Why should I care about EVs?
A good story always comes with a hefty dose of tension. Like a romance set on the decks of a cruise ship that everyone knows is about to sink. Or a superhero movie twisting time and space to keep you wondering whether the good guys will get hold of the gems before the bad guy wins (again). Last fall, when we were brainstorming stories for 2021, the idea of sending most of the staff on a long road rally in electric cars seemed perfect. Inject a little range anxiety into a trip and you have the makings of a fun tale.
Turns out, our timing was pretty good. Ever since we started plotting the rally, automakers have unveiled more and more plans for more and more EVs of all shapes and sizes. According to IHS Markit, electric vehicles accounted for just 1.8 percent of the market last year, but analysts predict that number will rise to more than 10 percent by 2025. Love them or hate them, you'll be seeing many more EVs on the road in the next few years.
It will take a shifting mindset for traditional car enthusiasts to learn to love EVs. When you've spent your years understanding engine purrs and roars as indicators of something very right (or wrong), chucking a quiet EV into a few corners can be jarring, and many of the canned noises automakers offer for false feedback are too alien to be cool. It can feel like something elemental is missing. After driving 11 electric cars for three weeks, we realized that EVs require a certain recalibration of what qualifies as fun. Which doesn't mean the new fun isn't as good as the old. Accelerating onto the highway with all of that immediate torque at your foot is a blast. Stopping to charge for a half-hour every now and then on a road trip lessens the pressure to just power through to your destination.
You can stomp and moan about change, but it is inevitable. When the first human built a hut, some caveman undoubtedly complained it wouldn't be as sturdy as his cave. And he wasn't necessarily wrong, but the hut gained market share anyway. Change is coming, and we plan to embrace it, critique it, and push the industry to keep making cars that enthusiasts of all stripes can love. —Sharon Carty
2. Where will the electricity come from?
EV advocates regularly bust two myths that our electric infrastructure can't support EVs en masse. The first suggests that the rising volume of EVs will demand so much power that utilities won't be able to supply it. On the contrary, these companies have no problem supplying electricity to EV buyers—presuming most charge their cars overnight. That's when extra generation capacity goes unused because demand is lowest. Many utilities already offer cheaper rates to incentivize off-hour energy use, and every EV on sale today allows you to schedule charging—so you can plug in your vehicle when you park and delay charging until the lower rate kicks in.
The second myth: EVs will bring down the electrical grid. In neighborhoods with many EVs, a higher-capacity transformer may be needed, but utilities are used to making those upgrades as new construction increases electrical demands. Adapting for increasing numbers of EVs shouldn't be any different.
A 2019 Department of Energy report found that the mass adoption of EVs "will not pose significantly greater challenges than past evolutions of the U.S. electric power system." In the long run, EVs may even add stability to the grid. Ford says the F-150 Lightning will eventually be able to power a house during peak demand to save homeowners money and ease pressure on utilities. —John Voelcker
3. How does the outside temperature affect range?
The further the ambient temperature deviates from the mid-70s, the more energy is devoted to keeping the cabin's occupants—and, in some cases, the battery—comfortable. Because extreme temperatures can irreversibly damage battery cells, EVs will heat or cool the pack as needed to protect it. Testing five EVs in mixed-use driving with the HVAC systems running, AAA found that, on average, range dropped by 41 percent when the temperature fell from 75 degrees to 20. At 95 degrees, range was reduced by 17 percent compared with the 75-degree baseline. Drivers can somewhat reduce the range-zapping effect of extreme temperatures by scheduling their departures—all EVs have this capability—so that the cabin and battery are preconditioned while the vehicle is plugged in and using power from the grid. —K.C. Colwell
4. Are EVs actually environmentally friendly?
If we only built cars and never drove them, Camaros, not Model 3s, might be the darlings of the environmental movement. EV batteries are energy-intensive to manufacture, and there are humanitarian costs associated with mining the metals they rely on. Though EVs don't emit greenhouse gases, the electricity they pull from the grid often does . . . Read More
