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Electric Avenue: Are EVs a good option for your average city driver? Our reporter wanted to find out

“When we get up to this red light,” said Faulkner Nissan of Harrisburg salesman Gavin Winfrey, “I want you to put your foot down. So, that way, you can feel the linear acceleration.”

“By put my foot down, you mean what?”

“I mean put your foot down on the gas,” Winfrey said. Then he corrected himself. “The accelerator.”

“Now?” I asked.


So, I accelerated. And I said, well, a word that’s not used in polite company.

“You weren’t expecting that, were you?”

“No, I was not!” I squealed as the Nissan LEAF practically punched the air with a gentle whir.

This story began on the question, “Is it practical to own an EV if you live in the city?” Many city residents might be ideologically inclined to stop chugging greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but how do they charge up? No driveway. No garage. No charger around the corner. It’s a challenge, even enthusiasts agree.

But my research turned into one big test drive for me. I’ve been thinking about a new car. Will it be an EV? Read on.


Early Adopters

In early 2019, Doug Neidich drove his new Nissan LEAF to Pittsburgh. The trip took 10½ hours. He had time to ponder.

“I wanted to get into this early for the education I received, and when I was in the middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania, two-thirds of the way to Pittsburgh at 11:30 at night, sitting in a Sheetz and waiting for the tow truck to show up, I sat there thinking, ‘Well, I was in this for the education, and I’m getting one,’” said Neidich, the CEO of Harrisburg-based GreenWorks Development.

In Neidich’s defense, part of the learning experience was finding out that his LEAF charged to the European standard instead of the American. Finding a European-standard charger on your travels is “like finding a unicorn in the woods.” By now, he knows where they are and knows to double check that they are, in fact, operational.

For most EV owners today, chargers are popping up like mushrooms after a storm, and apps send them to those appropriate for their vehicles. Winfrey suggests that EV drivers talk to their employers about installing chargers. He also envisions a world where business owners entice customers to charge while they browse—which I noticed at the Neighbors & Smith plaza in Camp Hill.

However, chargers are not ubiquitous. Midtown resident Ryan Unger doesn’t know of any in his neighborhood. He takes his girlfriend’s Volkswagen ID.4 to the charger on 2nd and State streets or to the lineup outside the State Museum on 3rd Street.

Challenges arise. If it’s daytime, there’s parking to pay for—a hefty sum with downtown Harrisburg’s $4-an-hour fee. And while signage designates the spots for EVs only, it doesn’t seem to be enforced.

In fact, notes Neidich, there is a term for internal combustion engine vehicles owners who deliberately hog EV spaces—“ICEing the charger.”

But to all my what-ifs, there are answers. What if I don’t have time to charge? Find a fast charger, and find something to do for an hour or so. What if I’m planning a long trip? Chart out your stops and top off as you go to get through the next stage. What if the chargers are all taken? Rarely happens. What if my flivver breaks down in some remote spot, and I lost the crank handle?

Sorry. Wrong century.

“It’s one of those things where you do have to do your research,” Winfrey said. “If you know someone who has one, pull them aside, and talk to them. Get some tips and tricks. It’s not the same driving experience.”


Democratizing a Charge

Technology leaps forward, notes Andy Daga, CEO of Momentum Dynamics, Malvern. The EV charging stations now appearing are impractical in urban environments for their expense and susceptibility to vandalism and weather, he said.

Daga’s firm has developed automatic charging and is working toward its incorporation into a national charging network. The system uses magnetic induction to transmit power from an inground charging pad to a vehicle above.

In Daga’s vision of “organic charging,” automatic chargers are beneath the surface in parking lots at grocery stores, shopping centers, restaurants and theaters.

“People have vehicles for reasons,” he said. “They go places. Why don’t we put the charging infrastructure in the places where they continually go? Park for 15 minutes or 30 or 60 minutes, and get 100 miles to 150 miles of range extension without spending a moment of your time charging. You won’t even need to think about it. It happens in the background, just like E-ZPass does.”

City dwellers aren’t alone in needing simplified access to charging, Daga said. Rural and suburban dwellers need answers, too—not to mention disabled motorists needing hands-free charging.

“The solution ultimately has to fit everybody’s lifestyle,” he said.

EVs actually have at least one urban advantage. City driving outperforms highway driving in mileage because a car sitting in traffic isn’t tapping into the battery.

“Once you drive an electric vehicle, you will never go back to a gasoline vehicle,” said Neidich.


Charging 101

If you’re “slim on time,” you need a fast charge, which still takes up to an hour for a full charge, said Winfrey. Below that, Level 2 chargers are increasingly available, but a full charge can take many hours. The day Winfrey discovered that the city of Harrisburg has chargers in the City Island parking garage, he plugged in his car “and was walking around taking photos of Harrisburg.”

So, owning an EV makes you stop and smell the roses?

“Oh, yeah,” said Winfrey. “Certainly.”

Many streetside chargers are Level 2, and overnight juicings are frequently mentioned. Even when Unger searches out a fast charger, he still needs to fill the time.

“I’ll just bring my iPad and watch a TV show or read while it charges,” he said.

He added that a viable charging network pumps up the economy.

“It is incumbent to build out that infrastructure if we want to be the location of choice for young professionals and younger residents,” Unger said. “Anything we can have to be more attractive to live in is a positive for us in this region.”

Plugging into a regular, 110-volt home outlet takes days to charge, but home upgrades to Level 2, 240-volt chargers are easy. Seriously. They’re on Amazon for $200. For city dwellers, stringing an extension cord to the street is not recommended, I’m told.

The city communications office didn’t respond to my emailed question about whether a resident could turn a backyard into a driveway for Level 2, at-home plug-ins.

Easier to ask forgiveness, I say.


 Coming Up

Neidich has preregistered for Nissan’s next-gen EV, the 300-mile-range Ariya. Also, he read about an Israeli company promising, by 2024, a battery that gets 100 miles per five minutes of charge.

“When you talk about a city resident who doesn’t have a garage or doesn’t have off-street parking, and doesn’t have availability of a Level 2 charger within walking distance, that’s got to be their answer,” he said. “What they really want is what the world has come to completely take for granted with gasoline-powered vehicles—a quick stop at a fueling station, and, 15 minutes later, they’re in great shape.”

It’s coming in two or three years, he said. The world of EVs “is definitely changing in a hurry.”

And now for my decision. The new-car hungries are hard to deny, but my Nissan Sentra remains fun to drive. Yes, it’s emission-belching, but I’m a fuel-conscious driver. For me, a full charge on an EV could last a couple of weeks. For long trips, my crystal ball sees a convenient, fast-charging infrastructure and longer-range batteries in the near future.

So that’s my decision. In about two years, maybe the stars will align, and I’ll join the EV revolution.

Plus, Daga said, most automakers are committing to upfitting their EVs for automatic charging, which should incentivize progress on that organic experience. And if they’re not around by the time I get my EV, my first trip might be a hop across the river to Neighbors & Smith. Plug in my car, and then sip a One Good Woman coffee while I find a cute sweater at Little Black Dress and matching shoes at Plum Bottom? Yes, please. After all, I’ll doing my part for the environment.


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