Five Real-World Facts About Electric Cars

  1. Electric cars have arrived, but the pace of adoption will be slow.
  2. There are several different types of cars that plug in, and their electric ranges vary.
  3. In the early years, most charging will be done in garages attached to private homes.
  4. You have to consider where and how you use your car(s) if you consider buying electric.
  5. Electric cars are cheaper to “fuel” per mile than gasoline cars, and they have a lower carbon footprint too—even on dirty grids.

by John Voelcker, via the Rocky Mountain Institute

(1) Electric cars have arrived, but the pace of adoption will be slow.

Last year, roughly 17,000 plug-in cars were sold in the United States—more than were sold in any year since the very early 1900s. But to put that number in perspective, total sales in 2011 were 13 million vehicles, meaning that plug-in cars represented just one-tenth of 1 percent. Sales this year will likely be double or triple that number, but it remains a stretch to reach President Obama’s goal of 1 million plug-ins on U.S. roads by 2015.

Both the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt sold more units last year than the Toyota Prius did in 2000, its first year on the U.S. market. But 12 years after hybrids arrived in the U.S., they now make up just 2 to 3 percent of annual sales—and about 1 percent of global vehicle production.

Automakers are understandably cautious when committing hundreds of millions of dollars to new vehicles and technologies. They worry that a lack of public charging infrastructure will make potential buyers reluctant to take the chance on an electric car. Moreover, each factory to build automotive lithium-ion cells—an electric-car battery pack uses dozens or hundreds of them—costs $100 to $200 million. Battery companies will only build those factories if they have contracts in from automakers, who will only sign contracts to boost production if they can sell tens of thousands of electric cars a year in the first few years.

Eight to 10 years from now, most analysts expect plug-ins to be roughly where hybrids are today: 1 to 2 percent of global production, with highest sales in the most affluent car markets (Japan, the U.S., and some European regions). That translates to perhaps 1 million plug-in cars a year. There are, by the way, about 1 billion vehicles on the planet now.

The adoption of increasingly strict U.S. corporate average fuel-economy rules through 2025, however, will spur production of electric vehicles. And California has just passed rules that require sales of rising numbers of zero-emission vehicles, on top of the Federal regulations.

(2) There are several different types of cars that plug in, and their electric ranges vary.

The two main plug-in cars that went on sale last year, the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, use somewhat different technologies, and this year will see a third variation arrive, the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid. Each works slightly differently, and their electric ranges vary considerably, roughly proportional to the size of their battery packs.

The Nissan Leaf is a “pure” battery electric vehicle. It has a 24-kilowatt-hour battery pack (it uses 20 kWh) that delivers electricity to the motor that powers the front wheels for 60 to 100 miles. That’s it. On the plus side, this is the simplest setup of all, and battery electrics require very little servicing beyond tires and wiper blades. On the minus side, if the driver is foolish enough to deplete the battery—the car makes strenuous efforts to warn against this—the car is essentially dead until it can be recharged.

The Chevrolet Volt is a range-extended electric vehicle. It has a 16-kWh battery pack (of which it uses about 10 kWh) that powers an electric drive motor for 25 to 40 miles. Once the pack is depleted, a gasoline “range extender” engine switches on, not to power the wheels but to turn a generator to make more electricity to power the drive motor that makes the car go. The 9-gallon gas tank provides about 300 more miles of range, and the Volt can run in this mode indefinitely. But 78 percent of U.S. vehicles cover less than 40 miles a day, so many Volts that are plugged in nightly may never use a drop of gasoline.

Finally, the new plug-in Prius is known as a plug-in hybrid. It too has an electric drive motor and a gasoline engine, and its 4-kWh battery pack gives 9 to 15 miles of electric range. But like all hybrids, the gasoline engine switches on whenever maximum power is needed, so even if the battery pack is fully charged, those fast uphill on-ramp merges mean the engine will fire up for maximum power. Toyota says that if it’s plugged after each trip, many drivers can cover more than half their mileage on electric power.

Today, all three cars cost $35,000 to $40,000 before tax incentives. That’s up to twice as much as a gasoline car of the same size. And each one has pros and cons. The Leaf has the longest electric range, and will never emit a single pollutant. The Volt offers the quiet, quick pleasure of driving electric, but with unlimited range. And the Prius Plug-In brings low charging time and higher electric range to the familiar, trusted Prius range.

(3) In the early years, most charging will be done in garages attached to private homes.

There will soon be more public charging stations than there are gas stations in the U.S. That’s a little deceptive, since most gas stations have a dozen or so pumps, while the electric-car charging stations have one or two cables. But it points out the relatively low cost and fast installation pace of charging stations, aided in some cases by Federal incentives.

