Electric car straight talk – Part 1

Thinking about getting an electric car? If so, you’re in luck because I’m here to tell you what it’s like to live with one, and I also dispel some common misconceptions. You’ll get an unbiased view because while I believe the electric car is the future, we’re still away off before the electric car can replace the conventionally powered car. And thank goodness for that. For all the benefits they bring (often overstated), they’re digital appliances that trade emotion for logic. If your name is Spock, you’ll conclude that the benefits of electric cars outweigh the conventional auto. But for the rest of us mere humans the better choice is not so clear.

We leased an electric car about three months ago and have logged 3,600 miles. This is our first time leasing a car and we chose this route because electric cars are evolving much faster than conventional autos, and battery replacement is very expensive so we didn’t want to have to concern ourselves with usage factors that might affect battery life. I expect in 2 years (when our lease is up) there’ll be more options at lower price points and better performance (longer range, shorter charge times, more power, etc.), making the LEAF we purchased today less desirable (like a 1X CD-ROM reader today). Little or no downside if wrong, but lots of upside if right.

Now that I’ve had the opportunity to really learn what it’s like to live with an electric car I’m sharing my thoughts and experiences. My thoughts are opinion (feel free to disagree, I don’t care) and my experiences are my experiences and not open to debate. The goal is get people thinking before jumping in headfirst. I start with some high-level thoughts and takeaways, and then progressively drill deeper.

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The 2013 Nissan LEAF is our first electric car. Most people find them ugly but I like that it looks like an electric car. It’s destined to become an icon like the Porsche 911 is for sports cars.

Common Misconceptions

Two common misconceptions about electric cars are:

  • Electric cars are zero emissions vehicles.
  • Electric cars are cheaper to drive because you don’t have to pay for gas.

If an electric car is zero emissions then call me a vegan because I didn’t kill the cow. The facts are that electric cars require more energy to manufacture than conventional autos, pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere in the process. Also, the primary sources of electricity in the United States are coal and natural gas, both major CO2 producers. In the long run, electric cars probably do result in fewer CO2 emissions (long terms impact of properly recycling remains to be seen) but calling an electric car zero emissions is marketing hype capitalizing on the green movement. More on this later.

Electric cars are significantly more expensive to drive than their gasoline powered equivalents, at least for today. Putting aside emotions of paying $4.00 / gal and doing simple math instead makes this readily apparent. In short, if you’re thinking about buying an electric car to save money then think again. Eventually the scales will tip in favor of the electric car, but I’m willing to bet it’s at least 4 to 5 years out, as gas gets more expensive and electric car manufacturing scales out.

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My favorite thing about owning an electric car is not needing to stop for gas. This scene at the gas station near where I live is not uncommon. Even the Prius owner can’t escape needing to wait to pump.

Things I Like About The Electric Car

  • Not needing to stop for gas. Even though plugging and unplugging is a minor pain in the rear (below), this daily routine doesn’t come close to the inconvenience of needing to stop for gas. Not needing to stop for gas is easily my favorite thing about owning an electric car.
  • Quiet operation. This might come as a surprise to anybody who knows me given my other cars, but for the daily commute to and from work the ultra quiet operation means I can join all the other road zombies by turning my car into a moving office. If you can’t beat ’em, join them. I find myself being much less frustrated with traffic and my mom loves that I call her much more frequently.
  • Smooth acceleration. Electric motors mean no transmission and a flat torque curve. Acceleration in the LEAF is much faster than gas powered economy cars and surprisingly good from 0-30 mph. More often than not I’m way out in front of most cars just a few seconds after the light turns green. Acceleration is best described as smooth and effortless, which makes a conventional auto feel crude by comparison. (Although, sometimes I like crude.)
  • Climate control. Electric cars have electric heaters. This means you can heat up the car before starting your commute, so it’s nice and toasty on those cold winter mornings from the moment you start driving. No more waiting for the engine to warm-up to get heat.
  • Reduces dependency on foreign oil. In my opinion, this is the biggest benefit of the electric car. (As opposed to lower emissions, which is what everybody talks about.) It’s not a tangible benefit as in the case of the other likes, but something we certainly appreciate.
  • The electric motor sound is actually kind of cool. I thought I’d miss the sound of a well tuned exhaust note of a conventional auto, and I was right! (More on this below.) But the barely audible, high pitched whirling sound of the electric motors takes the sting out. It sounds kinda futuristic and I’d happily give some of the quiet operation to get more of this sound.

