Electric vehicles have been poised to break out for years now, but despite high gas prices, they just can’t seem to make the leap as a mainstream choice for potential auto buyers. In fact, the recent spat between the New York Times and Tesla Motors concerning the outcome of a test drive of the Tesla Model S electric vehicle (EV) and the company’s east coast charging network, as conducted by a Time’s reporter, likely damaged the EV’s general reputation as a reliable and viable gas guzzler alternative.
The “he said, she said” nature of the debate makes it difficult to get an accurate picture of what EVs offer drivers, so TechnologyGuide is going to cut through all that with the EV facts. The quick bottom line, when considering purchasing an electric vehicle there are many aspects potential buyers need to be mindful of; what options for cars are available, how much they cost and how users can charge their vehicles.
What is an Electric Vehicle?
There are two prominent types of electric vehicles (EVs) on the market today, pure electric cars like the Tesla Model S and the Nissan Leaf and plug-in hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt and the Ford C-MAX Energi.
A pure electric vehicle is a car with no engine. It runs on an electric motor and is powered by a battery that must be charged. A plug-in hybrid is an EV with a small gas engine that recharges the car’s battery. The car will run on the electric charge alone until the battery is nearly depleted, then the engine kicks in to charge the battery and allow users to drive farther distances before recharging or refueling.
“The main difference is the hybrid has a small combustible engine that’s hooked up to a generator,” said Paul Scott, a founding member of the EV advocacy group Plug in America. “You’re still running on electricity, but you’re using the oil and engine to create that electricity.” Different models of cars have different ratings for how far they can drive on a single charge, which ranges anywhere from 15 – 265 miles for a pure electric car, and up to 380 miles on a single tank of gas for a plug-in hybrid.
Consumers looking to buy a pure electric vehicle or a plug-in hybrid need to assess their driving patterns and lifestyle to decide if an EV is right for them. Michael Coates, managing editor of Clean Fleet Report, says purchasing an EV is a lifestyle choice, and consumers need to look at their vehicle pattern and living situation to decide if an EV is right for them.
“With any vehicle you need to consider if it’s going to fit your lifestyle,” said Kara Saltness Norwood, director of the Electric Vehicle Information Exchange. “With an electric vehicle in particular, drivers need to consider how they are going to fuel that vehicle.”
Charging an Electric Vehicle
Because electric vehicles run on a battery, they need to be charged in the same way that gas-powered cars need to be refueled at the pump. The difference is that charging an EV can take much longer and charging stations are not as widely available as gas stations are.
There are three different levels of charging available to users. Level 1 charging transfers electricity from a standard household outlet to an EV’s on-board charger, according to a consumer survey report conducted by the Electric Vehicle Information Exchange. Level 2 charging transfers electricity from a 240 volt circuit to the car. The third level of charging is known as DC Fast charging and charges an EV with DC energy from an off-board charger.
Level 1 and Level 2 charging are relatively slow, taking anywhere from 2-10 hours to charge a fully depleted battery, while DC Fast Charging can juice a battery in less than 30 minutes. According to Coates, most of the people buying electric cars are people who can charge them at home, likely utilizing the Level 1 charging. Coates also noted that some car companies have begun including home charging infrastructure with the sale of an EV.
When charging at home, it’s not difficult to plug the car in overnight in the garage and give it the time it needs to charge at Level 1. However, users that live in multi-tenant buildings or rely on street parking often don’t have a place to install a home charging system and need to rely on public charging infrastructure. According to the U.S. Department of Energy there are 5,375 public charging stations available in the U.S. at the time of this writing. Scott notes that public charging is widely available in parts of the country including the West Coast, Washington D.C. and Hawaii, while it’s still developing in other regions.
Coates noted that most public charging stations are free, but many are beginning to charge either based on time or kilowatt hours. “There has been a lot of money put in to expanding public charging, so it’s becoming pretty common,” Coates said. The U.S. Department of Energy has a full list of available charging stations on its website in the Alternative Fuels Data Center.
Availability and Cost
Almost all major car manufacturers sell at least one model of pure electric or plug-in hybrid cars and while prices are going down, EVs are still more expensive than conventional cars, and that cost is one of the reasons large scale adoption of electric vehicles by consumers hasn’t yet taken place, according to Coates.
Electric vehicles range in price, starting around $32,000 to upwards of $50,000. “Manufacturers are looking at ways to make electric vehicles more affordable,” Saltness Norwood said. “When you bring a new vehicle to market, inherently there are a lot of costs associated with that.”
Part of the reason the cost is so high is due to the batteries. According to a report conducted by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California Davis, the estimated cost of the lithium-ion batteries used in EVs is $700 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of capacity. Meaning the 24 KWh battery included in the Nissan Leaf costs $17,500. The report estimates the cost of batteries must fall to about $150 USD per kWh for EVs to be price-competitive with conventional vehicles.
The Future of Electric Vehicles
President Barack Obama set of goal of getting 1 million EVs on the road by 2015 during his State of the Union address in 2011. So EVs are certainly a car tech trend, with everyone from consumers to the President talking about the future of vehicles.
According to the Electric Vehicle Information Exchange Consumer Survey report, which was conducted between July and September of 2012, about 60,000 EVs were leased or purchased in the U.S. between 2010 and October 2012.
While President Obama’s goal may not quite be within reach, some advocates predict all cars on the road will be EVs within a decade or two.
Coates has a bit of a different view, saying, “If that happens, it’s going to be far, far off in the future.” Scott believes that within 40-50 years every car on the road will be an electric vehicle, citing health and environmental damages from use of oil as reasons consumers will make the switch. Either way, the electric vehicle industry is growing, and with more options available to consumers, it is making gains in the automotive market.