New York Isn't Ready For Electric Cars

After picking up a Hertz Chevy Volt, we found the Big Apple's electric-car infrastructure is still woefully inadequate, and rife with confused parking-lot attendants. Thankfully, the Volt's got a backup engine. With the Nissan Leaf we'd have been screwed.

This past Sunday, Ezra Dyer documented an oil-free weekend with the Nissan Leaf for the New York Times. Only trouble is, he's in Boston, where apparently electric cars are welcomed with fruit baskets and hollowed-out bread loaves filled with clam chowdah. Here, we counted on a big 'ol flask of dinosaur whisky to get us home in time for dinner. This is what happened.

Ray picked the car up at Hertz's rental location on the Upper East Side with just under 30 miles of juice on the Volt's battery (with the heat on), according to the readout. Hertz says driving away in a fully-charged Volt is like getting a free mileage with your rental. Sound like a good deal to us.

New York Isn't Ready For Electric Cars

I live in Southern Westchester, near the Bronx. Ray thinks that means I've got cornfields in my north 40, but it's only 15 miles away. With Ray having burned that first "half a tank" driving out to the boonies, I get on board and learn that the only nearby charge points outside the city limits are 26.8 miles away in Norwalk, Connecticut and 54 miles away in Stony Brook, Long Island. There are no public charge points in Westchester, probably because everyone thinks we all have garages, and aren't hood rats who need public chargers, which many of us are.

The closest electric-car charging station listed on the printout Hertz provided (from ChargePoint) is at 1775 York Avenue in Manhattan. That's a parking lot below a Marriott hotel. It's exactly 15 miles away, and the Volt says we've got 15 miles of juice. Perfect. Let's roll.

New York Isn't Ready For Electric Cars

Damn my lead foot. How can I maintain a properly efficient velocity while gypsy cab drivers and container-truck tweakers are constantly in the hunt for electric car blood? Can't do it. Keeping to 55 mph on the Bruckner Expressway is like trying to slow the earth's rotation by playing tetherball in the opposite direction. So now we're down to 6 miles of charge with 7.9 miles to go. The engine kicks on as we're merging on to the FDR Drive, just two exits from our destination. Foiled!

Not bad, though. We pull into the lot, anticipating a bread orgy at nearby Eli Zabar's Vinegar Factory while the Volt's getting its needed charge. But when we pull up to the lot attendant, he's immediately freaked out. Visibly shaken, even. It's as if we'd asked him to step into our UFO for a round of strip pinochle with Ming the Merciless. He paces around nervously, then goes to make a phone call.

As it turns out, the charging stations in NYC are primarily operated by three service providers, two of which — Beam Charging of Syosset and Car Charging of Florida— have paired up with two of the largest NYC parking-lot operators, respectively, Edison and Icon. Building management company The Glenwood Management Corp, the operator of the York Avenue lot where we're parked, operates two local charging stations.

Soon, the lot manager arrives to help us get the car hooked up. Gene Goldstein, vice president of Glenwood Management says we're the lot's first electric-car customers, and thus the confusion. Glenwood's own electricians installed the charger, a wall-mounted unit by Coulomb Technologies, which also operates ChargePoint, a network of charging stations that comprise the entire NYC public-charging infrastructure. Hertz provided a ChargePoint RFID card that can activate any charger in the network, and charge points are combined into radio groups that communicate locally with one another using a 2.4GHz radio protocol. The car thus plugged by SAE J1772 connector at 240V, we thank everyone and head over to Zabar's.

New York Isn't Ready For Electric Cars

After about an hour we we're back. We unplug and breathlessly boot up the Volt to see how many miles we'd accumulated to go along with the bagles-and-cream-cheese calories we'd racked up at Zabar's. Zero. After an hour we hadn't even scored enough juice to make it across Central Park. Total cost: $22. That's $16 for parking and a $6 charging fee. That and a $12 bagels-and-cream-cheese fee.

Ray drops me off and heads home to his apartment building, where he finds a spot outside. A spot that turns feral at 7:30 am, meaning he's got to vacate it in the morning or else face fines from the NYC parking cartel. He plugs in to a local 120V outlet by way of the Volt's extension cord/adapter and heads off to bed. By the next morning, the charge is only about halfway done, and the traffic cops are circling like special sharks that can suck hundreds of dollars right from your wallet. He speeds off to an Icon-run parking lot at 50th street, where the parking-lot attendant shoos him away. "Come back at 11 am" he says, either referring to when the manager gets in, or when his shift is over so he won't have to deal with the goofy electric sedan.

Andy Kinard, president of Car Charging Group, which services the lot, told me that charge points are designed to be self-service, but that charging-etiquette issues are likely to crop up as people start using the charge points in public places. Training of attendants, he said, is up to the lot management.

Our one-day rental soon over, Ray returns the Volt to the (aptly named) Hertz, happy to have had that "range extender." Perhaps once cranky New Yorkers start gliding into these lots and making a stink, all will right itself in the urban car-charging space. Until then, stay close to home.