It's a welcome, comforting sound – the thrum of an AAA truck as we sit by the roadside, alone in the night, waiting for help. For some southern Californians, though, that sound will be absent. The Automobile Club of Southern California – part of the AAA – has just leased 20 smart fortwo electric vehicles (EV).
"We're going to be exploring and reporting the benefits and challenges of driving electric cars," said Thomas McKernan, the club's CEO. "It will also assist us in establishing roadside services that meet the needs of alternative fuel and electric vehicles."
The tasks these cars will be put to include plain old commuting for some of the club's staff, transport for insurance claims adjusters going out into the field and roadside assistance. This last duty obviously does not include towing any broken-down cars, but there are plenty of other incidences where a smaller vehicle with fewer tools (the Smart EV is already 300 pounds heavier than a gasoline-powered version, so loading one down with a heap of equipment will have a detrimental affect on the car's range).
An example of where an AAA Smart EV can come to the rescue is a lock-out. The club will have a few operatives stationed at sporting events, such as a Dodgers home game, to help members with various minor but no less problematic issues like not being able to get back into their car. There's easily enough storage space in the Smart for a wire hanger.
The car itself has many more plus points. Despite its diminutive footprint, a six-footer will be comfortable, certainly during the amount of time it takes to use up its 90-mile range (the SoCal auto club is working to an 80-mile range, using a "better safe than sorry" approach). A top speed of 62 mph might be less comforting while being buffeted by trucks on the highway. As an urban runabout, though, the Smart works well.
Power (such that it is) comes from a 20-kilowatt electric motor, the equivalent of 26.8 horsepower. But pressing the accelerator pedal even harder actuates a button that delivers another 10 kW for up to two minutes. The lithium-ion batteries come from Tesla and the suspension has been revised to accommodate the extra weight.
The most obvious visual distinctions are the metallic-finish electric green alloy wheels, but the most obvious difference to someone who has driven a regular Smart is the lack of that car's clunky semi-manual transmission. Like most electric vehicles, this one has a single-ratio setup; just put the lever into "D" and forget about it.
The Auto Club of Southern California made its announcement at its headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, stating it had signed up for four years "to find out how reliable they are... what happens when they age," said McKernan. The club also made the cars available for quick test drives. Just getting out of the parking lot presented one challenge, as two pedestrians up ahead, deep in conversation, had no knowledge of the whisper-quiet vehicle coming up behind them. But driving around the streets requires no further adjustments, and knowing the car was not contributing to the city's infamous smog issues is a good feeling.
By leasing 20 vehicles, the club – which has six million members and sometimes deals with 25,000 calls in one day – now has the largest private fleet of Smart EVs in the nation. Smart will be making a further 230 available for other early adopters to lease in 2011 before bringing out the 2012 model, which will have "next-generation technology," according to Smart.