Whether an electric car or plug-in hybrid makes sense for an individual doesn't have to be based on gut feeling.
A small company called EV Profiler is trying to take the guesswork out of an electric car decision by creating a multiple-day virtual test drive. A piece of hardware tracks driving patterns, and then an online application generates reports to simulate how an electric vehicle would perform.
The company's business plan is to rent out its in-car device, called a Driving Data Recorder (DDR), to prospective plug-in car buyers, including fleet operators, and to make them available to consumers through dealerships.
Users get a comparison with their current car, showing how much gas or electricity would be used and what the different operating costs are. In the future, the company plans to add an environmental comparison. The simulations initially measure how your driving translates to the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and the 2012 electric Ford Focus, although other plug-in cars are planned.
EV Profiler decided to make its own device because using a location service from something like Google Maps isn't accurate enough to measure speed and position, according to President John Collings. Measuring altitude accurately, in particular, is important because hilly terrain can make big impact on the energy needs of a car.
"This started as an iPhone app but we just couldn't get the accuracy we needed," Collings said. The DDR, which uses the same GPS receiver used in aircraft, also has an accelerometer to measure tilt and minor motion. Overall, he estimates that the device is accurate within 3 percent, plus or minus, and can be improved over time.
The device itself attaches to the windshield with suction cups and plugs into the car's 12-volt port for power. A text is sent every day to the driver's cell phone with the latest results and people can get Web-based reports.
Driving conditions and driving patterns, including how quickly a person accelerates, have a significant impact on the performance of plug-in vehicles. In addition to driving style, very hot or very cold temperatures can degrade the range of batteries. GM, for instance, says the battery-only range of the Volt can be as little as 25 miles with aggressive driving and the heater on--or go as high as 50 miles.
The first buyers of plug-in vehicles are largely EV enthusiasts. But Collings designed the system for mainstream consumers and fleet operators who need tools to learn about the new technology. "So far the most immediate interest has come from fleet managers wanting to back up their intuitions with facts," he said.
The company plans to rent the DDR for $25 a week, or $82 a month. Since it's so new, there is limited inventory; the company plans to have more available in two to three months.
Correction at 7:15 a.m. PT: The accuracy estimate of the Driving Data Recorder has been clarified.