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Electric Cars: Eight Important Things Everyone Should Know (But May Not)

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Polar Charging Post and Nissan Leaf

Polar Charging Post and Nissan Leaf

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Sometime in the next few weeks, the 100,000th plug-in electric car will be sold in the U.S.

But they're still mostly a mystery to the average new-car buyer, and there are a few key principles that get shared over and over again.

Here they are, boiled down for easy consumption: eight things you need to know about electric cars.

(1) Electric cars cost more to buy than gasoline cars of the same size.

The least expensive plug-in electric car on the market, the 2013 Smart ForTwo Electric Drive, costs twice as much as the entry-level gasoline ForTwo.

A 2013 Nissan Leaf electric car starts at $28,800 (before incentives), while a similarly-sized Sentra starts at $15,990.

(2) Electric cars cost a lot less per mile to operate.

If you pay $4 a gallon for gasoline, a 25-mpg gas car needs $16 in fuel every 100 miles. An electric car uses 75 cents to $6.50 in electricity to cover that same 100 miles, depending on your local rate per kilowatt-hour

(3) Some plug-in cars have engines as well; some don't.

When people say "electric car," they often think of pure battery-electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf or Tesla Model S.

But there's another category of cars that have both a plug to recharge a battery pack from the wall and an engine as well. Sometimes they're adapted from hybrids--that's the path taken by Ford, Honda, and Toyota--and other times they are dedicated vehicles, like the Chevrolet Volt.

Most owners of those cars make every effort to drive as many miles as possible on electric power alone--but they have the security of knowing their car won't be immobile at the side of the road--unless they both deplete the battery and run out of gas.

(4) Electric cars are much nicer to drive than you think.

We're pretty much past the, "Oh, they're all golf carts" stage. But a lot of drivers don't (yet) know that electric cars are very quiet (no engine or transmission noises when running on battery power), as well as surprisingly torquey.

2011 Chevrolet Volt plugged into Coulomb Technologies 240V wall charging unit

2011 Chevrolet Volt plugged into Coulomb Technologies 240V wall charging unit

Enlarge Photo

Their motors produce maximum output from 0 rpm, so acceleration away from a stop is strong and smooth. Drivers like that.

And the fact that electric cars are a nicer driving experience may be their secret weapon once they arrive in volume.

(5) Range anxiety abates.

It's entirely normal for drivers to worry as they see the number of available miles on a battery electric car ticking down toward zero.

But as experienced electric-car owners will tell you, in general you drive fewer miles each day than you think--and over time, you get comfortable that a fully charged electric car really can deliver that number of miles, reliably, over and over and over.

(6) Temperature matters.

Electric-car batteries, like people, are happiest at temperatures of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Extreme heat--as in Phoenix, Arizona, where summer road surfaces can reach 150 degrees--and extreme cold (as in the northern third of the U.S. and most of Canada) can reduce range.

Add to that energy-sucking heaters (or, to a lesser extent, air conditioning) and you can reduce your range by a third in very cold weather.

Luckily, California is expected to buy more plug-in electric cars than the next five states combined--and that state has weather that's pretty close to perfect for electric cars much of the year.

Electric power plant outside Ithaca, New York

Electric power plant outside Ithaca, New York

Enlarge Photo

(7) Yes, there is a long tailpipe--but electric cars emit less.

This isn't the place to go through the math, but two separate studies have shown that driving a mile on grid power emits less carbon dioxide than a mile in a 25-mpg car.

And in many states, it's even better than a mile in a 50-mpg Toyota Prius hybrid--the most fuel-efficient car sold today.

(8) Yes, you can take them through car washes just fine; deep puddles, too.

Chevrolet even produced a video showing the water trough test it performs on the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car to ensure its electric systems stay neatly sealed against any water incursion.

What other questions do you have about electric cars? Or important advice that you want to share with the broader universe of car buyers?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.

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Comments (45)
  1. I've been wondering about the deep water tests for an all-electric like the Leaf. With no intake and a completely enclosed electrical drivetrain, is the only issue of deep water the exposure of the electrical accessories?
     
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  2. Re:
    #2) Include a calculator for a prospective buyer to factor in their mileage. Here's what I pieced together during my search:

    https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B-T9bXGQsvVhcTBJYWhaZTNKRmc/edit?usp=sharing

    #5) Numerous factors at work here. Just a few points prior to hitting the 750 char limit
    a. 1 car household? - pure electric may not be viable
    b. Fixed commute or various daily mileage - PHEV vs pure electric decision points

    #6) Wind matters. 20 MPH head wind will affect your range almost as much as cold weather.

    The best advice I offer to folks is to plan for a 30% range buffer.
     
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  3. You can always rent a car for longer road trips - and wind can also affect ICE propelled cars.
     
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  4. Drive behind something big like a truck (not too close though) and you'll eliminate the head wind factor completely. In fact you might even get more range than driving on your own with no head wind!
     
