5 Ways Rural Drivers Benefit from Electric Vehicles

November 4, 2021 | 3:30 pm
Ford Media Center
Maria Cecilia Pinto de Moura
Senior Vehicles Engineer

An electric lifestyle would be a boon to our rural heartland. Rural drivers stand to benefit the most from switching to an electric vehicle (EV), regardless of the state they live in or the type of vehicle they drive. Rural communities across the country have their own distinguishing characteristics, but certain shared characteristics such as driving distances, the type of vehicles driven, and socio-economics are factors which contribute to this larger potential to benefit from vehicle electrification.

Here are five reasons why rural drivers stand to benefit the most from switching to an EV:

1. Longer driving distances in rural areas lead to larger fuel and maintenance savings when switching to an EV

Fuel savings when a driver switches from a gasoline-powered car to an EV can be up to twice as much as for an urban counterpart making that same switch. Drivers in rural areas often have to drive longer distances to access jobs, medical facilities, schools, and other destinations. In the United States, rural workers travel distances that are on average 38 percent longer than their urban counterparts, while low income rural drivers travel 59 percent more miles.

Average annual fuel savings from switching from a gas-powered vehicle to an EV depend on five factors:

  • Number of miles driven
  • Fuel economy of the gas-powered vehicle
  • Efficiency of the EV
  • Gasoline price
  • Electricity rate where the driver charges

According to the National Housing Travel Survey, in rural areas of the United States average distances driven in one year range from 11,000 to over 16,000 miles. Assuming average fuel economy of the gas-powered vehicle and the efficiency of the EV, and taking into account regional gas and electricity prices, in a 2019 study by UCS we estimated that annual fuel savings in rural areas (with up to 500 residents per square mile) range from several hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars. For instance,  fuel savings in rural areas in Nevada are over $1,000 per year. Fuel savings have recently increased in many states since our 2019 analysis, as gas prices have shot up relative to the more stable electricity prices. For instance, in a recent update of the 2019 study, we found that savings in New Hampshire increased by more than 80 percent, from almost $400 to more than $700 per year, and could be as high as $1,500 per year in North Carolina (see here for state-level EV benefits, and here for details on methodology). By the way, the relative stability of electricity prices relative to gasoline prices is an advantage for most EV drivers.

Part of the reason that EVs are cheaper to operate is that they are roughly three times as efficient as a gas-powered vehicle, and needing less energy to power your car or truck brings down the cost of fuel. An EV converts more than three-quarters of the electrical energy from the power grid to turn the wheels, whereas a gas-powered vehicle only converts about 12 to 30 percent of energy stored in the gasoline into moving the car.   

The longer driving distances and older vehicles in rural areas also means more maintenance, but EVs have significantly lower maintenance costs. One main reason for this is that the battery, the motor and the associated electronics require little or no regular maintenance. An EV drivetrain has about 20 moving parts while conventional internal combustion drivetrains may have up to 2,000 moving parts, so there is more to break. For example, EVs have no motor oil or spark plugs, and brake wear is much reduced because of regenerative breaking.

In one analysis on four states (Maine, Maryland, Vermont, and Virginia), combined fuel and maintenance savings were estimated for rural, suburban and urban drivers.  Depending on how much people drive, what kind of vehicles they own, and fuel and electricity costs, savings in rural households range from $1,900 to $2,800 per year, while for urban households the range is lower, from $1,500 to $2,000. The same analysis on the four states show that, during the lifetime of an EV, these combined savings range from $27,000 to $44,000 in rural areas compared to $22,000 to $31,000 in urban areas.

Bringing clean vehicle technologies to rural areas will not only benefit rural drivers, but it will also benefit rural economies. Savings on fuel and maintenance costs can be significant, so as electric vehicles replace the internal combustion engine on rural roads, there will be more money in consumers’ pockets.

2. Larger and older vehicles in rural areas lead to larger fuel savings when switching to an EV

Rural areas have a higher share of full-size SUVs, pickup trucks and vans than urban areas, and also a higher share of older vehicles. For instance, according to the same analysis mentioned above, in Maryland, 49 percent and 39 percent of vehicles in rural areas and urban areas, respectively, are older than 10 years. Larger and older vehicles are less fuel efficient and so fuel savings from switching to a comparably-sized EV are likely to be even greater for drivers of these vehicles. Many rural households cannot afford newer cars or trucks,  so we need policies to incentivize EV purchases.

3. Many rural drivers are able to charge their vehicles at home

Most EV charging occurs at home, and rural drivers are much more likely to live in single family homes than in multi-unit dwellings, making home charging a convenient option for many rural drivers. For example, in Maine, Virginia and Vermont more than 85 percent of rural households live in single- or two-family homes. People who live in homes with garages or driveways can charge at home from their driveways or garages on a regular 110V/120V outlet.   

The current range of EVs, 200 to 300 miles, is more than sufficient for the vast majority of drivers. In rural areas, defined as areas with population densities of less than 500 residents per square mile, the average trip length in the U.S. ranges from 11 to slightly over 14 miles, while in all regions (rural, suburban and urban) of the country only five percent of trips are  longer than 31 miles.  This means that the vast majority of trips can be taken care of with one overnight charge. A standard 110V/120V household outlet provides two to five miles of charge per hour, while a level 2 charger, requiring a 220V outlet (such as those used for household appliances like ovens and dryers), provides 10 to 30 miles of range per hour, depending on the charger and the EV.

