At Maker Faire, not far from the 3D printers and robotic bartenders, I found Toyota's RAV4 EV. It might have a bit more spit and polish than the typical DIY project at Maker Faire, but it's definitely the result of some art and craft.
The engineers were given two years to shoehorn an all-electric powertrain into this small SUV, one of Toyota's most popular models. Try taking off your underwear without removing your clothes and you'll understand the challenge.
Toyota's RAV4 EV is the car I was looking for in 2007. I wanted a car that used less gas and made less pollution. The Prius was available, but it wasn't quite big enough for what I need to do: carry lots of people, pets, and stuff, all at the same time. My Maker Faire encounter with the RAV4 EV, however, showed me all the reasons why this car didn't exist six years ago and only sort-of exists today.
Tesla made the battery
If anyone knows electric cars, it's Tesla, and the foundation of the RAV4 EV is a Tesla-made, 41.8kWh lithium-ion battery.
In most electric cars, you can see the battery taking up space in the trunk or behind the rear seats. The Toyota RAV4 is known for having a cavernous cargo volume, so any loss there would be disappointing.
The RAV4 EV's battery is built into the floor of the car, so it doesn't take up any interior space that the driver or passengers would experience. The battery's location also lowers the car's center of gravity, which is great for balance and drive quality.
EV bugaboo: range anxiety
Electric vehicles face a huge user hesitation: range anxiety. Everyone worries about draining the battery. Even with apps, finding a charging station involves more planning than finding a gas station. The charging itself takes time, too--you can't just stop, fill up, and keep going.
Every little thing Toyota did to preserve battery life in the RAV4 EV makes a difference. The engineers designed a longer rear spoiler and special side-view mirrors, among other things, to improve aerodynamics, shaving the coefficient of drag from 0.35 to 0.30--the lowest of any SUV in the world, per Toyota.
HVAC systems impose a heavy burden on all-electric systems. In addition to the controls we're used to seeing on other cars, like dual-zone temperature settings and eco modes, Toyota even added a humidity sensor behind the rear-view mirror to help it manage the HVAC more efficiently.
A great car as far as it goes
For all these efforts, the fact remains that the RAV4 EV is a two-ton car (4,032 pounds, to be exact)--470 pounds heavier than the RAV4 V6 upon which it's based. The tested range of the RAV4 EV with its 41kWh battery is approximately 100 miles--fine for most commutes and errands, but a daunting consideration for longer road trips. The 4,647-pound Tesla Model S sedan, by comparison, has a range of 206 miles on its 60kWh battery, and 265 miles on its 85kWh battery.
I still want to try this car and see what it's like for the majority of my daily driving, which can be anywhere from 5 to 50 miles round trip--easy for this car's range. Until recharging electric cars becomes as fast and convenient as filling a gas tank, however, this car is not the one I was looking for six years ago, at least not yet.