option.