What’s Up with Electric Vehicles?

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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?

Ford C-MAX Energi

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

Electric Car Charger 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.

Charging Point EV Cars CHAdeMO DC Electric Vehicle Charging Station

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

Nissan Leaf

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.


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13 Comments

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  1. PaulScott

    Thank you for a positive EV article, Hannah. Too often, the media parrots the negative outlook on EVs perpetrated surrepticiously by the oil industry.

    All one needs to know regarding the ultimate success of plugin technology is that virtually all of the drivers of these cars consider them to be the best cars they’ve ever owned. Similarly, almost all of the naysayers are people who have never driven a plugin car. This is a very telling statistic.

    Electric vehicles driven on renewable energy are the end game of personal transportation. Whether batteries or ultra capacitors hold the energy, electricity is the energy source of the future.

  2. stuartv

    You might have also mentioned, as was written about recently in the NY Times and on Breitbart.com, that EVs have a largely unrecognized “non-Green” environmental impact.

    According to the Breitbart article, an average conventional vehicle requires 14,000 pounds of carbon emissions to produce, and an average EV requires 30,000 pounds of carbon emissions.

    Also, the carbon emissions produced in the creation of the electricity used to charge an EV can be as much as half the amount produced by a conventional vehicle, on a per-mile basis.

    And, neither article even discussed the additional environmental impact of disposing of an EV versus a conventional vehicle at the end of their respective lifecycles or what the expeted lifetime comparison is. As we should all know, disposing of batteries – particularly, ones with Lithium – is a particularly tough problem. And if an EV has to be replaced twice as often as a comparable conventional vehicle (which will often go 200,000 miles without major malfunctions), that doubles both the problems of the huge carbon footprint of production as well as the disposal/recycling problem.

  3. JustJesse

    @ PaulScott – “Electric vehicles driven on renewable energy”. The electricity used to charge your vehicle has to come from somewhere – more than likely a plant utilizing non-renewable energy sources. What most advocates of electric vehicles fail to realize is though you’re not putting any gas directly into your car, you’re still consuming fossil fuels but in a different way. The same applies to CO2 emissions. Just because there’s nothing coming out of your tailpipe doesn’t mean you don’t produce any of the typical pollutants – it’s simply being left at the plant that produces the electricity to charge your car. Let us also not forget the 400-700 pounds of batteries that are powering your vehicles: How much more energy did it take to produce those versus a conventional gas powered vehicle? What happens when their usable life cycle is over? I’m going more into the “green” aspect of electric vehicles but these are all issues that make EV’s far from being the “end game of personal transportation”

  4. rayorb9

    Why is there not a combination of a battery/small engine package that will run for example at least 50-75 miles and when that battery packs energy is used up, have a small diesel or gas engine say 15-25hp automatically start and would give enough amperage to run the electric motor that would allow the owner to limp to a battery recharge station or home at say 25mph? Something is very lacking when a driver becomes completely stranded. Where is America’s innovation and engineering???

  5. CarlGonyea

    While I have always and still believe that the world needs to remove our dependency on fossil fuels, stating that plugin vehicles, whether they are pure electric or hybrids, are the replacement for “everyone” is perhaps premature.

    I considered purchasing one when I recently bought a new vehicle and I couldn’t justify the additional expense compared to a gas car. Myself and perhaps many other people that live in the real world aren’t going to shell out extra money for a pure electric or hybrid model based on just their principles no matter how well intended their ideals are.

    That aside, where I live and commute and drive I travel more than 50 miles per day typically and there are not charging stations lined up that are known to me or easily accessible enough that would make me consider one even if I could afford the extra money to buy a pure electric car.

    At the same time, while I’m certainly no expert and wouldn’t profess to be one, most of the articles I’ve read never talk about the long term ownership of these cars; why not? For example, at some point the batteries need to be replaced; what does that cost? How long are they realistically expected to last?

    Additionally, what is the added cost to my utility bill when charging these cars at home? Sure, I’m not buying gas at the pump (or potentially not as much with a plug-in hybrid), but what does my local utility provider going to be adding my monthly bill because of my additional usage?

    Again, perhaps I’m asking the questions because myself and other people might just want to know what they’re getting into before making the decision to purchase such a vehicle.

  6. firegriff

    The reason they have not caught on is pure economics. The over all cost of an average electric/Hybred car is double the costs of a standard gas vehicle of the same size. Most people have difficulty purchasing a$25K vehicle and most electrics are $45-50k add to that the hassles of charging and the cost of the power to recharge the vehicle puts them out of reach for the bulk of potential buyers. The cost of purchase added to the cost ownership will never amortize over a similar sized vehicle when the average gas mileage has gone up dramatically. So that is basically “Whats up with electric vehicles”

  7. firegriff

    OH, I forgot that the power company will not be able to supply the power to recharge millions of vehicles being plugged in rather than the thousands that are being plugged in now. To generate the power required for millions of vehicles would just transfer air pollution to the power stations and moving the power generators to Mexico will only move our pollution to another country.

  8. James

    Green cars were killed by the industries which Green cars threaten. EV cars are less hassle to maintain and more economical to use. If setup properly, you can even utilize EV cars with photo-voltaic or win turbine electricity and even use excess energies at home from your car. Despite what tales we are told about the environmental impacts, they are mostly exaggerations to hide the advantages of using them. There are technologies which exist who patent holders prevent from coming to light to protect their interests (Oil) which would make these vehicles more plausible with massively less environmental impacts which they currently state in this article. Cost wise, you cannot compare with hybrid vehicles as electric only vehicles are a fraction of the cost of a combustion powered vehicle; so don’t confuse price increase with hybrids which have both built in!

    How simplistic your mindset is when you do not factor in place energies which are renewable and design the vehicles to “ONLY” use power from the power grid or petroleum mechanical energies. This is not rocket science, Industry is at fault for killing the electrical car, period.

  9. firegriff

    One last comment, Hydrogen is the only alternative fuel it comes from water and returns to water when it is burned.

  10. James

    oh one last thing, in the far north, where there is no wind or sun in the winter, Petroleum is currently the only viable choice.

  11. James

    Hydrogen storage can be more hazardous than gasoline as it can combust without ignition in open air. The energy stored in liquid Hydrogen per volume is smaller than with petroleum per volume, but is cleaner to store energy with Hydrogen than with Lead or Lithium and allows the capability to pipe it to consumers who do not have capability to product massive quantities of it on demand. (Plus no greenhouse effects). Overall, I don’t understand why we don’t utilize this technology today, especially in industries which consume massive amounts of energies (Steel and concrete manufacturing to name a couple)

  12. RHesche

    Problem with hydrogen is the cost of splitting water. I believe we’ve gotten it down to 3:1, that is, three units of energy spent to create one unit of hydrogen energy.
    Then there is the energy needed to compress H2, and the energy needed to liquefy H2. Then there is the transportation of H2/LH2 to dispersion points. It isn’t safe to utilize existing pipelines because of hydrogen embrittlement.
    On site production of H2 may seem a solution, except most electrical power is by hydrocarbon and the energy intensive nature of H2 production would pretty much screw any environmental or hydrocarbon conservation.
    What a perfectly evil circle.

  13. okfoz

    Let us be honest. A New Chevy Cruze, is $17,130, and a new Volt is $39,145, For the difference of $22,015 in Gas for a new Cruze someone could drive 140,000 Miles if they averaged 25 Mpg for the difference in price.