To EV or Not To EV: Are You Ready for an Electric Vehicle?

, Senior policy and legal analyst | May 10, 2013, 11:47 am EDT
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Q: I’m interested in buying a new car, and am considering an electric vehicle (EV), but am worried that they are too expensive, or I’m going to run out of battery charge and be stranded. Should I still consider an EV?

A: Absolutely!

Hello world! I am your newly minted blogger from the Union of Concerned Scientists Clean Vehicles program and am thrilled to start providing diligent U.S blog readers – or just those passing by while surfing an internet wave – with unique and creative content related to how people and goods get from point A to point B.

Ask and ye shall receive

How will I provide such unique content? Well, this blog is not only a virtual soapbox for me to inform the public of what’s happening in the world of the UCS Clean Vehicles program, but also exists for me to respond to questions from YOU – the well-informed UCS blog reader.

What are you interested in? What do you want to know more about? I’m here to help and am armed with the content knowledge of my amazing colleagues combined with the over 400,000 UCS members and supporters, and also dual-monitors that I’m not afraid to use. In fact, my IT department strongly encourages I use them, considering I requested an additional monitor every day for a month.

So, without further ado, let’s get the ball rolling with the above question I received from my father-in-law.

Get thee to a charging station!

EV Charging Station

Photo: NCDOT

Many potential electric vehicle (EV) owners are reluctant to dive into the world of running on electricity because of range anxiety, which is the fear of running out of electricity without a 50-mile extension cord to plug into the nearest wall socket. This is a fair point, but it is important to keep in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all EV technology.

Different drivers need different options, and while a battery-electric vehicle (BEV) like the Nissan Leaf might not be the right fit for someone whose daily commute is longer than the Leaf’s driving range, it might be for someone who has a daily drive of 10, 15, or even 50 miles roundtrip (the 2013 Leaf’s driving range is about 75 miles per charge).

If you’re looking for an EV that you can take out of town on a weekend and not worry about plugging in, perhaps a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) like the Chevrolet Volt or plug-in Prius might be a better fit. These vehicles include gasoline engines as well, and operate like regular hybrids after the electricity runs out – thereby alleviating range anxiety while providing the climate and oil saving benefits of a full electric vehicle on shorter trips and the long range of a very efficient hybrid car.

But don’t take it from me. I don’t own an EV, and rely on my trusty, and rusty, 10-speed bicycle, so I asked Ed Lewis, long-time UCS member, ergonomics engineer, and clean energy and transportation advocate living outside Denver who happens to own a Tesla Model S sedan, what it’s actually like to drive a vehicle without an internal combustion engine.

“It’s incredible. I’m driving oil-free, producing no tailpipe emissions and the electric motor has immediate torque as soon as you hit the floor it goes as fast as its gonna go – maybe spinning the tires a little bit.”

Whoa there Ed. Since the Model S can travel up to 265 miles on a single charge, Ed can drive a fair ways in his home state of Colorado without worrying about running out of battery charge – and when he is driving locally he may go weeks without charging at all. On longer trips, Ed uses one of the 5,800 charging stations publicly available around much of the U.S., including those in the Denver area at stores like the Walgreens a mile from his home. These impressive stats are one of the major reasons why Tesla has forecasted its first quarterly profit and Consumer Reports has rated the Model S as the highest performing car – ever.

Put money in thy purse

Now, perhaps the Tesla Model S is too pricey, or you’re not ready for a battery electric vehicle. No worries, there are a plethora of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) on showroom floors today that combine the climate and oil savings benefits of a full electric vehicle with the long range of a super-efficient hybrid car. UCS members Jim and Barbara Peugh decided to go the hybrid route nearly a decade ago by purchasing their first Prius, and recently took their oil savings to a new level by purchasing a plug-in Prius in 2012.

I asked Jim what their new car was like to drive. “For this car, it’s no hassle. If I forget to plug it in I still get 50 mpg, so there’s no loss, no anxiety. And, I’m saving money on gas, and hardly notice the bump in my electricity bill each month.”

Despite often higher sticker prices, battery electric and plug-in hybrid EVs save owners money on fuel costs. For example, a typical midsize battery EV like the Nissan Leaf could save its owner nearly $13,000 on fuel costs compared with a compact gasoline-powered vehicle with average fuel economy and the PHEV Chevy Volt can save owners up to $890 each year even when considering the cost to “fill up” with electricity. Check out how much you could save with the handy chart found on page 21 of the UCS State of Charge report. Now that consumers are realizing the savings and emissions benefits of these vehicles, it’s no wonder why EV sales are charging (a pun!) forward.

Be not afraid of greatness

So, is an EV right for my father-in-law? Well, if he wants to save money on fuel, reduce emissions, and help cut our oil use in half in twenty years – yes! And if an EV is right for him – it can be right for you too.

Ed certainly agrees that EVs are not only ready for mass consumption, but are a historic opportunity – “this isn’t some pie in the sky technology, it’s a solution that is here today and is a key long-term strategy for addressing the high public health, climate, and economic costs of our oil use.” Now isn’t that something we should all invest in?

Have a question for Josh?  Leave one in the comments section below!

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  • Congrats on your excellent article. Yes, it seems EV is the only partial solution on offer, but you still don’t convince me that the cost in CO2 of renewing the entire fleet of vehicles in the world would ever be offset.
    I imagine that it is precisely this potentially huge market that is driving the marketing of EV, and the lack of a money bonanza for the Corporations means that cheaper and greener solutions are ignored.
    For example, all combustion engines can be cheaply converted to run on ammonia fuel, no new engine or vehicle required. Ammonia fuel (NH3) would be cheaper and safer, would produce ZERO CO2 and ZERO air pollution, saving millions of lives, and could be made on the spot with just air, water and renewable electricity.
    To see proof of all this just check out this little blog
    Come on UCS, when will you do a write-up on NH3 fuel?

