Electric vehicles have far fewer parts than combustion engine cars, one of the reasons they cost less to drive. But the complexity of this new technology has potential buyers confused. Here, we answer some of the most common questions: how electrified vehicles differ, how real is range anxiety, what’s the best charger, do EVs cost more to run, and are they better or worse for the environment.
How many kinds of electric vehicles are there?
Three kinds of EVs, plus a currently exotic variant.
Hybrid. First, there’s a hybrid such as the original Toyota Prius that has a small battery of 1-2 kilowatt hours capacity (an EV goes up to 100 kWh, more for pickups) that drives it a mile or two on battery. Mostly the battery provides extra acceleration, allowing for a smaller gasoline engine, and recaptures energy when slowing or going down hills. It makes possible small cars that get 50 mpg. The don’t get a tax credit, at least not since 2010.
Plug-in hybrid. Second is the plug-in hybrid EV (synonyms: PHEV, plug-in), with batteries of 5 to 20 kWh. They can drive a car up to 50 miles on battery, then switch to a gasoline engine on longer trips. The electric motor also acts as a power adder on acceleration, same as a hybrid. For people who want a bridge vehicle to the future when EVs are more mature, a PHEV is the way to go.
Electric car. The third is the battery electric vehicle, or BEV, EV, or electric car. This is the future and has been for a decade as Tesla fans will proclaim. Range and performance are increasing each year. Prices are coming down. It is the battery electric vehicle that is seen as the future of automobiles by most manufacturers and consumers. PHEVs plus EVs jointly are called plug-in vehicles.
Hydrogen. A handful of automakers have hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. A tank of pressurized hydrogen combines with the air in oxygen to form H2O—water—plus a copious number of electrons that drive an electric motor. It has good possibilities for long-haul trucks as well as larger passenger cars or SUVs. Safety? The hydrogen tank is bulletproof. Were the tank to rupture, the hydrogen vents upward where gasoline pools on the ground.
Please explain EV terms and how they compare to horsepower, miles per gallon, etcetera
Horsepower vs. kilowatts. Car engines in the U.S. are rated in horsepower, more or less the work one horse can do. Electric motors in EVs, as well as combustion engines in much of the world, are rated in kilowatts, or thousands of watts. 1 kilowatt is a third more powerful than 1 horsepower. A 100-kilowatt motor is about the same as a 134-horsepower gasoline engine. More exactly, multiply horsepower by 1.3410 to get kilowatts. Multiply kilowatts by 0.7355 to get mechanical horsepower.
Kilowatt-hours. Batteries are rated in kilowatt-hours, or kWh (the W is capitalized), that is power over a period of time. A kilowatt is roughly how much a running hair dryer or toaster oven uses. Run either and it draws about 1 kilowatt, run it for an hour and you’ve used 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity, worth about 14 cents at summer 2021 rates in the U.S., making a fill-up of a large EV battery about $10 (done at home) versus $30-$50 to fill up a gas tank. EV batteries today are typically 50 to 100 kilowatt-hours capacity.
MPG vs. MPGe. Driving efficiency of gasoline engines is rated in miles per gallon in the U.S., or liters per 100 kilometers traveled elsewhere. Driving range for gas engine cars and electric cars is measured the same way: miles (or kilometers). The EV efficiency part is measured in MPGe, or miles per gallon equivalent. Burning one gallon of gasoline produces 115,000 BTUs. To generate that much heat from electricity, it would take 33.7 kWh of electricity. If an EV used 33.7 kWh to drive 100 miles–$4.72 at current home charging costs–it would be rated at 100 MPGe. And that is an attainable figure. The best-selling Tesla Model 3 EV is rated at 142 MPGe overall. Note that MPGe does not tell you about the cost to drive, just efficiency.
Is range anxiety real?
No. Most people drive well within their EV’s range each day. Most people recharge either every night or as soon as the battery shows half-full if they have home or at-work charging. The norm for new EVs is on the order of 250 miles of range and 300 is not uncommon. People who buy EVs are primarily in the Pacific coastal states or the U.S. Northeast, plus major heartland cities, especially Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and San Antonio, and they have plenty of public charging facilities. It’s possible to drive cross-country on major interstates.
Oh, come on, nobody has range anxiety? Really?
Well, okay, yes, real people have range anxiety all the time and it’s not unfounded. Here’s the worst-case or most realistic-case scenario. Say your new EV is rated for 300 miles of driving range. You probably never want to drop below 50 miles range just to be safe, so the range is 250. Some EV makers say don’t charge past 90% (to extend battery lifetime) except before a long trip (loss of 30 miles range). In cold weather, you may lose as much as 40% of range (120 miles), especially if you don’t have a heat pump to warm the cabin, if you don’t pre-condition (warm) the car while it’s still plugged in and if you use the seat heaters. Conversely, AAA says really warm weather (95 degrees) can cut range 17% (51 miles). Many warranties say a battery that retains 70% of original capacity is still within spec (that is, a loss of 90 miles range out of 300 would be acceptable). So your aging old EV with a lot of charge cycles, in really cold or hot weather, might be down to 150 miles range. (Upbeat aside: Very few EVs will experience that kind of battery capacity loss.) And then comes the final anxiety problem: On the road, odds are not 100% that the charging station has a free charging space, or that the chargers are actually working. (Also, the fees you pay make that fill-up cost almost as much as gasoline.) So: range anxiety in daily driving: no need to fret. Range anxiety on trips, especially if you’re driving at night: quite possible.
