Where's the Plug?

Article excerpt

That was the first question I asked Ford engineer Louis Paspal when he dropped off a handmade Ford Ecostar minivan, a $250,000 prototype electric vehicle with a $46,000 sodium-sulfur battery, for a week-long test drive.

I meant it as a joke, but he responded with a straight face. "Oh, it's in the back," he said. "Let me get it."

No, you don't have an extension cord that stretches for miles and miles when you drive an electric car, but you do need to keep it plugged in and recharging when it's not in use. There's a handy grille-mounted recharging plug and you'd better have access to a three-pronged outlet or you'll be in trouble.

And you do need a re-education because driving something that's not powered by the familiar internal-combustion engine requires a whole new approach.

First of all, there's the problem of teaching police and fire officials about how to handle EVs in case of an accident. Ford officials say they've spent a lot of time working with police and emergency crews, warning them to be careful if they ever have to pry open an EV with the Jaws of Life. Turns out that if you sever the main power cable, which runs the length of the car, you can indeed electrocute yourself and whomever is in the vehicle.

Yow.

The good part is that you can congratulate yourself on driving something that's supposed to be healthier for the environment, even though it doesn't have the range or power of a Chevy Camaro or a Ford pickup.

I especially liked the fact that you can charge up at home, thus avoiding gas stations. I, for one, don't like pumping my own gas, and I worry about getting car-jacked at gas stations. What a great feeling it is to be able to bypass them and use your home electrical power--for about the equivalent of what it takes to power a 100-watt light bulb overnight, according to Paspal.

But you do pay a price. The Ecostar's energy storage--or "fuel tank"--is a 770-pound battery pack located beneath the rear cargo floor. It can be likened to a $15,000 fuel tank that needs replacing every few years, holds the equivalent of four gallons of gasoline and takes eight hours to refill.

The "fuel gauge" on the Ecostar tells you "miles to discharge," and a cute little green car icon lights up to tell you all systems are "go." But the range of the Ecostar is limited to about 80 miles, which precludes all but local commutes. For example, we couldn't visit Grandma on the other side of town in the Ecostar because we were afraid of running out of juice on the way home. …