Trip to Bird Springs Road in a Nissan Leaf

By Paul Gipe

We’ve been driving our 2015 Nissan Leaf for two months now and it was time to take it on a road trip—a short one, mind you, but one long enough to test our range anxiety.

We set out Monday morning to visit friends on Bird Springs Road, in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Bakersfield. Of course that doesn’t tell one much about the route or the location.

Bird Springs Road is just beyond Granite Station on the road to Woody. You can start to get the picture from the historical place names. In other words, this is not urban or even peri-urban Bakersfield. Yet, it’s only 26 miles (45 km) from our home and theoretically well within the range of a fully-charged Leaf.

Our friends’ home sits on 40 acres (20 ha) at the end of a dirt—not gravel—road at an elevation of 2,000 feet (600 meters) above see level. It’s a place where a GPS will lead you astray if you’re not careful, and take you to a locked gate and a circuitous route eating up your carefully nurtured charge.

That elevation gain will eat up at least “one bar” on the “fuel” gauge, or 1/12 of your charge, according to the pros.

I figured we should get there with 60% charge remaining and, if it was less, charge a little for the drive back.

Now we’ve been driving the Leaf around Bakersfield and I’ve run it down to 10% charge to see what happens. The dash displays various warnings when you hit two bars remaining on the fuel gage. We’d also taken the Leaf out on a 30-mile trip up Round Mountain Road through the oil fields, and it did fine.

But all our previous driving was well within an easy reach of our home charging station.

Bird Springs Road is not within easy reach of Bakersfield. It’s a 45-minute drive one way.

As we began climbing out of Bakersfield, my anxiety steadily increased as the charge began slipping away. I shifted to “Eco” mode and that seemed to help. (We typically don’t drive in Eco mode because it’s basically a drag and no fun at all.)

We were nearing 50% charge when the GPS took us to the proverbial locked gate. We lost a few more percent before we found the right entrance and pulled up to our friends’ house with 51% charge remaining.

It was a beautiful spring day so we took a short hike up to some granite boulders and had a picnic lunch overlooking the San Joaquin Valley, with red-tailed hawks soaring overhead.

In the casual conversation that ensued I learned an important lesson about electric vehicles (EVs). Never assume you can get a charge at your destination without checking first.

Clyde’s a carpenter and when we pulled up I’d seen a heavy-duty extension cord to his outdoor workbench. Ah good, I thought.

It was when we were talking about his trials and tribulations to get the utility to string a line to his house that I learned about the dryer. They don’t have one. They only use a “solar” clothes dryer.

Not to worry, I thought. I am sure he has a dryer outlet. Wrong again. Yes, he has the conduit in place, but since they didn’t plan to use a dryer, Clyde never pulled the wire for the receptacle.

Charging at 240 volts was out. That left the 120-volt extension cord. Trickle charging at 120 volts just didn’t seem to make sense for the few hours we’d be there. We’d only gain a few miles of charge at that voltage. We’d take our chances. Besides, it was all—well, nearly all—downhill to Bakersfield.

We left with some jokes about looking for us along the side of the road the next time they went into town.

Our charge began to ebb away as we climbed the ridge out of Bird Springs Road, but once we reached the summit the charge steadied. Then as we started down the backside we were back up to 51% charge and within a few miles we gained a percent from the regenerative braking. Meanwhile the range indicator—the GOM or Guess-O-Meter to Nissan users—started climbing as the computer recalculated how far we could go at this rate on the remaining charge.

Nancy looked over at the meter and said, “We should be ok.” We began to breathe easier and in a few miles I turned off the Eco mode and began simply to enjoy the drive through the verdant hills.

We picked up some traffic from the shift change in the oil fields and that slowed down our speed, giving us even more range. (Aerodynamic drag is a cubic function of speed and dropping your speed is one sure-fire way of extending your range in an EV.)

When we pulled into our drive, we had 32% charge remaining. We consumed 15.1 kWh over the 57 mile (95 km) round trip for an average efficiency of 3.8 miles/kWh (6.3 km/kWh).

And we had enjoyed a beautiful picnic with friends Lucy and Clyde above the clouds.