Electric Car Dislikes and Annoyances

  • Range Anxiety. You’ll find yourself watching the charge level a lot more closely than your fuel gauge. Charge stations are still few and far between, and it takes a lot longer to charge-up than to fill-up with gasoline. In short, you need to plan your trips more carefully and running low on charge feels like running low on fuel when you’re in the middle of nowhere. Hence the term ‘range anxiety’. When’s the last time you let the fuel gauge in your conventional auto dictate where and when you drive? With the electric car, it happens.
  • Charge stations. About one year ago, my workplace had electric car charge stations installed. Up until about 3 months ago (shortly after we got our electric car) they were almost always free. Nowadays, they’re almost always in use. Fortunately, I live near enough to work that I don’t normally need them but it’s annoying that I cannot grab a charge during the day when I do. A fellow co-worker of mine requires a charge to get home and often needs to work later than he normally would to get some charge time after normal work hours when the charge hogs are gone.
  • Forgetting to plug-in and unplug. It happens. You forget to plug-in after unloading the groceries so you start the day with less charge than usual. On the opposite end, you’re in a hurry and forget to unplug. You buckle on in and press the ON button only to be notified you need to unplug. Annoying.
  • This might be LEAF specific, but it takes about 3 seconds for all systems go after pressing the ON button. Sounds like nothing on paper, but it’s annoying when you’re in a rush to get someplace. It’s odd to me that an IC powered car can start up in a fraction of a second, and an electric car takes seconds.
  • The electric car has no soul. It’s an A-to-B transportation appliance. If your idea of the perfect car is a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, then driving cars is not your thing. Your emotions are set aside as you let an Excel spreadsheet drive your purchase decision. But if the sound of a Ferrari driving by stirs your soul then you’ll likely agree that the electric car has no soul.

Is the Electric Car Right for You?

The electric car is not suitable for everybody and you should think critically about fit for you by asking the following questions prior to lease or purchase:

  • On average, how many miles do I drive per day?
  • How many miles can I go on a single charge? (Varies by vehicle)
  • How long is required to recharge?
  • What’s the availability of charge stations in my area?
  • How much money am I saving or loosing by going with an electric car?
  • What’s my primary motivation for considering an electric car?

The best advice I can give someone thinking about an electric car is to approach it as though charge stations are for emergency use only. If your daily routine has you dependent on them then you’re destined for frustration. Charge stations are still few and far between and Murphy’s law says the one you’re counting on will be occupied when you need it most. They’re also virtually non-existent in rural areas.

I average 35 miles per day going to work and back, including going out to lunch, running errands on the way home, etc. I average around 70 miles on a full charge, so I have plenty of headroom for those days where I drive outside of my daily routine. Most of my charging is done at home where it’s always available (and cheapest). We have our conventional (and much more fun to drive) autos for long trips and weekend drives, or as back-up for when the LEAF is low on charge. For all of these reasons, range is a non-issue. We most definitely would not want to own a LEAF as our only vehicle.

Electric cars take a lot longer to recharge than a fill-up at the gas station. How long it takes to charge depends on the vehicle and charge station. Using a standard 110v wall outlet, the Nissan LEAF takes about 20 hours to recharge. This is called Level 1 charging. You can significantly cut down the charge time by installing a Level 2 charger at home, which draws 220v. Using a Level 2 charger, the Nissan LEAF takes 4-6 hours to fully recharge. Much better but it will cost you around $2k to have one installed. Most charge stations are Level 2. There’s also DC fast charging which draws 440v and charges a LEAF in about 30 minutes! Unless your last name is Gates, having a DC fast charger installed at home is out of the question. In the Seattle area I’ve only seen them at some Fred Meyer stores. You can arrive empty and leave with a full charge in the time it takes to do your grocery shopping. It’ll cost you $5 if you’re a member of the Blink network ($8 for non-members). As mentioned, I rarely use charge stations and I’ve only needed to DC charge once. At home we Level 1 charge. At 35 mi / day average the car is only 50% charge depleted when we get home and takes about 10 hours to fully recharge — plenty of time before we head out for work the next day. It’s simply not worth it for us to spend money to have a Level 2 charger installed.

