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Engineering alum drives electric vehicle into the future

Leffel sets Guinness record by driving 4,400 miles across country without gas

by Elizabeth DePompei

While driving across the country isn’t exactly unheard of, only one person, University of Cincinnati alum Duane Leffel, holds the Guinness World Record for making the journey without using a drop of gasoline.

As a former Nissan executive and proud owner of a Honda Gold Wing motorcycle, Leffel, Eng ’81, never imagined himself driving 4,400 miles from Charleston, S.C., to San Francisco with a group of eco-friendly strangers. But an electric scooter he parked next to at a Tennessee state park four years ago sparked his curiosity and marked the beginning of an unexpected journey.    

“The owner of the scooter came back [to the parking lot], and I was giving her a little bit of a hard time about her tiny scooter compared to my big motorcycle,” Leffel remembers.

The owner was Susan Jones, founder of Xenon Motor Co. and Nashville Scooter Tours, companies that encourage and celebrate the use of electric vehicles. Though seemingly opposites, based on their riding choices, they struck up a conversation and became fast friends.

Eventually, Jones told Leffel about her vision of a record-making, 44-city, 44-day “electric parade” made up of environmentally conscious motorists out to make the world a better, less fossil-fuel-dependent place. “She’s one of those people who wants to save the world from the evils of gas emissions,” Leffel explains.

Though he didn’t consider himself an environmentalist, Leffel figured if there was a difference to be made, he should be a part of it. “If there’s a chance that we really are impacting the earth’s environment as much as scientists believe we are, I want to try to do something for my kids to have the same type of planet that I grew up in,” he says.

Along with his do-good spirit, Leffel was inspired by the challenge of doing something nobody had ever done. Determined to set the record for longest journey by electric vehicle and hoping to make a difference, he retired from his 28-year-long career at Nissan, borrowed an all-electric 2013 Nissan LEAF car from his former employer and buckled up. By July 2013, Leffel and the Nissan LEAF hit the road as starring members of the Ride the Future Tour.

Joining the parade were three other types of vehicles: an electric scooter, an electric motorcycle and an electric bicycle. A three-person film crew and four support personnel also hit the road. Leffel describes each member of the 11-person crew as a unique character and fondly remembers the “young bucks,” the passionate lobbyist and the funny Brit.

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“We were about as disparate a group as you could possibly have,” he says. “But the one thing we had in common was that we wanted to complete this trip. We knew where we had to be at the end of the day, and one way or another, we found a way to get there.”

As the designated route planner, it was Leffel’s job to guide the group to its final destination — Google’s headquarters in San Francisco. He spent months mapping out less-traveled highways and byways to accommodate vehicles that could only reach 25-35 mph.

But the speed limit wasn’t his toughest challenge. “One of the biggest differences about using electric vehicles is that you have to plan better; you have to know where your power source is going to be,” he stresses.

From South Carolina to the Mississippi River, Leffel was able to recharge the LEAF at public charging stations. Beyond the Mississippi, however, power became scarce, and capturing it required a little resourcefulness.

It turns out that hotels could recharge more than just the group’s sleep cycle. Using a special adapter, Leffel plugged his car into outlets that normally powered hotel vending machines and air conditioners.

“Power is everywhere. It’s just a matter of being able to capture it,” Leffel insists, exuding the kind of optimism that helped him along the road less travelled.

Staying charged was necessary to stay on the road and, more important, on the strict timetable Jones set for the tour. Since part of the challenge was that the group had only 44 days to make the cross-country trip, they had to travel about 100 miles every day. When they weren’t traveling, they were usually sleeping, recharging batteries or spreading the word about electric vehicles at public events.

“We had no break time or any down days at all,” Leffel regrets. If he could do it again, he says he would schedule in more downtime.

Near the end of the journey, Leffel turned to the power of the Internet to keep his battery going. Route 1 in California offered beautiful scenery, but lacked the power sources Leffel needed. His digital cry for help turned up a man who had just moved to the area and who happened to own a Nissan LEAF. He contacted Leffel and allowed him to use his personal charging station.

“We showed up, he plugged us in, and we went and had lunch,” Leffel recalls. “He was thrilled to be a part of it.”

"Kick Gas," a feature-length documentary covering the entire journey, will premiere online on Earth Day, April 22, which the public can watch in exchange for a $5 donation. Leffel hopes the film will accelerate public interest and clear up any misconceptions about electric vehicles.

“There’s a lot more potential for electric vehicles than people really give it credit,” he says. “I learned that there is a lot of interest from the general public out there. They just don’t trust it at this point.”

With no major setbacks and a Guinness World Record under the hood, Leffel says the results of the Ride the Future Tour are testament to the viability of electric vehicles.

As the group crossed the finish line, Leffel felt a sense of great accomplishment and a pang of sadness that the journey was over. “We had a good time, there was no doubt about it,” he says. “I made some great friends out of this.”

Back in Nashville where he resides, Leffel is considering his next career move. He says he’d like to get involved with a healthy food franchise or the distribution of electric utility vehicles. As for hitting the road anytime soon?

“I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” he says.

Elizabeth DePompei is a UC journalism student and writing intern with UC Magazine.

Links

More scenes from the electric parade

The group films on a beach at night for the upcoming feature-length documentary about the all-electric journey.
The group makes a stop at the Hoover Dam.
One of the challenges of the Nissan LEAF was making it up steep hills like the one pictured. The more the car had to exhaust energy, the quicker the battery power was depleted.
An old gas station in Texas. Leffel says gas stations weren't always as prevalent as they are today. He describes the electric charging station as the new frontier.
The electric parade travels through California on a two-lane highway.
Ride the Future tour.

- Posted April 8, 2014