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  5. Good boil down, except in the cost point #1, a quick sentence about the fed and local tax incentives might help someone new to the concept of electric. Those combined incentives vary state to state, but for some can be over $10K I believe.
    Thanks for all you work in this area.
     
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  6. There's one exception to the electric-cars-cost-more rule: the Tesla Model S.

    The $60-$100K price tag for a Model S (depending on battery size, performance level, and options) is virtually the same as comparable cars. The closest ICE-powered analog to the Model S is probably the Audi A7, which starts at 60K. A high-performance version, the S7, loaded, goes for about 90K. The even-higher-performance RS7, due this fall, is expected to run about $100 K. So the price correlation with the Tesla is almost perfect.

    When people ask me what the payback period is for my model S, I tell them it's zero. Compared to an A7, I start saving money on Day One. After five years, I've saved $9,000 in fuel costs.
     
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  7. Tesla S is the ONLY BEV that has shattered all EV myth...
     
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  8. I kept waiting for you to say that there are so few check-ups and maintenance - only fluid is for the windshield.
     
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  9. that, and tire rotation. :)
     
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  10. Brakes and the cooling system - AC service eventually too.
     
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  11. I've been wondering why the nicer driving experience hasn't been played up more in the marketing. When I test drove a Volt I was blown away by the difference.
     
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  12. 9. Once you drive an electric car, you will not want to drive and ICE car again.

    My family is getting sick of hearing me say "God I love this car!" over and over again everyday while I drive it.

    I'm not into cars. I actually hate them. The are depreciating assets. They are just tools to get a job done like a lawnmower. (OK, I do love my John Deere rider mower too) But the Volt makes me look forward to driving.
     
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  13. Come to think of it, if John Deere makes a rider mower that is as quite and smooth as the Volt, I'll be the first in line to buy it, wife permitting.
     
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  14. Catepillar is working on a "hybrid" earth mover... :)
     
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  15. Came here to say the same thing. I love driving my Volt and hated driving as well as cars.
     
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  16. There is a common sense way to mitigate the cost premium associated with an EV. Invest in rooftop solar and save enough to pay for your EV

    * Size your solar system to zero out your electricity bill including the energy for your EV
    * Monthly gas savings can be applied to your EV payment
    * Electricity cost offset by rooftop solar can be applied to your EV payment
    * Electric Vehicle "cost to own" savings which include lower depreciation and lower repair and maintenance costs can be applied to your EV payment

    In this time of low interest rates a $20,000 investment in the bank will get you less than $200 / year in interest. However that same amount invested in rooftop solar can pay for your environmentally friendly EV.
     
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  17. Absolutely! In this low interest environment, green energy makes even more sense as the opportunity cost of the intitial funding is so low. There is NO reason NOT to do it.
     
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  18. I don't know... Some of the reasons may include the lack of funds for the majority of the Americans. We're the third world country if you look at the bottom half, the medical services that are available (or can be afforded), the living standards, level of education, and nutrition. Those solar panels and electric cars are as removed from their reality as for those living in Zimbabwe.
     
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  19. The lower half of the population also use less energy on a per capita base. So, the top half of the population should at least reduce their energy consumption or increase the efficiency to the point where they consume less on per capita basis...
     
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  20. Also, Solar City has "solar leasing" that requires $0 down and $0. You pay as you go with the solar energy produced and its rate is similar to what power company is charging (at least in CA).
     
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  21. What a time to be renting! No solar options for me...
     
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  22. Wait a minute: FIRST you have to pay back the loan for the cost of the solar panels- THEN, after the panels are paid for, you will have your "savings"- which may or may not occur before the panels wear out! (what is the life span of solar panels? Twenty years? Thirty?).
     
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  23. In California, the panels pay for themselves in 5-6 years. If you are saving money on gas as well as utility power, you can cut this payback period in half. Solar panels have a 25-year power output guarantee and a 30+ year expected lifetime.
     
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  24. Michael, it seems to me that you're double-counting the savings there.

    Your solar panels will generate X kWh per year, whether you have an electric car or not.

    Likewise, switching to an electric or plug-in hybrid will save you Y gallons of gas per year, whether you have solar panels or not. And the Y gallons you save will cost you at least something in increased electricity to charge the vehicle. Your solar panels are already saving you X -- but that savings doesn't increase when you then use more electricity to charge your car.

    So, no, the payback period of the panels is not accelerated by purchasing an electric car.
     
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  25. My Solar panels will pay for itself in 6 years with 14 years of life guaranteed left.

    Solar panels tend to degrade about 0.5% per year in output. In 20 years, it will reduce its outputs by 10%.
     
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  26. My solar panels came with a 25 year guarantee.

    But that might be difficult to enforce since the solar panel manufacturer is no longer in business :(
     
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  27. typically, the panels rarely fail and if they do, you can usually replace them on per panel base and the newer panels are usually cheaper and more efficient.

    The inverters, on the other hand is another topic. Enphase is good (based in Petaluma, CA).
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  28. I always have heard that your maintenance is so much lower on an EV because of the lack of and engine and transmission.

