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ELECTRIC CARS 101

The guide to all your electric car questions

Plugging in to the reality of EVs

Last updated: August 2015

Tesla Model S P85D

Once a high-tech novelty, electric cars are becoming increasingly common, as several models from mainstream brands have now been sold for years. But most consumers have limited exposure to electric vehicles (commonly referred to as "EVs") and may have many questions regarding whether an electric car might fit into their lives. Some bigger questions may linger, such as whether electrics are here to stay, and even whether electrics really count as cars, when most can’t fulfill the dream of driving anywhere, any time you want, no matter how far. For sure, electric cars are very different from gas-powered cars.

With so many questions, we’ve set up this quick-and-easy guide to provide key answers and help you to determine whether an electric car could fit into your life.

Planning to go electric?

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What models and types are available?

BMW i3

There are currently less than a dozen fully functional, all-electric cars on the market. They include tiny two-seaters, an SUV, and even a high-end luxury car. But most are traditional small five-passenger hatchbacks:

Pure electric vs. plug-in hybrid?

Cadillac ELR

An alternative to traditional, gasoline-fueled cars, EVs run purely on electricity. Other battery-enhanced models, known as plug-in hybrids, are essentially semi-electric cars. Some plug-ins can run solely on electricity, but they all have a gasoline engine, giving them a backup power source. The main difference is that pure electrics are limited by their range and have to be plugged in for hours to replenish their juice.  (Learn more in “Hybrids 101.”)

Several plug-in hybrids are also now on the market or coming soon, including:

Why should I buy an electric car?

Electric cars use far less energy than gasoline-powered cars and cost about a quarter as much as a gas car to run. Electricity costs the equivalent of about $1-a-gallon gas.

  • A typical EV costs about 3 cents per mile to run compared with 8 cents a mile for a Toyota Prius Hybrid based on the national average cost of 11 cents/kWh.
  • EVs produce no tail pipe emissions.
  • EVs are quiet.
  • EVs don’t rely on imported petroleum.  

Why shouldn’t I?

Today's electric cars have three drawbacks that make them impractical as the sole source of transport for many people: a high purchase price, limited range per charge, and, usually, an hours-long recharge time. They work best for people who make only relatively short trips on a given day and who have ready access to a 240-volt battery charger for overnight charging. That usually means home-owners rather than high-rise apartment dwellers.    

While statistics show that 78 percent of American drivers travel less than 40 miles a day, and 90 percent drive less than 50 miles a day, that doesn't mean that 40 or 50 miles is the longest trip those people ever need to make. Anyone who needs to make significantly longer trips even occasionally will run in to an EV's shortcomings. 

An EV could be just right for short commutes and for urban home-owners who want a quiet, pollution-free car for bopping around town. Of course, nothing says an EV has to be somebody's only car. A conventional gas-powered car can fill in where an EV falls short—and vice versa. Likewise, a rented minivan could be an alternative for the annual long-distance road trip.

People who live in inner cities or apartments are also usually not good candidates at this point, because many don’t have dependable access to electrical outlets outdoors or in a garage, nor a place to install an electric-car charger.

And in some urban locations—especially in Connecticut, New York, and a few parts of California—electric utility rates are so high that it can be cheaper overall to drive an efficient hybrid, such as the Toyota Prius.

Also, if you live between the heart of the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic region, your electricity probably comes from coal, so driving an electric car there may not generate much environmental benefit, should that be a primary motivator.

What's the cost to buy?

BMW i8
Photo: Courtesy BMW

Base prices range from $21,750 for the Smart Electric Drive to more than $125,000 for our high-performance Tesla Model S test car. In some cases, that’s thousands more than similarly-sized gas-powered cars. But electric cars (excluding low-speed neighborhood vehicles) are eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit to offset the extra cost. Additional city and state tax credits are available in California, Colorado, Georgia, and elsewhere that can make the costs of electric cars very compelling, especially for consumers with a home solar system.

The most popular electric and plug-in cars are sticker priced at $26,000 to $32,000 before the tax credit. Leases are available for as little as $170 a month (after you sign the tax credit over to the leasing company).

Plug-in hybrids are sticker priced between $30,000 and $75,000, but they have been advertised with lease deals as low as $170 a month.

What's the cost to drive?

We’ve seen pure-electric cars return a little over 3 miles per kilowatt-hour, which gives them a cost to drive of about 3.5 cents per mile (for the Nissan Leaf). For comparison, the 32-mpg Toyota Corolla costs about 12 cents per mile.

Electric cars also require no oil changes and minimal maintenance. Our Annual Auto Survey shows that the low operating costs should offset the cost of buying in just the first year for a Nissan Leaf, for example.

What are they like to drive?

We’ve found most electric cars are smooth and quiet, with instant power from a stop. Most ride well, and despite their heavy batteries, most (though not all) handle respectably. Acceleration at speed tends to be leisurely (with the notable exception of the Tesla Model S); driving enthusiastically just depletes the batteries that much faster, anyway. 

In addition, some EVs have complicated, fussy controls and compromised space inside. Others are simple and straightforward.

How far can they go?

