When it comes to technology, having the latest gadgets makes you look both smart and cool, but does that strategy work with cars? Automakers say that electric vehicles are the future of the industry, but even with many EVs on the market, they may not be the perfect choice for you.
So first, let’s look at the basics.
WHAT IS AN ELECTRIC VEHICLE?
An electric vehicle ditches the need for gasoline, diesel or any kind of internal combustion engine. Instead they are powered by an electric motor, which is paired to a battery. Just like a gas-tank, an electric battery can run low but an EV doesn’t visit the gas station. Instead they use electricity from the very same grid that powers your home. That means you can plug an electric vehicle into any traditional AC outlet.
However, the speed in which a battery recharges is dependent on the type of charger used. Level 1 chargers are the slowest and use a 120-volt outlet, just like what’s available throughout a house or garage, while level 2 chargers provide more power and faster charges, but use a 240-volt outlet. Many EV buyers purchase a Level 2 charging station for their home in order to enjoy faster recharge times, and automakers encourage this.
Finally, there’s Level 3 charging, which is also called DC Fast charging. This speeds up charging significantly, but Level 3 chargers aren’t available at home and you’ll only find them at dedicated public charging stations.
It’s hard to recommend buyers rely on Level 1 charging since it takes so long. The Nissan Leaf takes about 21 hours to charge a fully depleted battery on Level 1 and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV takes about 22 hours. Even smaller EVs like the Fiat 500e can take up to 24 hours to recharge. The shortest level 1 charge comes with the new Chevrolet Spark EV, which tops up its battery in ‘just’ 17 hours.
Level 2 charging is twice as powerful, so expect charging times to be at least half as long. If you want a quicker level 2 charge, some automakers provide an optional charger that provides a bit more juice to the car. The Nissan Leaf is one example that has multiple Level 2 charging options – a 3.6 kW charger is standard and can charge the car in 7 hours, while the optional 6.6 kW charge can do it in 4.
DC Fast Charging is the quickest, but there are a few caveats when it comes to using it. First, not all EVs support Level 3 charging and some only include the DC fast charge port on higher trim levels. The Nissan Leaf is one vehicle that has to be optioned up to include a DC fast charging port, while some vehicles like the Fiat 500e don’t have the port at all. Additionally, DC fast charging puts quite a bit of strain on the battery components. Essentially you’re charging the battery at 5 times the rate and end up with a lot more heat, which can negatively affect the lifespan of the car’s battery.
Furthermore, there are different standards for DC fast charging, meaning that some DC fast charge stations won’t work with some vehicles. First on the scene is the CHAdeMO system, which is available in most EVs like the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MiEV. Then there’s the new SAE Combo Coupler system, which is now being set as a global standard and is gaining acceptance with a broader spectrum of automakers.
Finally, there’s Tesla’s proprietary set-up, with fast-charging only available at Tesla’s own Supercharger stations. Only Tesla vehicles can charge at supercharger stations.
WHY GO ELECTRIC?
Consumers buy EVs for two main reasons. First, it’s an ideological choice, based on reducing emissions and preserving the environment. Second, it’s an economic choice, with the motivation being reduced fuel bills – usually with the added convenience of not having to take time out of your day to fill-up.
Since EVs don’t have any emissions, they’re considered safer for the environment. Unfortunately, while EVs don’t have harmful greenhouse gas emissions, much of our electrical grid is powered by fossil-fuels like coal.
As for the economic side of the equation, EVs not only eliminate the gas pump from your life, but also make for reduced transportation costs as electricity is far cheaper than gas. There’s a psychological component as well, with buyers feeling as though an EV is a once time purchase, with the cost of “filling up” mentally associated with the utility bill. As an added bonus, since EVs don’t have as many moving parts as a traditional vehicle, they’re usually cheaper to maintain.
There’s even an advantage to those who like to get going in a hurry – electric motors don’t have to rev up like an internal combustion motor. The torque is instantly available from the moment you touch the throttle. They’re responsive, peppy and some would even say fun.
…AND WHY NOT?