How do I know what charger to buy for home charging?
Don’t buy the biggest, highest-capacity charger, says Tom Moloughney, a Forbes Wheels contributor and industry authority on chargers. Why not? Virtually every Level 2 home charger, the kind that runs on 240 volts, will top off your EV batteries overnight, and usually in just a couple of hours. That’s because most owners never let their batteries get below half full. The sweet spot is a 42-amp charger that uses an industry-standard wall plug, called NEMA 14-50. A 48-amp charger works faster, but it requires a thicker, costlier cable, and the charger has to be hard-wired into the outlet box, so installation costs are much higher. See Best Home EV Chargers For 2021 for our recommendations. Best overall is the ChargePoint Home Flex (but more than $1,000) and the mainstream Enel X JuiceBox 40. For Teslas, it’s the Tesla Wall Connector.
Who needs a bigger charger, then?
Some versions of high-performance EVs such as Tesla, Porsche Taycan or Audi e-tron may have 11-kilowatt onboard chargers that can accept the power of a 50-amp charger. Onboard charger? Let’s step back a minute: What everyone calls a charger or wall charger is really an EVSE or electric vehicle supply equipment. It manages charging, starts and stops the flow of current, ensures safety and often talks to your smartphone. The actual charging device is inside the car and some chargers can accept more current than others and finish charging sooner.
How fast does a charger charge?
Charging a 100-kilowatt-hour battery EV takes less than an hour to more than a day. Charging cables that come with the EV charge at 120 and often 240 volts. At 120 volts and 12 amps of power draw (typical for a home garage), battery range goes up by only 2 to 5 miles per hour, so 12 hours of charging would add 25 to 60 miles of range, good enough for a plug-in hybrid but not a half-empty EV. Supplied car charging cables that work off 240 volts at 16 amps charge about three times as fast, up to 15 miles per hour or up to 180 miles in 12 hours. A 240-volt, 32-amp wall charger would double the charging speed again. Commercial charging stations, Supercharger for Tesla and DC Fast Charging for everyone else, has the ability to fully charge a car in under an hour and 30 minutes is a near-term goal.
How do I extend battery life?
Charge the battery at a slow, not fast rate (charge more at home, less at high-voltage public chargers; it also costs less.) Don’t fully charge the battery unless you’ve got a long trip tomorrow; stop at 80% or 90%. Don’t let the battery run down too far.
EV Discussions in Bars
Are EVs really better for the environment, from raw materials mined to manufactured to driven to scrapped?
Increasingly, scientists and researchers—as opposed to loud voices on social media—say electric vehicles have the advantage. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT; they helped blow the whistle on VW Dieselgate) conducted vehicle life cycle assessments (LCA) comprising material extraction, manufacturing. packaging and transportation, use and end of life. Their conclusion from a July report: “Results show that even for cars registered today, battery-electric vehicles have by far the lowest lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.” For more studies on EVs vs. combustion engine cars, see our story, The Long View: Electric Cars Are Cleaner Than Gas Cars. Period.
Are there EV motorcyles?
Yep, more than a dozen. Harley-Davidson is best known; its electric entry is the $30,000 LiveWire. Zero Motorcycles has significant sales volume. Best of all, they qualify for a federal tax credit. It’s simpler to understand: You get a tax credit of 10% of the purchase price, up to $2,500 back on a $25,000 bike, plus a 30% tax credit for buying and installing an EV charger (max credit, $1,000). Wimpy electric two-wheelers don’t count: To qualify for the E-motorcycle Federal Tax Credit, it has to go at least 45 mph.
Are big improvements coming in batteries?
Solid-state cells should come to market in about five years; a solid material would replace the gooey electrolyte now commonly used in lithium-ion batteries. The advantages: greater energy density (the same amount of power takes up less space), reduced risk of fire and lower costs. GM says the next generation of batteries might take up half the space (with similar power) of today’s batteries.
Do EVs catch fire a lot? Does that make them unsafe?
No and no. Any incident with new technology draws attention. That includes electric vehicles. The batteries in EVs contain a lot of potential energy and if they do catch fire, it takes more work to put them out. By some estimates, a gas engine car fire might take 300 gallons to extinguish. Fully extinguishing an EV fire might take 20,000 gallons. A fire engine (pump truck) carries 500 to 1,500 gallons of water. But that’s if an EV catches fire. According to the National Fire Protection Association, car fires in combustion-engine vehicles are about 100 times more common than in EVs: 0.07% of combustion-engine cars per year versus 0.006% of EVs (6 of every 100,000 EVs). Tesla has said the “novelty” of EV fires is what has them on the news. That and the fact that EV fires are harder to put out to keep out.
