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Electric vehicle creates smug, not smog

It's Friday evening and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV is in the car park at work, waiting for someone to claim it.

It doesn't stand out from the crowd of other cars as much as you'd expect. It's just a small, moderately futuristic-looking hatchback with a snub nose for a boot.

I am relieved that despite the technohype, it's a no-brainer to get the car on the road. All you need to do is hop in, put your foot on the brake and turn the ignition switch. The car pauses for a second and then beeps to life. When a green "READY" sign appears on the dashboard moments later, I am good to go.

The most uncanny thing about the car - which still surprises me a week later - is that the "take-off" is so quiet. There's no sputtering to life. No revving up.

Stopped at the lights on Northbourne Avenue, the car is not only quiet but still.

Unlike a petrol-driven car, it does not use energy when it isn't moving. I also can't help but notice the cars in front of me, spewing plumes of smoke. I sit smugly in my stealth buggy. There are no fumes coming out of my car. I don't even have an exhaust pipe! According to University of South Australia electric vehicle researcher Peter Pudney, I am justified in my smugness. If you charge your EV with GreenPower your emissions are essentially zero he says.

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EVs are also much more efficient than a standard petrol-driven car. ACT Electric Vehicle Council board director Mishka Talent says electric motors are over 90 per cent efficient. This is compared with petrol-driven motors, which are only about 15-25 per cent efficient.

Answering one criticism of EVs, Pudney says he has seen no evidence to suggest that the energy-intensive battery production for EVs poses an environmental threat. "The emissions [saved] due to driving an EV far outweigh the emissions in their production." But things get shadier if you charge your car via conventional non-green electricity sources. EVs recharged from the current mix of electricity, such as black coal in the ACT, will only have slightly lower CO2 emissions than the average new car. And low-emissions new cars (such as the Toyota Prius) will have lower emissions than conventionally charged EVs.

SATURDAY Nothing says "weekend" like an intra-city road trip for household goods. Desperately seeking furniture for my relatively new and very empty house, I take a trip out to Hume because someone at work said I'd find nice dining tables out there.

The furniture turned out to be a nonevent but the trip down the Monaro Highway gave the i-MiEV a chance to strut its stuff.

In normal city traffic conditions, the i-MiEV had already proved to be nimble and responsive, but out here it has no trouble zipping up to 100km/h and staying there. However, I amalso realising that this is a double-edged sword. If I take my eye off the digital speedometer, it (or I) has a tendency to jump.

As Mitsubishi's i-MiEV key account manager Mark Whyte notes, you can't "drive with your ears" in an electric car.

You can't hear the car climbing up a gear.

So I find myself driving with half an eye lingering on the dashboard, fearing that I'll zoom past the speed limit and into trouble.

To complete the weekend idyll, I take the i-MiEV to the Fyshwick Markets to stock up on dinner supplies and the odd mandarin. I crawl around in search of a park, with seemingly oblivious pedestrians wandering in front of me. Are people idiots? Or is it just that they can't hear the car? Whyte says that the quietness of the car at less than 25km/h has been noted by Mitsubishi - overseas the model is sold with a noise generator.

Whyte assures me that if the car is involved in a serious accident the battery will be isolated, so electric shock is not a worry. Emergency services have also been given information on where to cut the car, should they need to.

SUNDAY I am constantly watching the battery level and calculating the distances I need to drive. The i-MiEV is supposed to have between 110 and 120km of range. But this will be affected by things like cold weather, heaters, the radio, hills, headlights and highway driving. By the time I got the car home on Saturday evening, according to the dashboard, it had about 10km of battery to go and the battery light was flashing.

I've worked out that the closest charge point is at the Crowne Plaza in the city. But on Saturday I didn't have time to muck around with the recharge (critical house cleaning was required before friends came over). Now, on Sunday morning, I'm almost late for work and in a pickle as it takes about seven hours to charge the battery from zero to full.

I could charge the car at the office (you only need a 15-amp outlet) but I'm not confident I'll make it all the way there. My concern isn't helped by the fact that I'm not entirely sure what to do if the battery does in fact run out.

Get out and push? Abandon it and flee the country? So I leave the i-MiEV at home and take my 1996 Mitsubishi Magna. Decrepit, fuel guzzling and grumpy, the Magna must be the great-granddaddy of the i-MiEV. I like the synergy but hate the guilt.

I later discover that I didn't need to be quite so anxious. ACT Electric Vehicle Council's Mishka Talent recently ran a test to see how far the i-MiEV would go. On a cold day, with the heater and headlights on, he took the car up Black Mountain and along the highway and found the car got to 85km before it started showing 0km. But it still kept going. Then the screen went blank, the heater turned itself off and it went into a "turtle mode" - in which it ran at a slower speed, with a little turtle sign illuminated on the dashboard. Only after all that did it completely run out of battery and stop moving.

In Sydney, the NRMA has recently launched a mobile charge station which will give you 10km worth of battery in 20 minutes if you run out. The ACT will get a mobile charge station within the next few weeks. In the meantime, if you break down in your EV, the NRMA will come and tow you to a charge spot.

MONDAY I drive to the Crowne Plaza where there is a public Better Place charge spot. Recharging the car is just like filling the tank with petrol, except instead of hooking up to a petrol pump, you connect the car to a power point using a special cable. The i-MiEV isn't the only EV at the charge spot. There's a bright red Tesla Roadster - the first EV available commercially in the US. It turns out the owner is Tesla Australia manager Jay McCormack.

He's in Canberra to meet clients (there are two Roadster owners here out of about 10 nationally) and he offers to take me for a spin.

