When it comes to electric cars, most people are worried about their limited range and potential repair costs. Instead, they should be concerned about where to plug the cars in. That’s the conclusion of a new study by Consumers Union and the Union of Concerned Scientists, which surveyed 914 adults who own cars in a nationally representative telephone sample.
Of those drivers, 42 percent fit within all the parameters necessary to use a plug-in hybrid vehicle for their transportation needs with few, if any, changes in behavior. Among that group, 60 percent met the criteria to make a pure battery-electric car practical for them.
Typical daily drive
We asked drivers how far they drive in a typical day; how much that amount varies, how often they travel more than 60 miles on a weekend or vacation trip; how many passengers they typically need to carry; and whether they need towing or hauling capacity. We also asked what type of house they live in (single family, duplex, condo, apartment, etc.); where they park (off-street, in a garage, on-street, etc.); and whether they have access to any type of electrical outlet either at home or at work, or both.
We found that even though most drivers don’t need to travel farther than a pure electric car can go on a charge, many can’t take full advantage of a plug-in hybrid car (which uses a gas engine as a backup generator once the charge runs out) because they have no place to routinely plug it in.
Only 52 percent of respondents said they had access to at least an electrical outlet where they park at home. (Of those, 14 percent of respondents reported currently having access to an electric car charger either at home, school, work, or other weekday destination.) A basic household 110-volt outlet is sufficient to charge most plug-in hybrid cars overnight, giving plug-in hybrid ownership a lower hurdle than the requirements to own a pure electric vehicle. Just 4 percent have access to an electric-car charger at work, but not at home.
Most Americans don’t drive farther than a pure electric car can go on a charge. More than half the drivers we surveyed (55 percent) said they drive less than 30 miles a day during the week, and more than three-quarters (76 percent) said they drive less than 60 miles a day.
Even when we added in extra mileage for weekday commutes to address occasional errands—such as running to the store or picking up kids at school—60 percent of respondents had plenty of buffer given the range of today’s typical electric vehicle. When Consumer Reports tested the Nissan Leaf, we got an average of 75 miles on a charge, and at least 60 miles during cold weather—when EV’s are least efficient.
But since longer trips could be a problem for drivers of pure-electric cars, we asked respondents how many cars they have in their household. In total, 64 percent of households reported owning more than one car, which gives them an alternative for making such long trips and makes them better suited to owning an electric car. We also assumed that those who make fewer than six long weekend trips per year could economically rent a car when needed. Of course, there were some (19 percent) of drivers without a second car that routinely took long trips, making them less-than-ideal candidates.