There’s been a lot of talk and press coverage about electric vehicles the last few years. Tesla, Elon Musk’s electric car company, has generated huge excitement with it’s sexy, high performance cars, but their price has put them out of reach of most consumers. The Tesla Model 3, to be released in mid-late 2017, hopes to change that however, giving you a 200+ mile range electric car for under $40,000.
Tesla isn’t the only game in town. Chevrolet released their sub-$40k Chevy Bolt at the beginning of 2017, and this compact SUV shaped electric vehicle has won accolades from all the automotive press, setting the standard for high range (200+ miles on a charge) vehicles.
These two are just the start of a flood of EV’s hitting the market. Virtually every auto manufacturer has promised a variety of electric vehicles – great news for consumers, but also potentially confusing.
In this article, I hope to arm you with some useful information so you can decide if an electric vehicle is right for you.
Types of Electric Vehicles
There are several types of electric or electrified vehicles that you’ll hear about. Each has their own benefits and disadvantages. Let’s summarize the common types that you’re most likely going to encounter:
Hybrid or “mild-hybrid” Electric Vehicle
The ‘hybrid’, popularly embodied by the Toyota Prius, has both gas and battery power. Electronics switches between the two engines or combines them, to give better fuel efficiency than a gas-only vehicle. Typically, the battery in a hybrid is relatively small, and is charged when braking (called regenerative braking) and the gas engine. These vehicles are not charged with a plug. The mild-hybrid has an even smaller battery, often just used so that the engine can shut off while waiting in traffic or for very short bursts where the gas engine would run inefficiently.
Think of hybrids as just optimized gas vehicles. You don’t really need to know that you’re driving a car with a battery. You fill it with gas and go, making it suitable for virtually any consumer.
The plug-in hybrid is a transitional electric-gas hybrid vehicle that has a larger battery than a regular hybrid. As the name implies, it also has a plug, so you can charge it at home.
With the plug-in hybrid, you can typically drive around 20 miles on battery power alone, allowing you to do your around-town errands without using a drop of gas. In addition, since they have a normal gas engine, like the hybrid, you can use them on long trips, just stopping for gas as you always have. In this case, it feels just like a normal hybrid vehicle.
The trick with plug-in hybrids is that you have to do your homework carefully as the electric-only range and power vary greatly. For example, some manufacturers severely limit the power in electric only mode. Acceleration of these heavy vehicles as well as top-speed are compromised.
Pure Electric Vehicle (EV)
The ‘true’ electric vehicle has just one power source – the battery (I’m excluding hydrogen fuel cell vehicles from this discussion because they’re so uncommon).
With an electric vehicle, electric motors drive the wheels. There’s no gas tank. No gas engine. Just batteries and an electric motor.
The Tesla represents the best of this type of car. They have large battery packs and exceedingly powerful motors, capable of out-accelerating every normal car on the road.
However, there have been other electric vehicles that manufacturers have been experimenting with over the years. Currently, most of these vehicles have smaller battery packs, providing ranges of 70-120 miles, which has limited their popular appeal. More on this later…
Pros and Cons
Hybrids and Plug-in Hybrids
As noted in the descriptions above, the hybrid automobiles appear to the drive to be just normal cars with better gas mileage. They’ll go as far on a tank of gas as you’ve always gone – typically 350-450 miles. When they run low on gas, you stop at any gas station, fill up in a few minutes and you’re on your way.
Convenience and familiarity, you might think that hybrids are the “perfect” vehicle. However, in my opinion, they’re more of a compromise. While I applaud their ability to drastically cut fuel consumption while providing long range travel, I think for many drivers, they are a poor compromise.
A hybrid is more complex than either a gas car or a pure EV because you have both gas and electric drive trains. They’re a marvel of technology, seamlessly blending power from two different sources. But with complexity comes increased maintenance. You still have to fill up the fuel tank at the gas station and change the oil and transmission fluid but now you have a heavier vehicle with batteries and an electric motor.
There are excellent hybrids on the market. Toyota has virtually perfected them, offering several models. And for the single-car family that wants to take road trips without worrying about charging batteries, they’re great. But for families with two or more cars, which is virtually every suburban household, a hybrid may not be the best option.
Pure Electric Vehicle
The pure electric vehicle is driven by battery power alone. Electric motors drive the wheels, and control electronics sets the speed. No gas. No oil changes. Just electrons, wires and motors. As such, the estimated maintenance cost of the EV is minimal. In fact, it’s so minimal that analysts are predicting that the adoption of EVs will disrupt the automotive repair market. Think of all the motor oil that won’t have to be purchased and disposed of. No more spark plugs or fuel injectors or timing belts. No anti-freeze or radiator. So much of what you consider parts of a car are missing in the electric vehicle.
