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Jun 27, 2012

Five Real-World Facts About Electric Cars


EV Picture(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, which covers fuel-efficient, hybrid, plug-in, and alternative-fuel vehicles for consumers. He is also a senior editor for other websites in the High Gear Media family, including The Car Connection and Motor Authority.

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Join the Discussion

Showing 1-10 of 10 comments

June 28, 2012

Hybrids haven't reached huge volume because they are just more efficient gas cars. Electric cars are better than gas cars: more fun to drive, more convenient to fuel , and cheaper to operate. When people find out these things, demand will soar.

June 28, 2012

On #5, here are a couple of papers that may be of interest to readers:

Life Cycle Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles: Implications for Policy

Contribution of Li-Ion Batteries to the Environmental Impact of Electric Vehicles

June 28, 2012

I find it very strange that you forgot to mention the Tesla (Roadster) as a superb example of a battery electric vehicle which has already been in production for several years. Range (the distance you can drive one one charge) has been the Achilles heel of battery electric vehicles. You cite the limited range of 60-100 miles provided by the Nissan Leaf, saying "..that's it." Yet the Tesla HAS A RANGE OF OVER 300 MILES. This has established Tesla as a technology leader in this area, even though its production capability is limited.
It is important to give a well-rounded analysis when describing new technology. By omitting any mention of Tesla, for whatever reason, you do RMI a disservice, because you show an incomplete understanding of the issues and what really matters.
BTW: I have NO affiliation with Tesla.

Peter Rosti

June 28, 2012

EVs don't wear out braKes and waste energy like all other vehicles. They use regenerative braking and actually gain energy while going downhill and stopping.

Most EV owners charge at night Off Peak. It's only about $1 to go 40-60 miles in most EVs.

about 50% of EV owners also have GRID tied solar

The heat can also affect EVs if they don't have battery cooling. Here in Phoenix many of us have lost 10-20% of our range in the LEAF in only 1 year.

A gas car is only 15-20% efficient
A mild hybrid is 30% efficent
A FULL Hybrid is 40% efficent
A Diesel is 40% efficent
An EV is over 80% efficient! and runs on American power.

The US imports over $1 Billion a day in foreign OIL.

Gas cars make deadly carbon Monoxide and carbon dioxide.

July 3, 2012

You don't mention the Mitsubishi i-MiEV which has been on sale in the US since 2011 when it was delivered in Hawaii. I've owned mine for a few months and fall outside the norms of your analysis as my car is a "garage orphan" because I rent a house that has no off-street parking. I don't charge during the night because my work provides free charging in their garage. There's no incentive for me to charge during off-peak hours, even if I could easily do so.

How can drivers in my situation be best encouraged to charge off-peak?

August 2, 2012

yea, electric cars, hybrid all wonderful and definitly a step in the right direction, but lets also work on where the electricity for the electric car comes from. living in hotchkiss colorado we see mr bill koch's (oxbow mining) stinky dirty coal trains filled to the brim with this archaic non-renewable fossil fuel pass thru town. coal, unfortunatly used to make electricity. and by the way I'm totally off grid and waiting for an affordable electric car that gets 200 miles per charge whick i'll plug into my solar charged system

August 4, 2012

I'm sorry, but in my opinion hybrids haven't reached huge volume because of price and lack of choices. I'd love to have the new Honda sport hybrid but can't get past the cost. I'd like to see real world tests of how plug-in electrics fare in our NE Ohio weather when its 12 degrees and the roads are snow covered and the heat is on high. I think hybrids are the future, pure plug ins scare folks because if the battery dies, you are stranded.

August 16, 2012

R.E.: "many Volts that are plugged in nightly may never use a drop of gasoline."
From:"Five Real-World Facts About Electric Cars"
Actually the programming in the "Volt" mandates the Gasoline Engine use 1/2 of a tank of gas each 90 days to maintain the fuel quality (Prevent excessive loss of volatile elements necessary for easy starting, "The gas gets Stale.") So Volt drivers must buy fresh fuel on a scheduled basis or the "Range Extending Engine" may fail to start when needed.
Neal, Your very right about Tesla and they produced their battery pack using small battery cells because the oil company who purchased the patent on larger cells using the same chemistry blocked their usage.
Dennis, If you run out of gas in your hybrid and an ice storm has interrupted electric service as happens often in Ohio, you are stranded in the hybrid too.

September 12, 2012

I am surprised you don't battery switching systems, as in Betterplace.

January 24, 2013

Interesting perspectives in some of the comments. Since some of the comments are intended to make the coal and oil industries the "bad guys" in EV discussions, let's examine exactly what we would be giving up if we eliminated both industries with the wave of a wand. For discussion purposes, if we eliminate the industry, we must also eliminate ANY by-product, derivation, or industry that relies on them and the energy they provide.

If oil were non-existent, virtually the entire transportation industry would be eliminated. Cars, trucks, trains, airplanes, ships, buses, service vehicles, etc., run on petroleum products. No petroleum, no vehicles. None. Since about 99.99+% of all passenger vehicles in the world today use some form of petroleum ( gasoline, diesel, natural gas), virtually no one would have a car. We would be in the horse and buggy era again, literally. Yes, I'm aware of the Leaf, which as a 50 mile radius without using the heater or AC. It's a $40K golf cart. I'm also aware of the Tesla 7-pax car that goes 300 miles (150 mile radius). It's a
$70K car that the average person couldn't possible afford. Nice try Tesla, but there's lots of work to do to make your fine cars practical.

Everything that is made with petroleum-based products would not exist (unless we can substitute, aluminum, iron, steel, or titanium). Virtually all plastic is petroleum-based. No plastic = no TVs, cell phones, computers, or any product containing plastic that makes our lives simpler, ad infinitum. Virtually all machinery requires some sort of lubrication to operate. Most lubricants are petroleum-based. Yes, there are synthetic lubricants. I use synthetic oil in my gas guzzler. It costs about $6/qt vs. $1.50/qt for petro oil. The cost of lubricating everything with synthetics would be enormous and prohibitive. I could make the same arguments for the coal industry, albeit not as widespread. Coal simply provides electricity to run the engines of industry. Eliminate the coal industry and we eliminate the majority of the electric grid that doesn't run on hydro, solar, wind or nuclear power. The same environmentalists who hate coal and oil, also hate nuclear power plants, so we're left with hydroelectric, solar and wind energy. The total of those energy producers would have a hard time powering California, Texas, and Alaska, much less the entire country.

You get my point about the unintended consequences of eliminating both. I think it's safe to say we must not forsake either industry too hastily, as some environmental activists propose, or the politicians who want your vote as they campaign on the promise of "free" energy from the sun, wind, algae, or cow flatulence, would like you to swallow.

The world's scientists and brightest minds have been tackling alternative energy from all conceivable angles for decades, and we still don't have a viable alternative to oil or coal for the cheap production of enormous amounts of energy. Both will run out some day, so we need to continue the research to find the miracle(s) that WILL allow us to become free from energy sources that pollute the environment. However, we're not even close to that in my lifetime ( I'm 65) or my children's lifetimes. Perhaps not even my grandchildren. I hope one of them will make that world-changing discovery, someday. We need to maximize the energy utility of what we have and minimize the negative effects at the same time. We can't stop trying to find additional deposits of coal or oil reserves just because we don't like what they do to the planet. We must continue drilling and digging because we can't live without them for a long, long, long time. Bottom line: We HAVE to live with them until we find a viable, affordable and sustainable way to live without them.