All Revved Up and No Place to Go

The standards for cars to enjoy HOV-lane access get elevated in July, and finding a car that meets them is not an easy process.

I’m on the waiting list for a new car. This is the second time I’ve been through this. The first was back in early 2004, when my prize was a second-generation Prius. I waited less than 90 days and got lucky when some real-housewife-of-Orange-County type returned to the dealer a cute little black model her husband had surprised her with as a holiday gift. After I bought it, I wasted no time in obtaining the coveted “clean air decal” from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which allowed me to travel as a solo driver in the car pool lane. As I worked in both our downtown L.A. and Irvine offices, the car pool lane access was a cherished feature of this vehicle.

But times change. At the end of this month, the yellow clean-air decals expire. This will have the immediate effect, just prior to the July 4th weekend, of expelling something on the order of 60,000 Prius pilots from the golden state’s HOV lanes.

I knew this was coming. When I got the official notice from the DMV about a month ago, I began my new vehicle search in earnest. While I still love the Prius, I continue to work in both offices and loathe the thought of being thrust back into the general freeway population after having behaved like royalty for the past seven years.

Fortunately, there’s a way out of this dilemma. I mentioned above the yellow stickers are expiring, but there’s another color—the rare and elusive white stickers. In the recent past these decals were reserved for natural-gas-powered vehicles and the occasional electric Rav 4 (or equivalent.) Moving forward, this pantheon of commuter purity will include the aforementioned CNG cars (most typically Honda Civics), but also a quartet of all-electric rides that come with official California Air Resources Board blessing. (There’s also the Honda Clarity—a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicle—but only something like four of them exist. Of course, one is in Newport Beach. One has to be hand-picked by Honda and within a tight radius of one of Southern California’s two hydrogen filling stations to qualify for one of these babies.) The battery-powered cars on the table are the Tesla Roadster, Ford’s Norwegian-built Think, the smart electric drive, and the Nissan Leaf.

Just to spare myself the heartbreak, I didn’t even attempt to go through the pretense of driving the Tesla, which at $109,000 is unattainable. The Think is really a glorified neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV), not really designed for freeway travel, and, unimaginably, even smaller than the diminutive Smart Fourtwo, so not a real contender, even if I could find one. Thus the field is narrowed to two candidates—one from Europe and one from Japan.

My wife and I drove both cars. The Smart is fun, and “so cute!” as my spouse likes to remind me, and even comes in a cabriolet model with a power roof that can deploy when in motion, which is pretty cool. On the other hand, it has a top speed of 65 mph; it’s not here yet; they plan to bring over only 250; and being selected to receive one is only slightly more likely than becoming a finalist on American Idol. It’s also pretty expensive, and can only be leased, but over the life of the “beta” lease, the company plans to swap out the car three times as upgrades come on line. Just to hedge, we’re staying on the reservations list.

But for us, the clear winner of this sustainable beauty (and performance) contest is the Nissan Leaf, which is a truly remarkable piece of engineering. The car is roomy, attractive,and has considerably more power than the Smart. Plus it seats four, with some leftover storage space. It is moderately priced and can be purchased rather than just leased. That is, one could be purchased if one were available, which one isn’t. It turns out there’s been a confluence of events that have made these little gems really hard to come by. First, the demand has already exceeded the supply. Then, there’s been a mass exodus of Prius drivers out of the nifty hybrid and into the alt-energy flavor of the month that will get them their stickers back. Finally, of course, there’s the lingering effects of the Asian tsunami that has severely limited production of cars in general, but Japanese cars in particular.

So, following our test drive that sold us on the Leaf, we humbly accepted our position as number 80 on the dealership’s waiting list. Wanting a white one could lengthen the wait. So we’ll wait. Maybe we’ll get a lucky break. In the meantime, I’ll keep enjoying the car pool lane until July 1, then make the best of it thereafter until our ship comes in.

One great answer we got from the dealer really helped curtail my “range anxiety.” I searched in vain for a public-access electric-vehicle charging station within a few blocks of my downtown L.A. office. There aren’t any. (Doesn’t that strike you as just odd?) While it is possible that if I drive in “eco” mode, I could potentially get to my office and back home on a charge (“actual driving results may differ”), it would certainly help my peace of mind to know I could “top off” while I’m at my office. The kind salesman with whom we spoke pointed out that I could charge the car at the downtown L.A. Nissan dealer, which is reasonably close to my office. This means the electric car will really solve my car-pool sticker problem, and I won’t have to fear getting stranded in the city, begging some stranger for access to a 110 socket to obtain a “trickle charge” just to make it home.

I expect the infrastructure for electric vehicles is going to grow rapidly over the next couple of years. Maybe our landlord will even put one in. We’ve been discussing their inclusion in our multifamily projects for a couple of years already, and we’re now starting to see the idea get traction. I’m close to becoming one of those people we’ve talked about—who really begins to make choices based on whether or not I can plug in my car.