Electric vehicles also have what is called “instant torque.” Unlike a gas engine, which have a power curve that ramps up to an optimal engine RPM, the electric motor can put out incredible torque at very low speeds. This is why the top-of-the-line Tesla can go 0-60 in 2.3 seconds! Even the new Chevy Bolt, which looks like a humble compact SUV does 0-60 in under 7 seconds! You have to experience it for yourself to appreciate it. You press on the accelerator and the car *goes*. No engine revving. No power lag. Push. Go. Whee!
On the other hand, EVs are relatively new technologies. Mechanics have to be specially trained to work on EVs. The parts aren’t user-serviceable. And, the batteries! Estimates are replacement of batteries will be on the order of $10,000 with a lifespan of 7-10 years. This will change how people think about cars. Who wants to pay a premium for an electric vehicle, then have to pay another $10k later?
And then there’s charging…
Perhaps the biggest consideration about electric vehicles is range and charging. People talk of “range anxiety” – that fear that you’re going to run out of battery power, leaving you stranded by the side of the road. You can’t even walk down the street to a filling station, you have to have the vehicle put on a flat-bed truck and taken to a charging station that is probably many miles away! Yikes!
The truth is, an electric vehicle *does* have to be driven differently. You do have to check your range, and plan your trips. If you don’t want to have to think about driving, then an EV is definitely not for you.
With ranges from 75-300 miles, the amount you have to think varies considerably. For example, I have a Volkswagen e-Golf, that has a range of about 100 miles. Most of my daily driving uses about 10-25 miles or range, so I can go a few days without worrying about charging. But if I’m planning a longer trip (and under 100 miles), I have to think ahead, and top off the charge, which can take a few hours with my 220V charger. Typically, I plug in every night, so that I don’t have to worry about the next day’s trips.
But what if I want to take a trip longer than 100 miles? With that range, and the lack of fast charging stations, I use our other car, with a conventional gas engine. Even if there were fast-charging stations everywhere, with only 100 miles between charges, it would still be too impractical. That’s why the new generation of 200+ miles EVs like the Tesla and the Bolt are such game-changers. If I could go 200+ miles on a charge, then I could drive a few hours, stop for a coffee and pit-stop while charging for 30-60 minutes, then be on my way. That takes me from my home in Pennsylvania to my parents in Massachusetts with one charge in the middle. I still wouldn’t want to drive across the country, but for all my normal road trips, it would be fine.
Back to practicality.
Even though my e-Golf has only 100 miles of range, since we’re a two-car family, it’s not a problem. I absolutely *love* driving the Golf for my local trips. No gas stations. No stinky fumes. No oil changes. Just check drive in my garage and insert the charger, and maybe check the tire pressure and I’m good to go.
Oh, and the cost of running it. As you know, I’m an energy geek. I have solar panels on the roof of the house and I monitor every kilo-Watt hour we use. At an electric cost of $0.15/kWh, it’s cost me about $78 to drive 2000 miles, in mostly local traffic conditions where our normal gas car gets about 25mpg. So driving our normal car would use about 80 gallons of gas in that same 2000 miles. Even if you compare a gas VW Golf, that only gets 25mpg in the city, 36 hwy. So my cost to drive of the e-Golf is about half to 2/3 what it would cost in gas for a normal car. And I’m not wasting time at gas stations.
So, is an electric car for you?
There are many considerations in answering this question, but today, if you are a two-car family, an EV is probably in your future. There is a huge movement to increase the range of EVs, with most manufacturers promising cars in 2018-2020 that will go 200+ miles on a charge. Even without that, you can get an e-Golf or Nissan Leaf today with a range of 100+ miles which is more than ample for all your local driving.
The added benefits of minimal maintenance and smooth electric drive train are great perks that make your car more like a TV, where you just turn it on and drive. After getting my e-Golf, I said to myself “why did I wait so long!”
That said, I changed my thinking about cars. Every other car I had, I bought outright and drove for at least ten years before reselling it. With an electric vehicle, I would only consider leasing it. The technology is new for most manufacturers and there’s the question of the battery life. Plus, the market is changing so fast that there will certainly be amazing new options every few years. So if I would only consider a lease for a new car. OTOH, if you are interested in getting your feet wet, you can buy used EVs for a tiny fraction of their new cost. Nissan Leafs and e-Golfs with plenty of miles left on their batteries can be had for under $10k.