Finally, be sure to check your reasons for considering an electric car against the facts. Don’t expect unbiased objectivity from the manufacturer, sales persons, or electric car special interest websites. Electric cars are not the panacea these groups will have you believe. That said, we purchased one because it makes a lot of sense for where we live and how we use it.  Overall, we love the car and are driving it right at the limits of what our lease allows (12,000 mi / year) — twice what we initially anticipated. Also, we are all fortunate to be living in a time where we can experience both the conventional auto and the electric car. The single biggest factor in my wanting to get an electric car was to experience one first-hand instead of watching a revolution unfold from the sidelines.

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If you’re not close to your destination this scene is bound to make you anxious. Even if a charge station is nearby, who wants to spend an hour or so bumping up the charge level to complete the trip? (Unless you’re lucky enough to be near a DC fast charge station, which are very few and far between.) In this case, I was very close to home. Once the charge gets this low, the LEAF stops projecting miles remaining and shows the three (3) dashes instead.

If you’re not close to your destination this scene is bound to make you anxious. Even if a charge station is nearby, who wants to spend an hour or so bumping up the charge level to complete the trip? (Unless you’re lucky enough to be near a DC fast charge station, which are very few and far between.) In this case, I was very close to home. Once the charge gets this low, the LEAF stops projecting miles remaining and shows the three (3) dashes instead.

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Over the Christmas break, I was doing a lot more driving than usual. It was one of the few cases in which I actually needed a charge. Unfortunately, two gas powered SUVs decided say ‘fuck you’ to electric car owners by parking in the only two DC fast charge station slots. I needed to get creative. This was the second time in a week that this has happened to me.

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Six months ago, these two charge station slots where I work were almost always available. Today, they’re almost never available during normal working hours. The drivers who rely on these spots monitor their phone apps throughout the day waiting for a slot to become open so they can race downstairs and grab a slot as soon as one becomes available. Fortunately I don’t rely on using charge stations for my normal driving routine, but it’s annoying that I can’t get a charge bump when the occasional need arises. These two cars are parked here regularly, so I can only assume that they’re dependent on charge stations. In my opinion, they would have been better off with a high mileage conventional auto instead of having their cars run their life.

Tesla Model S

Some readers are bound to point out that you can get a Tesla Model S with a 200-300 mile range, depending on model and how driven. Certainly this will address a lot of the range related challenges outlined above. It’s also priced outside the range of the average person. They are very cool cars but I can’t see paying $100K for a $50K car — my opinion. It’s just a matter of time before market forces and technology advances drive prices down where high range electric cars are more financially accessible . For now, I don’t consider the Tesla Model S an economically sensible alternative to the conventional auto.

Cost: Electric vs. Gas

There are good reasons to get an electric car, but saving money isn’t one of them — at least not today. Electric cars cost more than similar conventionally powered cars because they’re more expensive to build. Think of the extra cost as the tax paid to buy electric. Federal and state incentives help take the sting out, but they don’t cover the difference. We benefited from the following at signing when we leased our LEAF:

  • Federal tax credit ($7,500)
  • No sales tax in WA state (10% savings)
  • Nissan factory rebate on the LEAF

Your mileage may vary depending on when you buy and where you live.

Together, these incentives brought the LEAF down to around $20k USD (base model w/ quick charge option).  By comparison, I could have purchased a Nissan Versa for about $14K.  So — ignoring all other factors — I need to drive the LEAF 60,000 miles before breaking even, based on the Versa getting 35mpg and fuel at $3.50 /gal. That’s a lot of miles!

I also mentioned other factors, which can be significant. Electricity is not free. An obvious statement but easily overlooked because — unlike a gas pump — there’s no meter at home indicating how much you paid to ‘fill-up’ your electric car. The cost for electricity to drive the LEAF is approximately $0.03/mile. Taking this into account the break even point bumps to around 80,000 miles, assuming always charged at home using a 110v Level 1 charger.

