Wednesday January 23, 2013

BENNINGTON -- There are all-electric cars quietly living amongst us.

Rob Sperber, a Bennington resident and the owner of Sperber Tool Works on Bowen Road, has put about 4,500 silent miles on his 2012 Ford Focus Electric since taking delivery of the vehicle in late May of last year.

"About the noisiest thing on it is the (studded snow tires)," Sperber said recently while giving a ride to a Banner reporter who concurred.

Although the Nissan Leaf continues to be the top-selling all-electric car in America, Ford’s new entry travels much more incognito than Nissan’s futuristic pod car. Besides a lack of tailpipe and discrete "electric" badging along the bottom of each front door, Sperber’s electric vehicle (EV) looks identical to any other new Focus on the road.

Oh, it also has a "Powered by the Sun" bumper sticker, too. With a well-positioned garage roof offering plenty of sunny exposure at his residence, Sperber had an 8 kw solar setup installed last August by Central Vermont Solar and Wind of Rutland, which he estimates will provide the bulk of annual power needs for both his home and car. The car was "my motivation for following through on the photovoltaic (solar panels)."

"It’s always been my dream to drive around carbon-free," said Sperber. Now, he basically is.

Admittedly limited driving range

There are constraints, of course. "The biggest drawback is the range." Ford advertises a best-in-class range of up to 76 miles on each full charge. Maybe "on a good, real hot day," reports Sperber, who has witnessed a definite decrease in range through the winter months. While traveling the 8-mile commute between his business and home, a quick toggle of the heating controls causes the electric Focus’ estimated range to drop 10 miles.

Real-world "full charge" ranges in winter have shown between 50 to 60 miles. Between the daily commute and various in-town errands, that’s never been an issue and Sperber has not been left stranded to date.

(His lowest "budget" reading was 3 miles remaining, but a sister-in-law was following behind.)

Should the time come he runs completely out of juice mid-journey? "I go get my generator," quipped Sperber.

"It’s not going to be your only car," he admits.

With the available 240-volt, 32-amp charger, a complete charge is available in three to hour hours. (Much quicker than the Leaf.) A normal 120-volt outlet takes overnight.

The car’s combined EPA fuel efficiency rating is 105 MPGe (miles per gallon gasoline equivalent). That rating attempts to measure the average distance traveled per unit of energy, allowing the EPA to compare consumption between conventional vehicles and alternative fuel/plug-in electric ones.

Initially available only in limited markets including California and the New York metropolitan area (you still can’t get one locally),

Sperber ordered his a little more than a year ago from Schultz Ford in Nanuet, N.Y.

It was then trucked back to Southern Vermont.

To Sperber’s understanding, it was the first retail delivery of an electric Focus in the U.S. -- at least, there were Ford Motor Co. executives snapping photos at the time of delivery who said so.

(Internet forums dedicated to the electric Focus point to another early adopter from Charlotte, N.C., who also picked his up in late May 2012.)

That month, Reuters reported about 350 of the electric Focuses were to be sent to 67 dealers in California, New Jersey, and New York. Sticker price for the electric Focus is $39,200. That figure is allayed somewhat by a $7,500 federal tax credit. Earlier this month,

The Detroit News reported 685 were sold in 2012, the first full year of sales.

"Does it pay? I don’t know," said Sperber. "I did it for philosophical reasons." "I feel really smug."

According to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, an industry group dedicated to promoting EV vehicles, there were 14,251 all-electric (non-hybrid) vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2012. Other available competitors include the aforementioned Leaf and Coda

Automotive’s aptly named Coda. Then there are more exotic options from the likes of Fisker Automotive and Tesla Motors.

Including hybrids (those vehicles with an internal combustion engine, like the Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Prius), the EDTA tallied 487,480 "electric drive" vehicles sold in 2012 -- increasing their total market share to 3.38 percent (up from 2.23 percent in 2011).

The electric Focus is built on the same assembly line in Wayne, Mich., alongside its gasoline brethren. Sperber said he had no complaints with the car’s pep or other normal car parts. "It’s no different from driving a regular car." It even has heated seats.

A faulty latch mechanism for the rear hatch was fixed under warranty locally at Carbone Ford. They would likely not service unique electrical components. Still, "what I want to convey is: You can do it," said Sperber.

"I remember when Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House roof. And then Ronald Reagan took them off," said Sperber.

The electric car was not killed -- only delayed -- is the sense one has when speaking to Sperber.