But, an EV may not be for you…yet.
If you do a lot of driving, and don’t want to spend the money on a Tesla, and the Chevy Bolt isn’t your cup of tea, then you’ll probably want to stick with a conventional vehicle. If you’re a contractor and need a truck or have a house full of kids and need a minivan, then you don’t really have any electric options yet. If you don’t want to think about plugging in, then an EV isn’t for you.
It’s an exciting time to be a car buyer. So many new options are becoming available. And every day, it seems like our assumptions are getting overturned. So next time you think about getting a car, look at the options and decide what’s really best for you. The answer may be a surprise. There may be an EV in your future!
EV Efficiency Addendum
One thing I’ve noticed is how confusing the terminology is for electric vehicles. With gas vehicles, it’s really simple in the United States – we just say “it gets xxx miles per gallon.” Easy, right? Higher numbers means more efficiency. In Europe, they say “it uses yyy litres per 100 kilometers” which is the opposite – higher numbers means more consumption. But whatever, it’s a matter of convention.
With electric vehicles, there doesn’t seems to be much consensus on how you rate efficiency. Personally, I think that in the United States, we should stick with a rating that is comparable to MPG, that is, miles per kilowatt-hour. The higher, the better. That’s why, on my spreadsheet, I use that rating.
As you look around the web, you’re going to see a variety of other measurements. On the U.S. EPA’s website, they use MPGe AND kWh per 100 miles, apparently in an attempt to be similar to the European standard.
What exactly is MPGe? I mean, it doesn’t represent anything intuitive for most people. Someone got the brilliant idea that people know what a gallon of gas is, and they know that a car might get 25 mpg, so why not convert gas energy into kilowatt hours then divide that by how far the car could go on a gallon of this gas-equivalent! Brilliant! No, not brilliant, utterly confusing for all but engineers and geeks who can mentally convert the energy contained in gallon of gas into kWh! Anyway, that’s what it is, and we’re stuck with it. But your electric car doesn’t run on gas, it runs on electricity, which is measured in kWh. It boggles the mind.
Since you’re probably stuck with this confusing MPGe standard, all you really need to know is that an efficient EV gets somewhere between 120-140 MPGe, meaning it uses somewhere in the range of 25-30 kWh per hundred miles driven. That’s why the new Chevy Bolt can go somewhat over 200 miles with it’s 60 kWh battery pack. If you see a car with lower than 100 MPGe, well, that’s the equivalent of an SUV in gas mileage. And the Mercedes B250 with its dismal 84 MPGe or the even worse BYD e6 with 72 MPGe? Those would require about a 100 kWh battery pack for any decent range.
Another point of comparison – most homes in the United States use 30-60 kWh per day to operate. That’s for your TV, range, water heater, lights, computers. Everything. So filling up your car with 30 kWh every day is going to increase your electric bill by 50-100%. Sounds bad, doesn’t it?
Fret not. It’s still much less expensive to operate than a gas car. Typically around 1/2 as costly depending on your gas and electric costs. Even that inefficient Mercedes costs less to run than the gas equivalent. The Mercedes costs you about $6 per hundred miles to drive (at $0.15/kWh electric rate). The gas equivalent would use about 4 gallons of gas, costing about $10 where I live. And the relatively efficient e-Golf I drive costs about $4.20.
Thinking EV? Here’s some more references
Comparison of specs of ‘practical’ electric cars – compact utility vehicles / hatchbacks – this is a spreadsheet I worked up while looking for my own EV. The Chevy Bolt is my reference vehicle and remains so. It’s available today. Has 238 mile range. Loads of storage space and has received rave reviews from all quarters. So why am I driving an e-Golf? Because a friend was passing on her lease at a price I couldn’t resist 🙂
electrek – the electric vehicle blog – blog dedicated to EVs started by a geek who has been passionate about EVs since before they were hip.
Green Car Congress – a blog dedicated to various types of energy efficient transportation.
plugincars – a listing of available EVs allowing easy comparison. A great resource for quickly scanning the types of EVs that are on the market.
Google Electric Cars – Google’s search page for electric cars. What you (might be able to) buy today, Google style.
EPA Fuel Economy Comparisons – The United States EPA official website for comparing the relative efficiency of electric vehicles
Definition of MPGe – Wikipedia page with a lengthy discussion of this confusing term.