However, range on EVs is quite limiting and public charging stations are not nearly as abundant as gas stations. Pair that with the long recharge times and it’s easy to see why an EV isn’t the perfect car the majority of drivers.
Longer trips may exhaust an EVs range and have you searching for public charging stations along your route. This means that EVs are typically ideal for those who dwell mainly in cities where there are shorter commutes and more local charging stations. However, if you live in a condo or apartment, having your own dedicated outlet for charging your vehicle or even a level 2 charging station might not be possible.
BUT DOES IT WORK FOR YOU?
The main draw to electric vehicles is that they don’t need to visit the gas station and you’re not paying outrageous and constantly fluctuating gas prices. How do you know if it works for you? Consider the range of electric vehicles. The Mitsubishi i-MiEV can drive only 62 miles on a single charge and is considered to have the lowest range of all pure EVs out there. Or consider the Tesla Model S can drive 265 miles, depending on the battery you get in the car. These two cars represent the extremes of the market and are priced accordingly.
According to a recent census, American drivers commute, on average, 37 miles a day. That means that even the Mitsubishi i-MiEV should be enough for the average commute. For those not convinced, many EVs on sale today offer more range than the i-MiEVs and on average offer about 76 miles. Specialty EVs like the Tesla Model S and RAV4 EV are among the very few pure-EVs which can get over 100 miles on a single charge.
IS IT WORTH IT?
Recent studies from both the Electric Power Research Institute and the Union of Concerned Scientists have shown that over the lifetime of a vehicle, an EV can be cheaper to own than a conventional gas car. While gas-powered vehicles need maintenance and fuel over their life, EVs are far cheaper to run, even when you take into consideration the cost of electricity.
Still the life-time cost of a vehicle depends on your particular needs as an owner. How long are you intending to own a new car? Electric vehicles tend to have a higher sticker price than a gas powered vehicle, but after a few years of maintenance and fuel costs, the gas model’s running costs will be as much as the EVs purchase price.
Buying an electric vehicle can liberate you from some of the additional costs that come with a gas powered car. About the only added cost is a Level 2 home charging station, which can range from $450 to $900.
On the plus-side there is also hefty cash incentives for EV buyers depending on where you live, making it that much easier to swallow the higher up-front cost.
Unfortunately, not every EV is available to buy. Some vehicles are lease only, like the Honda Fit EV. Fortunately, lease pricing for electric vehicles are quite attractive, with some EVs like the Nissan LEAF costing just $199 a month for 36 months.
If you haven’t looked at buying an EV in the past year, then you’ll be surprised to learn that pricing has come down quite a lot since the introduction of modern electric cars. Most compact electric vehicles now cost about $29,000 before government incentives. That means that with incentives you’re looking at a car that’s about $21,500. Compare that to the price of a fully loaded compact or subcompact gas-powered car and EVs can begin to seem like a pretty good bargain.
LESS LIMITING CHOICES
Electric vehicles are a perfect way to say ‘bye-bye’ to the gas station forever. If you do indeed live in the city and have access to public charging stations and can live within the limited range of an electric vehicle, then you may never need to see a gas pump again. However, those who do have longer commutes and limited access to charging checkpoints will either have to wait for greater advancements in electric vehicle technology or opt for an extended-range electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid.
An extended range EV uses an on-board gas-powered generator to provide electricity to the battery, meaning that in most cases, the gas motor doesn’t power the drive wheels of the car. On the other hand a plug-in hybrid acts like a normal hybrid vehicle, but uses a larger battery which can be charged like any other electric vehicle. Plug-in hybrids are different from traditional hybrids since they can drive on pure electric power for longer and can be recharged from an external source.
Extended-range electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids can operate without plugging them in, thanks to their secondary fuel sources, but that of course means that you’d have to fill them up with gas like every other car. Their average range is 20.4 miles, which is less than the average commute. Fortunately, thanks to that other fuel source, these cars can keep on going. They’re perfect for those who do short commutes regularly, but long-distance trips over the weekends, or on holidays.