Why would I want to buy an electric car?
Those who have driven electric cars extol the benefits of never having to stop at a gas station, of driving for pennies per mile, and of no oil changes. With federal and local tax incentives, some electric cars can be comparable in price to a comparable conventional car—maybe even less. Counting tax incentives in California and those from the IRS, the Nissan Leaf will cost some buyers only $20,280. And the state will allow lone EV drivers access to carpool lanes even after that privilege expires for hybrid drivers this year. Even with those benefits, many EV drivers will be early adopters who buy an electric car to make a statement about their environmental consciousness, to reduce foreign oil consumption, or to have the latest technology.
Are they for real?
Yes. Nissan has announced it will offer the Leaf for retail sales (not just leasing) in a few regional markets starting in December 2010. General Motors has made the same commitment for the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric vehicle. Ford will follow in 2011 with an entirely electric Focus sedan.
Why are automakers building them?
Automakers are investing in electric cars for a variety of reasons, including consumer demand, meeting new fuel-economy requirements, and zero-emissions mandates from California. Also automakers have found that some buyers want cars that express their social consciousness by symbolizing their reluctance to contribute to importing oil from unstable, unsympathetic regimes, anger over gasoline price spikes in 2008, and outrage over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In light of the success of the Toyota Prius with these buyers, electric cars and plug-in hybrids are a logical next step.
How efficient are they?
Electric cars are up to three times as efficient as gasoline-powered cars. That's primarily because electric motors are 90-percent efficient at converting energy into motion, compared to 23 percent for conventional cars to about 30 percent for hybrids and diesels. But considering the energy lost in producing, transmitting, and storing electricity, the real differences are much smaller. But in regions with renewable and clean electric production, electric cars still maintain much of their advantage.
Don't they just shift power production to dirty coal plants?
Power is never free. Today, almost half of America's electricity comes from coal, which generates significantly more emissions than other sources. A 2005 joint study by an electric-utility industry organization and the National Resources Defense council estimates that introducing significant numbers of plug-in hybrids with a range of 20 miles of electric driving on American roads would cut global warming pollution by at least 163 million tons annually. Oil dependence is easier to gauge: An estimate by the Federal Highway Administration is a savings of 550 million gallons a year.
When will electric cars be available?
The Tesla Roadster, a $109,000 electric sports car, has been on the market since 2008, and some independent outfits are selling electric-car conversions today. Small companies currently offer a variety of electric vehicles, such as low-speed neighborhood vehicles and three-wheelers. Starting December, 2010, major automakers will begin to offer pure battery-electric vehicles to the public, and these will be followed by plug-in hybrid models down the road.
What types of electric cars will be available?
There will primarily be three types of electric vehicles:
- All-electric cars that run on batteries and have to be recharged when the batteries run flat.
- Plug-in hybrids that rely on electricity from the wall and a gasoline engine.
- Extended-range electric vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Volt, that are a type of plug-in hybrid that runs purely on electricity, but when the battery depletes, an on-board engine recharges it. The gasoline engine acts only as a charger to provide electricity for longer trips, and it does not drive the wheels.
What models will be available?
The extended-range Chevrolet Volt, all-electric Nissan Leaf, Ford Transit Connect, and Ford Focus will be the first major electric cars on the market. Others from Mitsubishi, Toyota, Honda, and Volkswagen will follow.
Where will they be sold?
Electric vehicles will be sold only in some cities in the United States in the beginning, depending on the automaker. All electric-car manufacturers will sell in California. Some models will also be available in Arizona, Michigan, Tennessee, District of Columbia., Seattle, Portland, Ore., New York City, and Raleigh, N.C., among other places.
How much will they cost?
The first EVs will command a price premium of about $8,000 compared to similar-sized conventional cars. The Chevrolet Volt will cost $41,000, and the Nissan Leaf's sticker will be $32,780. Both are eligible for a $7,500 federal tax rebate in addition to other state and local tax credits.
How much will it cost to charge one?
Electricity rates vary across the country, from a low of 5.61 cents per kilowatt-hour to a high of more than 29 cents in Hawaii. At our test track in Connecticut, we pay the highest rates in the continental United States at 19 cents per kWh.