Nonetheless, ask any automaker and they will tell you they expect the bulk of electric-car recharging to occur overnight at charging stations installed in garages attached to private homes. And electric utilities very much want that to happen as well. Charging overnight, during their period of lowest demand, has many advantages: It can stabilize the distribution system, and it represents new demand and new business for them. Many utilities are launching rate plans that incentivize overnight charging, to discourage daytime charging that might occur when the load from factories, home air conditioners, and the like is highest.

Another unknown is whether and how much electric-car drivers will expect to pay for public charging. At 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, it costs about $2 to fully charge a Nissan Leaf for 70 to 100 miles. But 2 hours of charging, or 20 to 25 miles’ worth, takes less than a dollar of electricity. So what will drivers pay? A buck? Five bucks? The market will tell us, in time.

In the end, public charging is likely to be like public WiFi. In some places, it’ll be provided free as an amenity (think big-box stores who’d love to trade 50 cents of electricity for the opportunity to keep you in their building for a couple of hours). In others, providers will mark up the power and owners will pay for the convenience (think pricey city-center parking lots that charge $25 or more a day).

But early adopters of electric cars will already have navigated local zoning codes, home wiring changes, and contractor visits to get their own 240-Volt “Level 2” charging stations installed. Owners can get their electric cars to remind them—via text message or e-mail—if they forget to plug in to recharge at night. Soon, plugging in the car may be just as unremarkable as plugging in a mobile phone every night.

(4) You have to consider where and how you use your car(s) if you consider buying electric.

Plug-in cars are not for everyone. They still cost more than the gasoline competition, though their running costs are far lower. And the limited range of battery electric cars may make them impractical for households with only a single vehicle. Range-extended electrics and plug-in hybrids solve that problem, but the complexity of two powertrains plus the pricey battery pack makes them more costly than regular hybrids.

Potential buyers should consider two factors: range and climate. If the miles you cover each day in your car are highly variable, electric cars may cause more “range anxiety” than if you commute the same predictable daily distance. If you drive much more than 60 miles round-trip during a day, a battery electric like the Leaf won’t do it.

And the range of an electric car falls significantly in cold weather. Hybrid owners in cold climates already know their gas mileage goes down each winter; electric cars exhibit the same pattern. Batteries are pretty much like humans; they like to live around 70 degrees. If it’s a lot colder, they’re simply not able to deliver as much power. Worse, it takes a lot of battery energy to heat the cabin in winter—though a bit less to run seat heaters, which is how electric car designers try to keep occupants comfortable without having to warm up the entire interior.

In early years, most plug-ins will likely be sold to affluent buyers who have two or three cars in the household. And a disproportionate number of them will live in California. By some estimates, sales of electric cars within California will total those of the next five states put together.

(5) Electric cars are cheaper to “fuel” per than gasoline cars, and they have a lower carbon footprint too—even on dirty grids.

Retail car buyers act irrationally. Often, we more car than we really need, and we also put too much weight on initial purchase price—or the monthly payment—and not enough on the total cost of ownership, including maintenance and fuel cost.

Fleet buyers, on the other hand, are hard-nosed spreadsheet jockeys. They’ll pay more up front for a car if they save money over its entire lifetime. And electric cars can be a fleet buyer’s dream. Battery electric cars require almost no maintenance—tires and wiper blades are about it. Even brake pads and disks last far longer, because the car is slowed largely by “regenerative braking,” or the resistance provided when the electric motor is used as a generator to recharge the battery pack.

Best of all, they’re incredibly cheap to run on a per-mile basis. Electricity costs from 3 to 25 cents per kilowatt-hour in the U.S., but at 10 cents per kWh, fully charging a Nissan Leaf for 70 to 100 miles costs a little more than $2. Those 100 miles would cost $12 in gasoline in a conventional car that gets 33 mpg, with gas at $4 a gallon. Over 10,000 miles a year, that could be $1,000 in savings. Nissan warranties its battery pack for 8 years or 100,000 miles, so you might be looking at savings of close to $8,000 in fuel costs, plus the lower lifetime maintenance cost. Does that make up for the price differential between a Leaf and a regular compact car? Not completely. But knock off the $7,500 Federal tax credit, and you get closer. Many states, localities, and corporations offer additional incentives as well.

Ten years hence, lithium-ion cells will likely cost about half what they do today. Gasoline cars, on the other hand, will be more expensive in real dollars due to the cost of more efficient gasoline engines. Those gasoline cars will get better fuel economy, but battery costs are likely to fall faster (6 to 8 percent a year) than fuel economy will rise (3 to 5 percent).

Then there’s the environmental argument. A well-respected 2007 study done jointly by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) analyzed the “wells-to-wheels” carbon emissions of driving a mile on gasoline versus driving that same mile using grid electricity. Against a 25-mpg car, an electric car was lower in carbon even if it were recharged on the nation’s dirtiest grids, using almost entirely coal power.