EV range varies from about 60 to 100 miles, although some versions of the expensive Tesla Model S can go a lot further – about 240 miles. Count on range being about 25-percent less than manufacturer claims in the real world. In particular, driving in cold weather will shorten the range noticeably, especially when the heater is used. The headlights, wipers, and defroster can likewise exact a toll.

Gasoline-fueled cars will typically go 350 to 400 miles between fill-ups and take 5 minutes to fill. Driving an EV requires more planning.

How long does it take to charge one?

Charge times vary greatly, depending on the size of the battery and the speed of the charger.

On a typical 240-volt charger, it can take between 4.5 and 6 hours to fully charge a pure-electric vehicle, depending on the car, battery size, and the speed of the charger. (Those figures are based on our test data on Ford Focus EV and the Nissan Leaf, respectively.) But no EV driver wants to experience a completely depleted battery. Plug-in hybrids can take significantly less time to recharge, ranging from an hour and a half charge for the Toyota Prius Plug-in to about 4.5 hours for the Chevrolet Volt.

Expect a little more than double those times when charging from a standard 110-volt household outlet. Put another way, on a standard household outlet, expect to get about four miles of driving for every hour of charging (and twice that on a dedicated 240-volt charger).

A wider variety of 240-volt chargers are coming on the market that charge at different speeds, so some aren’t as fast. Others, such as Tesla’s High Power Wall Connector home charger, ramp-up much faster.

How much do they cost to charge?

BMW X5 plug-in
Photo: BMW

A full charge at the national average rate of 11-cents per kilowatt-hour costs about $3 for a typical, limited-range electric car. Due to their massive battery packs, Teslas can cost as much as four times that. As a rule, in a typical 2,000 square-foot air-conditioned home (without its own solar electricity generation), you can expect to about double your electric bill. That’s still probably far less than you’re spending on gas for a typical car. If you drive the national average mileage, you could expect to pay about $40 a month for electricity for an electric car—less than a single fill-up of gasoline for many cars.

What about home chargers?

Photo: Mercedes-Benz USA

Electric cars achieve the biggest benefits when they’re charged overnight at home when electric rates may decrease. As another benefit, most electric-car drivers say they find it much more convenient to just plug in at home than to have to stop at gas stations.

It’s easy to charge a plug-in hybrid overnight, even on a standard 110-volt household outlet. Fully depleted, pure electric-car batteries can take almost a full day to charge on such low power. Practically speaking, owning a pure EV means installing a 240-volt, Level 2 home charger. These chargers sell for $400 to  $700, depending mainly on amperage and the length of the cable. Installation can run an additional $300 to $500, or more. These units will allow you to charge in less than half the time of a standard wall outlet, or as little as four hours for some electrics. The latest models will charge four times as fast as a home outlet.

Public chargers are being installed in some cities throughout the United States, but their distribution varies widely. Even if there are chargers in your city, it doesn’t make them convenient and some may only charge at 1,500 watts, a slow trickle for a full electric car.

The good news is that the nation has the foundational infrastructure for electric distribution. The problem is just covering the last 50 ft. from the nearest high-powered cable to the car.

Couldn’t electric cars cause a power blackout?

Theoretically, yes, if enough of them were charged during peak times in a local area. But we’re a long way from that in terms of electric-car penetration. And the risk is mitigated by the fact that most people will prefer to do most of their charging at night, when demand on the power grid is much lower.

According to studies by Idaho and Pacific Northwest National Labs, the United States has enough power to charge at least 1 million electric cars at off-peak times, without building a single additional power plant.

Utilities are legally committed to building more infrastructure to meet the demand from electric cars.

Can I buy an electric car near me?

Yes, depending on which model you’re interested in. Some electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, are available in all 50 states. Others are rolling out primarily in California and Oregon, along with a few other states that follow California emissions mandates. Most automakers have plans to eventually market EVs nationwide.

Why electric cars?

The biggest motivators driving the production of electric cars are ending dependence on imported petroleum and reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. 

Nationally and politically, it is largely agreed that the United States needs to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and specifically upon petroleum. Electricity is not a fuel; it is energy produced from a wide array of domestic sources. An increasing percentage of those sources are cleaner than coal or oil, ranging from new natural-gas power plants to increasing wind and solar generation. The power grid in the United States is currently underutilized, having been built for the hottest day of the year. Transportation, particularly charging at night, can utilize that surplus.

Doesn’t the power just come from dirtier coal instead of gasoline?

Some does, but mostly not. About 45 percent of America’s electricity today comes from coal, primarily in the Midwest and around Washington, D.C. But America’s population centers are on the coasts, where electricity production comes from much cleaner sources, such as nuclear and natural gas. Most electric cars are sold in California, which uses no coal and has the cleanest electric grid in the country.

What does the future look like for electric cars?

Volvo XC90 plug-in

Stringent new fuel-economy standards will push automakers to produce increasing numbers of electric cars by the end of this decade. Most will probably be plug-in hybrids. While batteries will remain larger and more expensive than a tank of gas, and will carry less energy, larger-scale adoption is bringing down costs. Breakthroughs in battery technology will drive even lower prices and wider adoption. Also, more public charging options are planned to make charging more accessible.

EVs will eventually transition from being novel second cars in a household to being more primary-use cars, and a wider variety of types of EVs (including SUVs and sports cars) are certain to expand EVs’ appeal.

 

 


   

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