How fast do EV sales have to increase to hit the Biden administration’s goal of the U.S. being 100% EV by 2035?
EV sales have to increase by 5% a year (over the previous year’s percentage of EV sales) for 14 years, 2022-2035. Right now the take rate for plug-in vehicles (one-fifth of them plug-in hybrids is a little over 3% but that’s up by about 50% over 2020. Some European countries want to see 100% by 2030. If the U.S. did that, it would call for 8% compound growth for nine years. If the U.S. is delayed to 2024, that calls for 3.75% sales growth.
Will Americans really buy EVs?
Yes. A YouGov survey for Forbes Wheels shows a significant portion of people intending to buy a new or used would go green. Asked which vehicle types they’d consider, 23% indicated electric, 27% hybrid and 45% gasoline. That EV consideration intent is more than seven times the purchase rate of EVs so far in 2021. Asked if electric cars represent the future, 65% said they tend to agree or definitely agree; 26% said they tend to disagree or definitely disagree.
Why is Tesla stock worth more than any other automaker’s?
Investors wanting a pure-play on EVs have been buying the future with TSLA. They ignore mixed construction quality, which can be fixed by hiring somebody from Toyota or Hyundai (and listening to them). Tesla right now has the best battery technology and management. (Clarification: battery management.) The Supercharger network is vast, the car directs you to the nearest site as charge drops, and odds are the charger is working, something that can’t be said for the patchwork networks available to non-Teslas. Tesla owners are fanatical brand ambassadors. However: The competition is getting better, and 2022 is the year Germany Inc. gets serious; they have always been masters of complex technology, and that’s what an EV is even if it has fewer parts. The X5-sized 2022 BMW iX SUV may be the new benchmark for midsize luxury, cockpit design and performance, enough to make you overlook the, ah, interesting exterior. To finish on Tesla stock: For a decade, smart analysts saw no way Tesla was worth its current market price and still it rose. TSLA sells, currently, for less than half its early 2021 share price, and still, the company is worth $770 billion.
What’s the safest bet if I’m unsure about an EV in 2022?
a) Buy a plug-in hybrid, get your feet wet, see how much driving you can do weekdays on battery alone. Then see how good EVs are circa 2025-2028.
b) Buy an EV as your second car. You only need one car for vacations.
b) Lease an EV as your first car. For vacation trips, rent a gas-engine car for the week. If the lease doesn’t work out, it’s somebody else’s problem in three years. You won’t get the $7,500 tax credit—the buyer of the car does—but the leasing company typically works much of the amount into a lower lease rate. If they gave you the full $7,500 back, the lease would be $208 cheaper per month (36 months).
Who’s a fuel cell EV good for?
Most likely: 18-wheelers going cross-country and big SUVs with room for the big tanks. The weight of the hydrogen tanks filled with the lightest element on the period table is far less than the 10,000 pounds-plus a big truck might carry to match the range of big-diesel fuel tanks. (Most trucks are limited to 80,000 pounds: truck, trailer, cargo, engine or motor, fuel or battery.)
What are EVs bad at?
a) Long trips into remote areas if you don’t have a vacation place with a charger.
b) Trailering. Many can tow the weight, but the driving range may be halved.
c) Full range in cold weather and really hot weather.
All this gets better each year. We’ll soon learn if the coming electric pickups and big SUVs, better suited for big boats and trailers, don’t suffer as much range degradation.
Should I buy a used EV over a gas-engine car?
Why not? There are fewer points of concern. The big one is the battery. Have it fully charged by a mechanic then check for its battery capacity percentage versus capacity when new. What seems like a generous battery warranty, eight years and 100,000 miles, is required by the federal government and it covers the next owner. A few automakers jump it to 10 years. Some automakers will replace a battery if charge capacity falls below 70% or 60%; some will replace only if there’s a complete battery failure. If battery capacity, not covered by warranty, falls to 50%, it’s time for a new battery or new vehicle: Your 200-mile EV is down to 100. Reality check: Many, many batteries show minimal capacity loss, even at 100,000 miles. Yet online you’ll see people saying, repeatedly, they were treated unfairly. People happy with their batteries feel no need to post.
Why do foreign countries have such a high adoption rate of EVs, to wit, Norway?
Energy costs more in many other countries, especially Europe, and EVs use less energy, so they’re encouraged and combustion engine vehicles are penalized. In Europe: Government policy in many countries subsidizes EVs and taxes combustion engine cars, heavily. (Previously it subsidized diesel over gasoline cars but that subsidy is long gone.) Driving distances in Europe are short. An increasing number of cities locate chargers on street-lamp posts. Norway’s adoption rate was nil 10 years ago; now it’s above 60%. Nearly all electricity in Norway comes from cheap hydropower while gasoline or diesel fuel is taxed heavily and new cars incur a VAT tax of 25%, a carbon tax of 20%, a nitrous oxide (emissions) tax, a weight-based fee and a scrappage fee.