At about $200,000, the Roadster is in a radically different ballpark to the $50,000-ish i-MiEV.

The Tesla has a battery range of about 400km, so McCormack's trip down from Sydney was no issue. You can recharge the car in a standard household electric socket, just like where you'd plug the toaster in, he says.

McCormack takes me through the city in the Tesla. With more than 6000 lithium-ion batteries in the boot, it feels heavy and authentically noisy - had I not already known it was electric, I wouldn't have picked it. When we get to the turn-off to Black Mountain, he pauses and asks if I'm ready for something a bit more "spirited". "Sure," I say, grabbing a handle and trying to look cool.

The Tesla can accelerate from 0 to 97km/h in 3.7 seconds. With the Roadster tearing up and hugging the road at the same time, I'm wondering why The Canberra Times didn't decide to do an article about driving a Tesla for a week. Or maybe even a year. Just to fully understand how it works.

After work that evening, I return to the i-MiEV at the Crowne Plaza. It's all charged up with 95km on the clock after eight hours of charging.

TUESDAY Today's my day off and with the car fully charged, I'm looking forward to a day of unanxious Canberra motoring.

First stop: Mt Ainslie. Even though the i-MiEV has no trouble reaching the top (albeit will less va-va voom than the Tesla). It uses 10km worth of battery on the way up, though.

Using the car's regenerative braking function - which puts power back into battery when you brake - I recapture 1km going back down.

Still, there's plenty left in the battery-tank, and I drive to Gungahlin to do a mammoth grocery shop in preparation for a dinner party that I'm hosting.

Travelling along lengthy stretches of road and through traffic lights and roundabouts, I am reminded of Canberra EV president Julia McDonald's advice. She drives a converted electric VW Beetle and says that driving style affects the way you use the battery. Smooth, unaggressive driving, using the regenerative breaking will help conserve your power.

Even though the car is an automatic, I feel like I'm paying more attention to the way I'm driving the car and how much energy I'm using up as I manoeuvre my way around.

WEDNESDAY Better Place is planning to have thousands of charge spots in Canberra once it launches its EV network here next year. But you won't necessarily have to use one of the public points. Better Place can install one in your home or office, or you can go your own way if you have a 15-amp outlet at home or work.

The Canberra Times' ink room has a 15-amp outlet, so I plug it in when I get to work in the morning and by the end of the day, there are more than 100km on the battery. However, I'm not sure whether I've just recharged using green or coal-powered electricity (smug status: undetermined).

Charging up while you work or sleep will be simple. But one of the biggest questions people have about the EV is, what about driving to Sydney? Better Place is planning to install "battery switch stations" at key points along the route to Sydney and the coast, which will allow you to change your battery on the spot if you have a compatible car.

There is also a fast charge function for EVs, where you can get an 80 per cent charge in 30 minutes. However, at this stage, there are only two fast charge points in Australia (Adelaide and Melbourne).

Whyte adds that battery technology is improving all the time - and that industry expects that within four years they will have EV batteries that are half the current price (about $10,000) and have twice the capacity.

Price is unsurprisingly one of the big factors influencing people's thinking when it comes to EVs. A recent study by Deloitte found that two-thirds of the 500 Australians surveyed did not want to pay a premium for an EV.

Whyte acknowledges that the $48,800 price tag for the i-MiEV isn't cheap - on road in the ACT it will be about $51,450 - but says that as economies of scale kick in and battery prices come down, the car - and others like it - will become more affordable. It is worth noting that this time last year, the i-MiEV would have cost about $65,000. With GreenPower for the i-MiEV costing about 3-4c per kilometre as opposed to about 13c per kilometre for petrol, the running costs are also significantly less than for a new conventional car.

THURSDAY Stopping off at a petrol station early this morning for a restorative coffee milk, I realise it's been more than a week since I even had to think about a petrol pump.

It's about 6.30am and there's a sign on the door asking customers to go to the "night window". "Can I come in?" I ask, gesticulating wildly at the dairy cabinet. The petrol station guy thinks I'm there to buy petrol and doesn't want to let me in. "It's an electric car," I tell him. "I don't want any petrol!" At lunchtime, I take three colleagues for a road trip to Manuka to test out the car with four normal-sized adult passengers. Claire thinks the backseat is a bit claustrophobic but Mick, folded up like a paperclip, says he's had worse experiences in small cars. The i-MiEV is unfussed with the extra people, but doesn't like it when I put the air conditioning on.

Thinking ahead about the rest of the day, I plug the car in at work for the afternoon. I need to go to Tuggeranong tonight and want to make sure I don't need the services of the NRMA mobile charge station.

Heading off to Tuggeranong, I'm confident the i-MiEV will cope, even when I get lost (who knew there were two corners of Anketell Street and Athllon Drive?), which adds several kilometres to my journey.

FRIDAY Curtin University EV researcher Andrew Simpson says that one of the key challenges facing the take-up of EVs in Australia is that they are new. Even though humans have been driving EVs since the very first days of motoring, widespread EV driving is "all new to us" in Australia. Simpson says the best way to convince people about the technology is to get them to sit in an EV. "We [have] learned that once people get a chance to drive and experience them for themselves, they actually like them a lot." The experts - both in research and industry - suggest that it will be several years before EVs make up a significant proportion of Australian cars on the road. But as I return the i-MiEV to the ACT Electric Vehicle Council, I honestly wish I could keep it.

Some quirks and inconveniences aside, it's very easy to drive, energy efficient and, if recharged using GreenPower, essentially emissions free.

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV was loaned to The Canberra Times by the ACT Electric Vehicle Council.