EVs vs. Conventional Cars: What's the Difference?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 05, 2014

The Differences Between EVs and Conventional Cars

Difference #1: Filling Up

How do you fill up an EV’s batteries with a fresh charge? Instead of stopping for gas, you plug the car into a charger. The nice thing here is that you can “fill up” in your garage, usually with a 240-volt “Level II” wall charger. Yes, you should get that professionally installed, and it adds to the cost of owning an electric car, but it’s certainly convenient.

Level II chargers, also known as EVSEs, for “Electric Vehicle Service Equipment,” typically cost $400 to $800, and installation can add another $1,000 or more to the bottom line, depending on your electric service. An alternative is to simply install a 240-volt outlet in your garage, and then use a portable charger like AeroVironment’s TurboCord.

Installing an at home refueling station: A lot less digging than you'd need for a conventional car.(Courtesy AeroVironment, Inc.)The advantage of the best Level II units is faster charging. A good rule of thumb is to buy at least a 30-amp charger, which as PlugInCars.com reports will need a circuit breaker rated to at least 40 amps. The TurboCord does the job, but at either 12 or 16 amps (depending on model), it takes longer. According to AeroVironment, full charging for a Nissan Leaf with the TurboCord takes 6.3 hours, compared to 3.6 hours for a standard Level II EVSE.

If you don’t want to spring for a Level II charger, you can plug an EV into a conventional AC outlet, but charging times will be much longer—probably overnight to get close to a full charge. With a Level II charger, “filling up” will probably take four to eight hours, depending on which model EV you own and the rate at which it charges. The downside? Unlike filling up at a gas station, your car needs to stay plugged for hours—there’s no five-minute fill-up. And playing the waiting game while the car fills with electrons is often not very easy. Or convenient. Right now, this is a real drawback to EVs, and one worth thinking about. Do you want to be sitting around, twiddling your thumbs, while your daughter is walking down the aisle? You’ll need to plan your driving and recharging carefully, if you opt for an EV. Of course, if EVs catch on the neighborhood gas station will become an “energy station,” offering fast charging. But that’s still a long way down the road.

Difference #2: Range Anxiety

You can expect your range to vary widely. The EV that can go 100 miles on a nice warm and sunny day with little highway driving might grind to a halt at 50 miles when it’s freezing, you’re climbing hills and zipping along an interstate. How do you know how far you can drive on any given day? Each EV has an indicator that displays the estimated number of remaining miles the batteries can move the car. Think of it like a traditional gas gauge, only now it’s showing the charge left in the batteries. But—and this is important—it’s just an estimate, based on your current driving patterns. The range will change in real time if you speed up or slow down. It’s not nearly as accurate as an old-fashioned gas gauge in our experience, which leads to the big fear of many EV owners—“range anxiety.” How close to empty you want to drive your EV depends upon how much of a risk-taker you fancy yourself. But, remember this: it’s a much bigger hassle to recharge your batteries on the side of the highway than it is to call AAA (or Better World Club) and get a gallon of gas.

Never learned how to jump start a car? Maybe an EV is right for you. (Flickr/Wonderlane)Difference #3: Careful with that Electricity

Gas cars use an alternator to produce electricity for lights, and other systems that need electricity, such as AC, and that nice heater under your tuchus. But, in an EV, the electricity to run all that stuff has to come from the batteries. So, if you’re blasting the heat or AC—both of which require considerable electricity from the batteries—you’ll reduce the distance you can drive until you need to recharge the batteries. The heater, especially, is a very big drain. Headlights and windshield wipers consume a moderate amount of electricity. Your new satellite radio, fortunately, is also low on the list.

Difference #4: Buy My EV, Please…

Nobody cares if you buy a new gas car or not, but governments have decided that EVs are a good thing, so both a federal tax credit and state subsidies are available, plus perks like free parking in many downtowns and legal one-occupant rides in the HOV lanes.

There are other differences, too—but those are the ones that we think are the most noteworthy. Share others you’ve seen or heard about, in the comment section, below.

Trouble reselling your EV? Try the classics. A bear cub on a leash worked pretty well for Cal Worthington. (LA Times Photo)
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