    That leave me wondering how that bodes for me as the owner of a Volt. It still has an engine (that's barely used). As to the transmission, I have o clue how that thing works. All I can say is the whole car is so awesome that I'll take whatever comes my way.
     
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  29. The Chevy Volt does still need to be serviced a couple times a year, because it has both battery and engine. The Volt is designed to kick over and run the engine as part of self maintenance from time to time, to make sure oil and gas don't just sit. I have sold several Volt's and the technicians and service writers I work with recommend at least twice a year check oil, etc. *Another cool feature about the Volt is that because the electric mode is so quiet, if you open the hood to check anything, the engine switches to gas so you can hear it is on! Amazing cars!
     
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  30. Despite what your service people seem to think, the Volt does NOT need "two service checks a year." Perhaps to keep THEIR jobs, they would like to have Volt drivers pay foepr such service time, but most of my Volt friends are seeing their "service display reminders" asking for service such as oil changes at around 30,000 miles!
     
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  31. Let me rephrase, service/oil change is recommended every 7500 miles you put on the gas engine. The point is that there is still maintenance, it is much less, as you know.
     
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  32. For most Volt owners 7500 miles of gas operation takes more than 2 years to accumulate. The life expectancy of oil if not degraded by engine use is appx 2 years. There is no other maintenance on the Volt. I would like to know what things need to be checked by a service dept twice a year. Brakes? -nope, regenerative braking. Filters? -nope engine not running. For the record we own 2 Volts. 12k miles on mine and OLM says 67% oil life remaining. It would be much higher had I not driven the car from PA to FL and back in Jan.
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  33. Steven --

    "Brakes? -nope, regenerative braking."

    Not so fast. The Volt has friction brakes like any other car, and absolutely needs and uses them for safe braking. The regenerative system certainly reduces their use, but doesn't eliminate them.
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  34. My Volt is driven 80% electric, so every 2 years for the oil change. The "friction brakes" ONLY get used when I "slam" on the brakes & or from about 5mph to Zero. I sometimes go more than a week without slamming the brakes. I suspect I'll be selling this car in 5 to 8 years with the original brake pads.
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  35. I change my oil on my Volt once per year with synthetic. But since most of my miles are electric, once per year oil change is plenty.

    If you drive 80% electric, then by the time you have 100k miles, your engine is only 20k miles old... Still don't need much maintainence at that point.

    Transmission on the Volt doesn't need any service that I know of.
     
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  36. It appears as if more than 100,000 car owners all over the planet cannot be wrong. I am in Paris, France and I see electric cars and bicycles all over town to include their charging stations. These are vehicles from a service. You pay for what you use. EXCELLENT. I see on in my future.
     
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  37. The eye opener for me was perusing the maintenance manual at the dealership when we were buying our Leaf. You rotate the tires every 7500 miles and change the brake fluid every 15,000. Other then inspecting other stuff for abnormal wear that's about it. Even the brakes should last nearly for ever because of the regenerative braking. Over the life of the car, that's a big deal, in reduced cost, convenience, and improved reliability. Looking under the hood is impressive too, compared to modern ICE cars, it's another stark statement about the relative simplicity of the technology.
     
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  38. The cooling systems needs to be serviced after 10 (or is it 15?) years too :)
     
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  39. I'm all for PEV but,have an issue with technology being ahead of infrastucture(lack of charging stations in middle america).
     
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  40. That is why I bought a Volt.
     
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  41. The only "infrastructure" really needed for an EV is being able to charge where the vehicle is regularly parked, ideally home, although work/school could be alternatives.
    Even a stupid 120V outlet works, although it's slow (~50 miles for 10h of charging).

    Public charging is only needed to add miles en route; such stations are becoming more common, see e.g.
    http://www.plugshare.com/
    http://www.recargo.com/

    Note that regular charging (240VAC aka level-2) only 'refills' at 12~25 miles/hour.
    For vehicles supporting it, currently the Nissan Leaf, Tesla S and Mitsubishi i but more have been announced, quick-charging (400+VDC aka level-3 or DCQC) can add 2.5~5 miles/minute and is therefore a more practical way to extend range.
     
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  42. If only all electric cars looked like a telsa s, or a 2014 mazda 6 (which for an ice car is pretty aerodynamic) which is a next car, it's just again price needs to drop more. and hopefully in the future no more coal powered power plants.
     
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  43. My house was built with car charging infrastructure in mind. I park it in the garage, I find the 110Volt outlet that was obviously put there 20 years ago with electric cars in mind, plug in & voila, next morning a fully charged Volt!
     
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  44. which I hope that mazda will make a electric version and it handles fantastically.
     
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  45. EVs are safer than ICE too. A battery is not as dangerous as a tank full of gasoline, and the battery pack structure adds rigidity to the frame. I know there has been a lot of fear mongering regarding exploding batteries and such, but that is just our glorious leaders way of stalling what their true bosses want them to defend. That being the status quo and the money that the politically connected industries make off us now.
     
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