The cost to charge an electric car depends on your electric rates and the size of the batteries. For a Chevrolet Volt, which has relatively small battery capacity and doesn't rely on them as its sole energy source, charging takes about 10 kWh. So a full charge would cost between 56 cents and $1.70 a day (or $2.90 in Hawaii), which would take you about 40 miles. A Nissan Leaf would cost between $1.25 and $4.50, which will take you up to 100 miles. Charging a Tesla costs much more: $2.65 to $9, but Tesla says you can go 240 miles on that charge.
Paul Eng, a Senior Editor at Consumer Reports who covers electronics, leased a Mini-E for a year and paid an average of about 27 cents per kilowatt hour living in Queens, NY. We compared Paul's total monthly energy cost for driving the Mini with what he would have paid driving a gas-powered Mini Cooper, and we found that his Mini saved about $20 a month in energy costs compared to a gas-powered Mini. But most places have lower electricity costs than Queens. And many utilities, especially in California, where most electric cars are expected to be sold, are developing much lower rate plans for charging in the evening.
Overall, you can expect an electric car to cost about 4 cents a mile to charge at national average electric rates. A conventional car that gets 30 mpg would cost about 9 cents a mile to fuel.
What is an EVSE?
EVSE stands for Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment. Though not technically a charger, it is the box on the wall (or a post in a parking lot) that you plug an electric car into to recharge it. (Electric cars have appropriate chargers built into them.) The EVSE is the part that most people may call a "charger," because it is an accessory that costs extra. For consumers considering an electric vehicle, a Level II EVSE for the garage should cost between $700 and $1,200, plus installation. Installation can more than double that amount, depending on the configuration of your house.
How big a circuit will I need to charge one?
While hybrid models such as the Chevrolet Volt and plug-in Toyota Prius have a built-in charger that can charge the battery overnight on a standard 110-volt household outlet, pure electric cars will require a separate charger that requires at least a 220-volt, 20-amp circuit. Any electric-car charger has to be on a dedicated circuit. Even plug-in hybrids will be much easier to live with if you have a 220-volt charger, which can cut your charge time in half.
How far can I drive one?
Most of the pure electric cars on the way have a range of about 100 miles between charges. Some models, such as the Tesla Model S expected to debut in 2012, will have larger optional batteries that can go up to a claimed 300 miles. Others, such as the Chevrolet Volt and the Fisker Karma will only be able to go short distances (less than 40 miles for the Volt) on electricity, but have gas engines that can carry them farther when the need arises.
What type of charger do I need?
There are three levels of chargers:
- Level 1 is a 110-volt charger that can charge a plug-in hybrid or extended-range electric vehicle overnight, but would take more than 24-hours to charge a pure electric vehicle. They will usually be built into the vehicle and can be used for "opportunity charging" when another type of charger isn't available.
- Level 2 is a 220-volt charger, which most electric-car owners will purchase to charge their cars overnight in their homes. A Level 2 charger can charge a pure electric car such as the Nissan Leaf, Mini-E, or the coming Ford Focus EV in 8 to 10 hours.
- Level 3 is known as fast charging. These chargers will primarily provide direct current at up to 500 volts. Level 3 chargers will be installed in public places and can provide an 80 percent charge to a full electric car in under a half hour.
How much will a charger cost?
- Level 1 chargers are included with all the cars coming on the market.
- Level 2 chargers are expected to cost $800 to $1,200, plus the cost of pulling a dedicated 220-volt outlet to your garage or driveway, which may be significant.
- Level 3 chargers are expected to cost as much as $60,000, and consequently will not be for home use. Malls, restaurants, or parking garages may install them, and they will probably charge by the hour for their use.
Will electric cars work in the winter?
Using the heater, lights, and wiper (or to a lesser degree the air conditioner in the summer) can use up to half the battery's charge. The batteries should have about as much energy in the winter, because they are heated as long the car is charging.
How long will the batteries last?
As batteries wear, their capacity to absorb a charge diminishes. So the range of these electric cars will diminish with age. General Motors and Nissan, the first two companies to introduce electric cars in the United States, are providing battery warranties of eight years or 100,000 miles. In California and 15 other states that follow California emissions laws, GM will have to warranty the batteries to 10 years or 150,000 miles.
Can the batteries catch fire?
They could. But a robust liquid cooling system on the Chevrolet Volt, and new less-flammable materials on all automakers' batteries make them less likely to catch fire than lithium-ion batteries in handheld electronic devices. And they're a lot less volatile than gasoline.
For more on saving fuel, see our guide to fuel economy. To learn about electric cars and other alternative technologies, see our guide to alternative fuels.