Three Reasons EVs Will Make Your Life Better (And Three Reasons They Won't)

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 01, 2011

The Nissan Leaf: 100 miles, more or less. (Nissan photo)
The Nissan Leaf: 100 miles, more or less. (Nissan photo)

I know you're used to me saying that electric cars will change the world; that they're big green saviors that will glide silently down from Mount Olympus to free us from the tyranny of the tailpipe. Well, yeah, but I see their dark side, too. For instance, will they be funny enough for Tom and Ray to make jokes about when the car world gets taken over by an assault from batteries?

So here are three ways that plug-in EVs will change your life (and three ways they won't). First, the good stuff:

No more gas stations. Your main fueling station will be your garage. That means no more browsing through the stale candy and muscle magazines, or watching the grease rack go up and down, as you wait to pay for $4 a gallon gasoline. Gas stations could become endangered species, with lovingly preserved specimens installed for nostalgic viewing at the Smithsonian.

A level playing field. Nobody knows anything about electric cars, so you don't have to listen to your know-it-all brother-in-law anymore. In fact, if you read this column you already know more than him. There shouldn't be any gender bias here, either. We're all students from the moment we first plug in to a charging station. Take comfort: If you don't know what to do when the EV runs out of juice on a dark night in the rain, well, nobody else does either.

It's just another appliance. The electric car plugs into your home's grid, and it's got a lot in common with your electric dryer (which probably also runs on 220 volts). Electric cars demystify the world of motoring--there's a battery, a motor, and an electronic control box to manage them. It's not nearly as intimidating as that gas guzzler you drive now. You'll charge your car from your cellphone, just as you'll soon be using that same phone to control your smart refrigerator. The bill will come from the electric utility, just as it does for those other appliances, and its batteries are just like the ones in your laptop--in fact, in some cases they are computer batteries.

Charging EVs takes between 30 minutes and 12 hours. (Flickr photo)
Charging EVs takes between 30 minutes and 12 hours. (Flickr photo)

Notes from the dark side:

Say hello to range anxiety.
Think of your 100-mile-range EV as gas cars always running on the reserve tank. The battery is the only game in town, and every time you turn on the radio, it drains a little. I spent a few cold weather days with the Nissan Leaf and loved it, but trust me when I say that I spent a lot of time looking at the remaining range. The high-tech range gauge adjusts for conditions, so 30 miles can turn into 28 miles. Most people will want to keep a gas car, or at least a plug-in hybrid, handy for the longer trips.

The charge time challenge. How long does it take to charge your car? That depends. There are three levels, from 110 to 480 volts, and that means 14 hours on the slow side and just 30 minutes on the fast side. But even half an hour is a long time if you're waiting at public charger--maybe you'll end up nostalgic for five-minute gas station fills, if not the gas station itself. The smart thinking now is that our charging will be mostly at home (80 percent or more), with the rest in public places like malls, big-box stores and Starbucks-type places. There's going to be some strategy needed here: With Level II 240-volt charging, you'll need to go see a movie or eat a slow dinner--it takes several hours. If they have 480-volt Level III, you plug in, then shop, drink coffee or play video games and in 30 minutes your car is rarin' to go again.

The price conundrum. The cheap and cheerful $17,000 Toyota Corolla? Forget about it. It's EV equivalent is double that, though there's a $7,500 federal tax credit that everyone gets, plus some great state subsidies ($5,000 per car in California). The trade-off, of course, is two or three cents per mile operating costs, versus 20 to 30 cents for your gas car. But do the math, it's going to take a while to earn back that initial purchase price. According to commentator Margo Thorning in the Wall Street Journal, "Unless crude oil prices rise close to $300 per barrel and battery costs fall by 75 percent, a plug-in electric vehicle is more expensive than a gasoline-powered vehicle." Ouch. I think that considerably overstates the EV's disadvantages, but the price issue is still there.

These equations are likely to change rapidly. Looked at one way, the positives for EVs are only going to improve as the grid gets greener and battery costs come down. And the negatives for gas cars will get more dramatic, because oil prices are unlikely to come down very far, and climate change is advancing relentlessly.

OK, so you've weighed the evidence, now watch this Nissan Leaf commercial and see if it makes you guilty enough about polluting the planet to go down and buy an EV:

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