Up the ante to a 50-mpg car (e.g. today’s Toyota Prius), and on a few of those dirty grids, the carbon profile of 1 mile on gasoline in a Prius is slightly lower than on grid electricity. But in coastal states whose grids are relatively cleaner, electric cars are a win on emissions and greenhouse gases against any gasoline car at all.

John Voelcker is the editor of Green Car Reports. This piece was originally published at the Rocky Mountain Institute and was reprinted with permission.

16 Responses to Five Real-World Facts About Electric Cars

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Once somebody test an electric vehicle he is in most cases positively surprised about the experience and would consider buying an electric driven car.

    Let’s say goodbye to cancer causing gas fumes…

  2. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    I think you will be very surprised by the rate of penetration of electric vehicles. We are well past peak oil and the supply restrictions will inevitably push up the price of oil.

    At a dollar a gallon, plugging in each night is an unbearable pain in the rear. When fuel goes to ten dollars a gallon, I can happily plug a car in every night.

    For that once a year road trip, a hired car will be the go. That is if there are not sufficient recharging stations.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    The 105 g/km figure is a little low by this standard, which says that at current US grid it’s actually 140. It’s even with a hybrid car.

    Incidentally, new hybrid buses emit on average 1,250 g/km. So if your bus has 9 people on it or more, you’re beating the electric car.

    (Of course, this is pointless in the long run because if the grid doesn’t go zero-carbon in the next 30 years then pinching gas pennies won’t matter as much. On the other hand, buses and trains can go electric, too.)

  4. Ken Barrows says:

    Super. But in the big picture, is this really going to have much of an impact on climate change? How about fewer cars?

  5. Lily says:

    No mention at all of the Tesla Model S? Tesla is an entirely new car company with no vested interest in the Oil Industry. It is a safe bet they will be far more aggressive about getting their electric cars into the hands of drivers than traditional gas engine car companies.

  6. tisfolly says:

    Thanks for the great article! There are a couple of things that I would like to mention and possibly get some feedback on.

    The first is interchangeable batteries. I’ve seen this idea put forward before but have not heard much about since. If all electric vehicles used the same basic power cells it would be possible to have exchange stations much like we do now for propane tanks. I can see a lot of benefits to this type of system including lower manufacturing costs for the batteries themselves and eliminating the long turn around time necessary for traditional charging stations. Reducing both the cost and inconvenience of owning an electric vehicle would help make them a viable option for a larger group of drivers.

    The other is solar charging stations. With the availability of photovoltaic fabrics it should be possible to create portable chargers that could be placed in the windows and plugged into the auxiliary port to charge the batteries while the car is sitting in a parking lot. Even if there isn’t time for a full charge it could extend the usable range by a few miles. That could be enough to make these cars practical for people who otherwise would not be able to take advantage of them.

  7. Felix Kramer says:

    Excellent summary! Now more people are having the opportunity to talk to an EV driver to hear how great the cars are!
    My only quibble is when you say they cost “up to twice as much as a gasoline car of the same size.”. Compare features, driveability, etc. Match up Volt, for instance, not to a same-size cruz, but to a BMW in quality! Leaf is much more car than a Versa.

  8. SecularAnimist says:

    “Eight to 10 years from now, most analysts expect plug-ins to be roughly where hybrids are today: 1 to 2 percent of global production, with highest sales in the most affluent car markets (Japan, the U.S., and some European regions).”

    Two comments:

    First, how might these expectations change in light of IBM’s lithium-air battery technology, which IBM expects to have in full commercial production within 8 years, giving pure battery-electric cars a range of 500 miles per charge, with less expensive, smaller and lighter batteries?

    Second, the electric cars available today are specifically designed for “affluent markets”. The Leaf and the Volt, for example, would be high-tech, high-end, near-luxury-class cars for rich people whether or not they were electric.

    But that’s not the only way to approach making an electric car. It’s not hard to imagine a cheap, battery-powered version of the Tata Nano, for example, designed and mass-produced specifically for the Indian and Chinese markets. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which ultra-compact, cheap, limited-range electric cars in developing country markets lead the way in replacing combustion-powered cars, rather than following the rich nations.

  9. JP White says:

    Great article, addressing many key points in a well balanced and comprehensive manner.

    I’d like to see more discussion on the effect quick charging technologies will have in liberating the EV driver from his/her immediate surroundings and allow intercity travel. Just a few quick chargers in Tennessee have made possible 120 mile journeys possible where previously I would have taken the gas car instead.

