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Are Electric Cars Going To Be Good Enough?

Posted by: Erik Bjornstad

The electrics are coming...

When people hear about having millions of electric vehicles (EVs) in the future, they have questions.  How much will it cost to charge the car? How quickly can I do it? How far can I go or what’s the range I can get on a battery charge? Does that change if I’m driving in the city vs. hauling an RV with my electric truck?

are-electic-cars-going-to-be-good-enough-socialSo let’s dig into some of these and see what we know at this point in time.

How much will They cost to charge?

For drivers, they’re probably going to like the charging economics they’ll encounter. 

Consumers charging their vehicles would pay based on the number of kWh of electricity they add to their battery. Right now (we say right now because this is very likely to change), an electric car uses about 30 kWh to go 100 miles (assuming it's not an SUV or truck pulling a trailer). So if you charge your battery with 40 kWh of power and you pay 18 cents per kWh, you’d be paying $7.20 for that. That comes out to just under 5.5 cents per mile. 

How does that compare to driving a conventional car? If gas is $3.00 a gallon, then your cost to charge your EV is equivalent to getting 55 miles per gallon.  By comparison, the average car gets 25 miles per gallon - you start to see the difference in economics - it appears to be less than half the cost to charge your car. If you wanted to put it another way, in order for the cost to charge to be approx. equal to the cost to fuel up a car that gets 25 MPG, gas prices would have to get down to $1.35 a gallon.

The charging experience - how much time?

Another essential factor is going to be whether consumers are going to find it convenient to charge their vehicles.  It’s not just about being able to find a station when you need it. It’s whether you can get in and out and do what you need to do at the right level of perceived convenience. 

The standard of comparison for people is going to be their gas station experience. For the standard driver, they pull into the station and it takes them maybe about 10 minutes at most to fill up and get out (unless they’re hitting the C-store for a Mountain Dew and Red Vines).  How quickly will they be able to charge up their EV instead? This is a hurdle that the market will need to develop solutions for.

Instead of talking about gallons of fuel, for EVs, we think about charge amounts in terms of adding driving range. How long will it take me to charge the EV battery enough to go 100 more miles?  Right now, the answer to this depends on different things - battery size, kind of charging station.  Currently, it could take six minutes or 24 hours to add 100 miles of driving range. The type of charging station is really the biggest determining factor.

Right now, there are three types of charging stations. Not slow-slower-slowest but Level 1, Level 2, and DC Fast Charger (also known as DCFC). 

Level 1 chargers use 120V AC outlets (the same thing you plug your phone into) but only charge at 2-5 miles of range per hour. Not gonna work for anything.

Level 2 is better - they use 240V AC power (available in every home) and add 20-60 miles of range per hour. Right now, about 80% of the EV chargers in the US are Level 2. They can easily fully charge a car overnight. They would be what you’d use if you were charging your EV at home. You plug it in and it's fully charged and ready the next morning.

The DCFCs (also called Level 3) are closer to what people envision for the future. They use 480V power and can add 180-240 miles of range per hour. That means they could fully charge a car in one hour.  Only 15% of chargers right now are DCFCs.

For all three of these types of chargers, the charge rates are just how things are right now. There’s a great reason to have confidence that these charging rates will substantially improve a lot sooner than one might think.

But wait, there’s more (faster chargers & Cordless Chargers)

If you want an example of the market rising to meet demand, consider that beyond these Level 1-2-DCFC chargers we were just talking about, there are also Extreme Fast Charge (XFC) and Inductive Chargers already developed and being deployed.

XFC systems charge 4 times faster than even DCFC chargers, which means you can add 200 miles of charge to your car in just 15 minutes. Still not as fast as gassing up your car in 6 minutes but definitely moving in the right direction.

Inductive Charging uses an electromagnetic field to transfer electricity to an EV without having to plug it in. Think of it as the wireless chargers for your phone where you just place it flat on a surface and it charges without a cord. Imagine what they could do with that for electric vehicles. They could even build roads that have inductive charges laid into the surface. Cars charge as they drive or as they're sitting at a red light signal. 

Like XFC, the technology is still relatively new, and the charging rate is only comparable to a Level 2 charger. Right now. Expect that to change for the better.

Cheap and fast Are good. But how far can I go?

You could make the argument that the driving range of an electric car is the single biggest concern people have when they’re faced with the prospect of buying one (or having to buy one). They get visions of electric cars dead on the side of the road because they didn’t have any place to plug them in.

We did another blog post on the nationwide plans to dramatically expand charging networks across the country. Let’s look now at the cars themselves.

The Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy has tracked driving ranges for all-electric vehicles since the 2011 model year. Ten years ago (2011), the median driving range for electric vehicles was barely over 50 miles. The maximum range was about 100 miles. Blech.

What a difference ten years makes. For the 2020 model year (which also features many more models to choose from), the median driving range for EVs topped 250 miles for the first time. The maximum range topped 400 miles. Now we’re talking. We’re now getting within the range (no pun intended) where the driving range for electric vehicles is at least in the ballpark of the gas-powered ones.

Towing changes things

While they’re at it (improving driving range), engineers are also working on the driving range problem that surfaces when you’re towing. Towing heavy loads dramatically reduces the driving range for electric vehicles. RV enthusiasts have written about tests comparing the battery usage for the EVs before and during trailer towing. The best estimates are that towing an aerodynamic or compact trailer reduces range by 25-30%, and towing a big, non-compact trailer cuts range by 50%. 

So that’s not good. But it’s reasonable to expect, in the coming years, that we will see the same kind of range improvements for towing as we have overall.

Future hurdles to overcome: battery life

None of this is to imply that there aren’t other major hurdles still to overcome for automotive engineers. Batteries are a big one that comes to mind.

On the whole, electric vehicles have fewer parts that need to be replaced than conventional cars. For example, they use single-speed transmissions that don’t need the kind of maintenance your current car’s transmission does. The battery is the big exception in all of this. They’re really expensive and they eventually wear out, costing thousands to replace.

As of 2020, it was standard practice to warranty every EV battery for at least 8 years or 100,000 miles. Some carmakers went further - Kia warranted its for 10 years/100,000 miles and Hyundai provides lifetime warranty coverage (with exceptions, of course).

Warranties have exceptions. The exceptions are what you need to pay attention to. Some carmaker warranties only kick in if the battery dies and can’t hold a charge. Other companies (including Nissan and Tesla) have their warranty kick in if the battery capacity drops below a percent threshold (i.e. 70%).

The coming wave of electric vehicles will create new considerations and concerns for owners. Like the fact that hotter climates wear batteries out faster. Or using ultra-fast charging stations heats the battery up and makes it go bad sooner.  These will be concerns for EV owners

When an EV battery goes bad, that’s a major league expense. How major league? It depends, and the answer keeps changing (though it’s moving in a positive, cheaper, direction for owners). Replacing a battery goes by the cost per kWh for the battery. By 2019, the best estimate was $161 per kWh battery capacity. This means that, back then, having a 100 kWh (i.e. having a Tesla) would cost you about $16,000 to replace the battery.  But that’s also for long-range vehicles. Lesser models like the Chevy Volt don’t have 100 kWh batteries, they have 16-60 kWh batteries. Replacing a 30 kWh Chevy Volt battery will run you about $3,500-$4,500.

The good news, though, is that analysts project that cost to keep going down. By how much depends on who you’re talking to. The more optimistic analysis predicts the cost to go down to $89/kWh by 2025 and $56 by 2030. 

Ask the Fuel Experts

This post was published on December 1, 2021 and was updated on December 1, 2021.

Topics: Car Care, Fuel Policy