I,ve been teaching in automatic cars since 2006 and moving to the Nissan Leaf electric car I find it has much in common with my previous automatics. Learners notice no difference in driving it and lessons are the same as in a fossil fuelled car, except for the wonderful smooth silence you get with electric cars.
Electric cars are automatic, aren’t they?
The Leaf has things you’d expect from any automatic car. On the drive selector there’s Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive as you would find in any automatic car. Selecting Drive or Reverse makes the car creep along when you release the footbrake. So no rolling back on hills or having to master clutch control as you would in a manual car. Hill starts are a thing of the past.
Electric cars behave just like a conventional automatic car. They are designed this way for familiarity, however, electric cars have no gearbox. Yes, you heard correctly, no gearbox. Electric motors are so powerful they’re connected directly to the car’s wheels. An electric motor will deliver full power the moment it’s turned on. Unlike a piston engine that sucks in air and fuel, ignites it to make a small explosion, coughs out fumes to build up to full power. It then peaks and needs another gear to continue.
With no gearbox in an electric vehicle there’s no need to manufacture a manual electric car. The instant power of an electric motor makes the car quick to move from a standstill. Electric motors are reasonably simple devices and only have one moving part compared to a fossil fuelled engine and gearbox with about 800 moving parts plus oil and coolant. Consequently there’s little to maintain on an electric car.
Automatic driving lessons in the Nissan Leaf are much like any other automatic lessons. The car, while behaving like any other automatic, is an elegantly simple piece of engineering.
It’s been an interesting first week of teaching in my Nissan Leaf electric car. Learners really like driving it and it brings up some interesting thoughts about teaching in EVs and what effect they will have on our roads.
When first encountering the MK1 Leaf Learners are impressed with it’s slightly whacky looks and the high specification interior, it’s the higher Tekna specification with a full leather interior. Turning it on brings up the space age display with lot’s of information about charge and range not seen before in a car and it sings a little tune. The speedo is a large numeric one so easily seen once it’s pointed out. Having come from a hybrid car, my learners are used to silence when pressing the power switch. I don’t really consider it a start button when a motor doesn’t start.
Quick and Quiet
The two things that immediately impress in an EV are the lack of noise and the immediate delivery of power from the electric motor. Learners notice the quietness which makes it a relaxed learning environment, especially for the more nervous pupils. They also notice the immediate delivery of power, some of them like it too much.
Electric motors deliver their maximum power the moment they are turned on unlike internal combustion engines that build up to maximum power sucking in and exploding fuel then progressing through gears. Even in Eco Mode the Leaf is quick to accelerate at urban speeds. 30MPH seems to be reached instantaneously.
Learning in an EV
Learners are driving with low end acceleration in EVs that was only expected in powerful fossil fuelled cars. As driving instructors (I really don’t like the word instructor, so old fashioned, we train and coach now) we have to train learners to deal with the instant power of an electric motor by encouraging more gentle use of the accelerator, especially when moving off.
They need to understand the expectations of the motorists around them and plan for it. The way a learner in an EV drives is different to a learner in a manual fossil fuelled car. Most motorists pulling up in the right hand lane at traffic lights probably expect to pull away ahead of “the learner” and get in front of them. It’s a bad attitude around a vulnerable road user but common. Little do they expect to see the driving school car disappear into the distance before they’ve got their clutch to bite. We need to consider the possible responses of drivers around us.
An EV is so smooth and quiet the sensation of speed can be lost. Both the learner and Instructor need to monitoring the speedo more thoroughly. Over the years I’ve developed an instinct to know roughly how fast a car is going without looking at the speedo. Even in the Hybrid cars where engine noise was minimal and often not directly related to the speed of the car. As instructors we sense the noises and vibrations. EVs have no noise or vibration from the motor, it’s a different training experience.
Within 5 minutes of driving my Leaf from the dealer I knew there was no way I’d go back to a fossil fuelled car. Teaching in the EV is so much better and pupils love the experience as well. I guess I am Electric Instructor now.