  10. AFAYOL says:

    Please RMI and Climate Progress,
    you forget one type of EV: electro-solar EV, i.e. EV on which you install 1000Wp of solar panels on the top (5m2 of PV) and that are still plugin: just DIY as I did in France!

    – solar panels increase the strength of your EV body: PV minimal guaranty is to resist to 25mm hail stones falling at 23meter per second (i.e. more than 80km/HR!)

    – good quality commercial solar panels harvest some light even when it is raining (these PVs are dual: silicium and amorphous)!

    – solar panels increase your range by at least 30% and increase Lithium battery life by at least 30% too.

    Actually with my 1000Wp of solar panels on my EV top (5m2 of PV) I travel between 5000km to more than 10000km per year only by sun power (depending of the driving mode)!

    If we are serious with climate cooling, and to remain competitive, it is necessary that solar panel bodies are made compulsory on all transport globally (including on all planes turned hydrid-electric of course)!

    Last but not least, on the web, why only Chinese are selling electro-solar cars?

    God bless Life, not the smoking devils (radioactive and carbon).

  11. Calamity Jean says:

    Here in Chicago, I’ve seen several (presumably non-plug-in) Prius taxis AND two gasoline ex-taxis being used as private cars. This tells me that hybrid taxis are so much more profitable that taxi fleet operators find it worthwhile to replace gasoline taxis before they are worn out.

  12. Rakesh Malik says:

    I was wondering about this myself. It’s a pretty glaring oversight given that not one of the electric cars mentioned is anywhere near the S2, which has an extremely simple drive train (one moving part, and one point of contact), an 8-year UNLIMITED warranty, and an optional 300 mile battery.

    No one else is in Tesla’s ballpark, so they should get a lot more attention on sites like this.

  13. ANGRY BADGER says:

    The issue for me is the relative silence of Better Place on their long-term plans for the US, if they still have any. These is also Envia Systems, who claims to have the 300 mile battery (almost) ready to go at a reduced price. Has anyone heard anything from them lately?
    I would love to see Telsa come up with an electric for the masses. Something like my current FIT with a plug. When?

  14. We could really use this in Utah. The inversion can build up quite a bit in the Salt Lake valley because we’re situated between two mountain ranges. It takes wind, rain, or snow storms to clear it out. I see a great need for these cars but are they up to par yet?

  15. “Eight to 10 years from now, most analysts expect plug-ins to be roughly where hybrids are today: 1 to 2 percent of global production” This projection is based on the current market. What we need is a mass movement to price carbon correctly and start phasing it out. As global warming worsens, such actions will be politically popular, and the move to electric cars will be much more rapid.

  16. Martin Winlow says:

    Hi, tisfolly – On your first point, google ‘Better Place’, a very practical system which may do very well in time.

    On the second – no-where NEAR enough power, Im afraid. Even a small EV with a modest 20kWh battery would need 800 hours of full sun on a 4′ square PV panel to fully charge, let alone a very inefficient system like the one you suggest. Fine for a bit of ventilation and topping up the auxiliary battery but that’s about it.

    Having driven an EV for a couple of years now I can tell you there is a great deal of nonsense talked about the disadvantages of pure electric EVs (if it’s got an exhaust pipe, it isn’t an EV IMO). The main one – and the main gripe I have with the article here – is the range limitation being a serious barrier to EV take up.

    People who have bought ‘range-extended’ EVs are finding they have had them for 6 months and have never put any fuel in them. So, why are they humping about all the ICE gubbins if it’s never used?

    The other issue is the ‘the car is essentially dead until it can be recharged’ point. What, prey, is an ICE car if not ‘essentially dead’ if it has run out of fuel? At least with an EV you only have to get out your extension lead (you did bring one didn’t you?), borrow someones ordinary domestic socket (last time I looked there was no shortage of these) and spend 10 minutes chatting to the socket owner (hopefully extolling the virtues of EVs) to give you another 5 miles or so of driving – hopefully enough to get you home/ to work/to a rapid charger.

    With an ICE either you have to get it to a fuel station or get fuel to it (or get towed).

    You do NOT need to spend $/£100’s on a glorified wall socket for your house either (I’m taking EVSEs here). A standard 120V socket would do for most people or certainly a 240V socket. Although the former would take about 14 hours to fully charge the Leaf, for example, if you plug in each night you are unlikely to need a full charge every day and it’ll take commensurably less time to charge.

    Lastly, most of the current crop of EV’s can take a near-full charge in half an hour (assuming they are equipped with the suitable high power socket). The limiting factor here is the battery chemistry. So, if you want to do a long trip it’s just a question of putting up with regular stops to charge – from a safety POV this will stop tiredness causing accidents and make for a much more pleasant journey than one great, long slog. Who wouldn’t swap that for fuel costs at 1/10th that of using fossil fuels? MW