In spite of the greater access to home charging, the lack of publicly accessible charging infrastructure creates a barrier for many households. Efforts are underway around the country to place charging stations in shopping malls, in office garages, and along highways.

4. EVs are becoming more affordable for all, and there are more models to choose from

The availability of all kinds of electric vehicles, in all sizes, shapes and prices, is increasing. Currently there are about 20 models for sale in the US, but the market is expanding rapidly and up to 100 EV models are planned for 2024, including  many SUVs and pick-up trucks. Tesla’s Cybertruck and the electric version of the hugely popular Ford F-150, a pickup truck of particular utility to rural drivers, are scheduled to go into production in 2022. One in every 20 vehicles sold in this country is a Ford F-150, so this new truck has the potential to elevate EVs in the U.S. vehicle market.

Fuel and maintenance savings are important, but the upfront cost of switching to an EV is still high for many families. Currently, a new EV costs more than a comparable conventional gas-powered vehicle, before federal and state incentives. One of the main reasons for this difference is the cost of battery production, but these costs are rapidly coming down.

Particularly with EV purchase incentives decreasing upfront cost, the savings on fuel and maintenance more than make up for the upfront cost of buying a new EV.  In 2020, households with the lowest income in the country spent approximately 16 percent of their income on transportation. There is little variation in this share among income groups, but low income households spend a bigger share of their income on housing and food. Therefore, for these families, transportation costs are a larger share of the money left over after paying the rent or the mortgage and going grocery shopping.

5. Rural drivers rely more on their vehicles than their urban counterparts

Rural residents have limited transportation options and are more reliant on their personally-owned vehicles than urban dwellers.  Also, rural areas have larger shares of elderly people and people with disabilities who are highly dependent on private vehicles. Public transportation has an important role to play in rural areas, but in the vast majority of rural communities these services are still scarce. Owning a vehicle which requires less maintenance and downtime can also be significant, particularly for households that only have access to a single vehicle.

EVs are a proven and reliable technology, and vehicles of any size have excellent performance in any kind of terrain. EVs have instant torque and a very simple transmission system, and therefore have excellent acceleration compared to gas-powered vehicles. The battery is frequently located low down in the vehicle, so the low center of mass makes them very stable, especially going around curves. Drivers often say they are fun to drive.

Policy is needed to increase deployment of EVs

Policy can play an important role in encouraging more widespread and rapid deployment of EVs. Purchase incentives, for example, help bring down the upfront cost of an EV. At the federal level, there is currently a tax incentive that provides up to a $7,500 credit for the purchase of a new EV. Updating this incentive to make it easier for all consumers to take the incentive and creating a new federal incentive for the purchase of used EVs could help improve access to EVs.

In addition to incentives, consumer education and outreach programs are critical. Consumers, and car sales people alike, need to be better informed about available local vehicle choices, and also about the gamut of incentives and subsidies at the various levels – federal and state – and whether or not these benefits are upfront or not.

Installing charging infrastructure in public locations, in all communities, including rural communities, is critical to increasing comfort with EVs and reducing range anxiety. Programs to deploy charging stations are included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the tax credit for installing charging stations will be extended in the Build Back Better Act.  

Finally, we need to see increased investment in domestic manufacturing of EVs, to support local manufacturing communities as plants transition to produce electric vehicles and to make sure that the U.S. maintains a leadership role in auto manufacturing.

Rural communities are especially vulnerable to climate change impacts

Rural communities are especially vulnerable to the extreme events made more intense and more frequent by global warming. Extreme events such as heavy precipitation that causes floods and landslides, hurricanes and wildfires are a threat to communities all over the country, but there are several factors that make rural communities particularly susceptible to these extreme events, such as physical isolation, lack of redundancy in roads, a higher proportion of low income households, and an aging population.

We need to make rural infrastructure more resilient to these ongoing climate impacts, but we also need to think about reducing emissions so as to mitigate future impacts. While rural drivers can enjoy many benefits from electrification, rural communities also stand to benefit from more widespread EV adoption. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by shifting to EVs is an important part of the strategy to address climate change and its impacts. An average EV produces during its lifetime less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of a gasoline-powered vehicle, according to a UCS study. This is still true if the emissions from vehicle manufacturing are taken into account, including battery manufacturing, according to another UCS study. Even in regions where electricity generation is based on fossil fuels, EVs emit less than an equivalent gasoline-powered vehicle.

EVs are beneficial for all drivers

EVs are beneficial for all drivers, but they can be especially beneficial for drivers who live in rural areas because of the larger number of logged miles, and because vehicles in these areas tend to be older and larger.

Likewise, all drivers have a role to play in mitigating climate change, but rural communities have an especially important role to play because of the longer driving distances. When a rural driver switches to an EV from a gasoline-powered vehicle, the longer distances driven with no tailpipe emissions and with lower lifetime emissions translate to larger climate benefits for everybody.

Nonetheless, rural areas are often overlooked in discussions about transportation. We need government at all levels to engage rural communities in these important discussions, and to ensure barriers to electrification are eliminated. Purchase incentives, consumer education, investments in charging infrastructure, and support for domestic EV manufacturing are some of the key strategies that can help move us towards a transportation electrification future.  

This blog was written with extensive input from Anne Clement, a Senior Washington Representative for the Clean Transportation program at the UCS.