The time required to fully charge the LEAF using a Level 1 charger is about 20 hours. In other words, a really long time! For me this is not an issue because I average 35 miles / day — or about 1/2  range on a full charge for the LEAF — so overnight is adequate time to leave me with a full charge each morning. For those planning to drive more or who intend to use the LEAF as their only vehicle a Level 2 charger is advisable. It requires a 220V power supply, costs about $2,000 installed, and will fully charge the LEAF in about 4 hours. For those needing a Level 2 charger installed at home the break even point to bumps further to around 100,000 miles.

The $0.03/mile figure mentioned above is assuming you charge at home. If you live in a large metropolitan area, you’ve probably seen charge stations popping up at malls, grocery stores, and maybe even at your workplace. Just like a gas station, they enable you to top off your car’s energy supply so you can keep on driving. In general, these charge stations exist to make money and you’re going to pay more for electricity plugging into them than at home. For example, Blink usage is based on an hourly charge rate and you’ll get charged for an hour even if you only charged for 20 minutes. It’s important that these network exist and I treat them as emergency use only. If I had to rely on them daily, it would be stressful. More on this later. For now, just understand that heavy reliance on charge stations is going to further push out the break even point of buying an electric over gas car if your goal is to save money.

In summary, if your only motivation for buying an electric car is to save money at the pump then you’re better off sticking with a gas powered car. In the case of a Nissan LEAF, you’ll need to drive on the order of 100,000 miles just to break even and this is ignoring other factors such battery pack replacement which is a very real possibility at this many miles. For some cars like the Tesla, you’ll likely never reclaim the difference in price.

Environmental

Zero Emission Vehicle. Think again. It sounds really great, and what a great marketing campaign. Drive a LEAF and save the world from global warming. In the long run, electric cars probably are better for the environment than the conventional auto but I don’t think anybody can conclusively state this to be true until the long-term impact of battery manufacturing, disposal, and re-manufacturing is factored in. But for now, let’s assume none of this matters.

Electric cars require electricity to run. Most electricity in the US is produced by CO2 generating coal and natural gas plants. Even Washington state — where I live and which has the benefit of a disproportional large percentage of hydroelectric power — relies on power generated from coal and natural gas. With this in mind, claiming an electric car to be zero emissions is false advertising.

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The process of converting coal and natural gas into electricity is a major source of CO2 production. If you think driving your electric car produces zero emissions think again. Source: US Department of Energy. 2012.

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The Zero Emission vehicle badge was developed in the marketing department to capitalize on the green movement. Electric cars produce CO2 emissions just like conventional autos. The only difference is they emit from the stacks at plants used to generate electricity instead of at the the tailpipe. It’s just a matter of upstream versus downstream. In truth, the ‘Zero Emission’ badge should be replaced by ‘Lower Emission’.

Well-to-wheels. This is the term used when evaluating the true cost of an energy source has in automotive applications. It considers the entire energy conversion and distribution pipeline starting with extracting it from the ground (or wind, solar, hydro) to propelling the car forward.  It takes into account power generation, conversion, transmission, storage, motor and battery inefficiencies, etc. The following table from the US Department of Energy (DOE) compares projected well-to-wheel CO2 emissions for cars in 2035. For comparison, they also include a 2012 gasoline powered car. I would have been great if they included a 2012 electric car because the table leaves us guessing about how gasoline compares to electric today; however, it’s fair to say electric will continue to improve just as gasoline does so certainly a significant and non-zero value. The full report can be found here.

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Something often overlooked when talking about electric cars and hybrids is the detrimental factors that they introduce environmentally speaking, as compared to conventional gas powered cars. The CO2 emissions required to manufacture and electric (or hybrid) car over twice that for the conventional auto. So just like the added cost of an electric car, you’ll need to drive a lot of miles to just to break even with the petrol car in terms of <em>real</em> CO2 emissions. That is, cost to manufacture and drive the car.

To learn about my experiences after a couple years of electric car ownership, continue on to Part 2 of this topic.

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