  • Heather

    Richard – if we can get the EVs together with a smarter grid, and re-use via energy storage – it can be an eloquent solution to not only the post car life batteries, but dealing with grid demands themselves:

    Randy – calculate your oil changes, fluid related anything, transmission related upkeep, brakes (regen brakes in EVs last much longer) and if that doesn’t add up to a new battery over 7-10 years, I don’t know what will. The industrial world has long known that payback on electrical vs mechanical systems is a solid bet for the maintenance alone.

    My only other comment is that while I respect and admire the success Toyota has with Prius, they can’t beat the smooth, quiet, instant torque and driving performance you get with a BEV or EREV. I would have never leased a Volt had the money not made sense (it did, and I’m saving), but it’s the ownership experience that will keep me an EV/EREV customer forever.*

    *Unless they make a mass production car fueled by something even cheaper, cleaner, safer and widely available; or a car that makes me look 10 years younger, gets my kids to behave, cures the common cold, etc.

  • Richard

    I have been a very happy owner of a Prius hybrid since 2008. I smile everytime I go to the gas station and remind myself that I am getting between 40-44 mpg around town.

    I drive a limited number of miles per day. So, an EV is worth considering for a future purchase of mine or my wife’s.

    My question, however, relates to the one about replacing the battery when the time comes and/or when purchasing another car in the future. More specifically, what happens to the old battery once it is no longer serviceable? Can the lithium, etc be re-cycled? Or are the components thrown into a dump somewhere where they can pollute the environment?

    The answer to this question will be a huge factor in determining whether I buy another hybrid or maybe an EV in the future. I have asked it before but not gotten a reply from anyone at UCS. PLEASE reply!

    • Thanks for the note Richard – and great question.

      The Department of Energy has some great info on what components make up the batteries for EVs and gasoline-electric hybrids, and whether those components can be recycled. It turned out that most parts for the lithium-ion and lithium-polymer batteris that are used in today’s PHEVs and BEVs can be recycled.

      Also, companies are getting into the EV battery recycling space, and have started preparing for when an increasing number of vehicle batteries need to be replaced and recycled.

      • Richard

        Thank you, Josh, for a prompt and informative reply. The second link, in particular, offered much helpful and reassuring info about the prospects for recycling, re-using these batteries.

        Thanks, too, to Heather and Randy.

        I am now hopeful that the auto companies and other companies will find ways to make good use of these batteries without them ending up in landfills somewhere. We do NOT need to be doing the latter if it is at all possible!

        My wife and I talk of replacing her current gasoline driven car with a hybrid or an EV. This admittedly probably will not be for a few more years yet at a the minimum. It will be interesting to see what the technology will be like in the future. But now I am more inclined to do so.

  • Mohan Raj

    There are nearly 17,000 EV Charging stations if you all public & private stations.

    And now Bosch has introduced a Level-2 charging station for $450 and may be it will cost $1,000 including installation.
    So don’t worry about the charging station. And never compare an Electric / Plugin vehicle with a regular gasolene vehicle since EVs have much smoother drive.

  • Randy Moore

    Hi Josh,

    I’m completely OK with the numbers you’ve thrown out for savings in fuel expenses; they make perfect sense. But can you speak to the actual savings to an EV owner over the life of the vehicle given the need to eventually replace the (very expensive, from what I hear) battery banks? Do owners pour all of their savings in fuel costs right back into the car in the form of new batteries?


    • Hi Randy.

      Thanks for your comment. The costs of replacement batteries range and, similar to other vehicles, EV owners can incur maintenance costs associated with vehicle components. However, EVs can include warranties that cover batteries. Nissan, for example, just announced an expanded warranty for Leaf’s that will cover the replacement cost for a battery that loses 30% of its capacity within 5 years or 60,000 miles. This warranty is in addition to the existing 100,000 mile warranty Nissan offers that also covers the battery bank.

  • Sam Frommer

    How long does it take for a Tesla or similar BEV to fully charge, if you pull into a Walgreen’s charging station on empty?

    • Thanks for the comment Sam.

      It depends on the type of charger. If you pull up to a facility that has a 480 volt “Supercharger,” a Tesla Model S could gain 150 miles of range in 30 minutes, or a full 300 mile charge in just about an hour. Tesla has a network of these Supercharges stations in California and several throughout the Boston – Washington corridor, and has plans to expand the network further. Check out this charging calculator for how long it would take with a normal 110 volt wall outlet, or higher voltage options.

  • Janet Buchwald

    Thanks for this post. I’m still looking for more answers about the plug-in Prius.
    I’m a loyal Prius owner – still driving my “Classic” 2002 Prius and hoping to replace it in
    a few years with a plug-in. But I understand that currently the plug-in Prius only gets about
    15 miles of range on a charge. Can we expect more range in the future? I’m looking for a car I can take on a road trip!


    • Hi Janet.

      Thanks for your comment. According to EPA, the 2013 plug-in Prius gets 11 miles per charge. While I cannot say for certain whether this range will expand in future models (although I expect it to), I can say for certain that you can still take this car on road trips. Even if you run out of electricity, this Prius will still get about 50 miles to the gallon.