5. Should I worry about the electromagnetic radiation an EV gives off?
You can put away your tinfoil hat and lead underpants—your electric vehicle is safe. It's true that an EV's powertrain components—battery pack, wiring, motor(s)—produce more electromagnetic radiation than an internal-combustion engine, but it's negligible. The Norwegian research group SINTEF found that radiation readings inside an EV were well below the limits recommended by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection. Radiation exposure near the vehicle floor is less than 20 percent of the limit, and at head height, it's less than 2 percent. —David Beard
6. How much range do I need?
7. Can I tow with an EV?
We wouldn't recommend it. When manufacturers design EVs, towing isn't top of mind. Several models on the market today don't have tow ratings, and those that do can tug only modest loads. It makes sense: EVs are aerodynamically slippery, and attaching a trailer to one is like strapping a parachute and ankle weights on a marathon runner . . . Read More
8. Are plug-in hybrids brilliant or dumb?
Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) as a whole are hard to characterize because there are so many approaches to combining gas engines and electric motors in a single powertrain. To figure out whether a given PHEV is worthwhile, simply consider this: Does it have useful electric range and a powerful-enough motor (or motors) to exploit that range without the combustion engine kicking on? That's crucial, because the ideal PHEV-use scenario is everyday electric driving combined with the long-distance convenience of gas. You want one with an electric motor that makes more than 100 horsepower and is good for at least 20 miles on electricity. As a shortcut, look for a PHEV that qualifies for the full $7500 federal tax credit—an indication that it's serious about its electric range. Which brings us to an obvious point: A plug-in will always be a dumb purchase if you never plug it in. The EPA scores the PHEV Jeep Wrangler 4xe at 20 mpg combined once the battery is depleted. The four-cylinder Wrangler—which weighs 800 pounds less, according to Jeep—beats it with a 22-mpg estimate. —Ezra Dyer
9. What happens when an EV runs out of juice?
As an EV's battery gets to a very low state of charge, the vehicle typically reduces the available power and alerts the driver to find a charging station or pull over. At this point, if you can't plug in, range anxiety devolves into panic, which is usually followed by a call for help from the side of the road. As in gas-powered cars, automakers' approaches to distance-to-empty readouts vary. In some EVs, such as the Audi e-tron and Jaguar I-Pace, zero means zero. We have the tow-truck receipts to prove it. Others, such as those made by Ford, Tesla, Volvo, and Polestar, provide several miles of buffer even after the predicted range is down to nil. Here's another wrinkle: After the high-voltage battery pack is dead, you run the risk of depleting the 12-volt accessory battery. If that happens, the vehicle won't charge until the accessory battery is replenished. Consider yourself warned. —Dave VanderWerp
10. What do all these new terms and acronyms mean?
Combined Charging System, the DC fast-charging connector most automakers use in the U.S.
CHArge de MOve, an uncommon DC fast-charging connector. The Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV are the only vehicles currently on sale in the U.S. with this port.
The onboard hardware in an EV responsible for converting alternating current to direct current to charge the battery. Commonly misused to describe a charging station or the cord that connects an EV to an electricity source. See: EVSE.
Electric-vehicle supply equipment, the industry term for what most folks refer to as a charger. It includes public charging stations and other equipment carried in the car or installed at home to connect the EV to a source of electricity.
Internal-combustion engine. Also used as a verb when an ICE car is parked in a space designated for EV charging, thus preventing an EV driver from plugging in. Example: "I couldn't charge my Tesla because some jerk ICE'd the spot with their brodozer."
The SAE standard for EV charging and the connector all non-Tesla EVs in the U.S. use for Level 1 and 2 charging.
Kilowatt, equal to 1000 watts, a unit of power commonly used to describe electric-vehicle charging and the power output of an EV's motor.
Kilowatt-hour, a unit of energy equal to 1 kilowatt being sustained for one hour. A gallon of gas contains approximately 33.7 kWh of energy.
Describes 120-volt AC charging with a power output around 1 kilowatt, which typically adds no more than five miles of range per hour.
Describes 240-volt AC charging you might see at homes, offices, and shopping centers. Level 2 connections typically offer 6 to 19 kilowatts and can fully charge an EV overnight, but the charging rate may be limited by the onboard charger too.
High-power, direct-current fast-charging, which bypasses an EV's onboard charger to feed the battery pack directly. Typical power ranges from 50 to 350 kilowatts, which allows an EV to gain substantial range—100 miles or more—within an hour.
Miles per gallon of gasoline equivalent, a measure of efficiency for EVs, PHEVs, and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles that can be compared to a gas vehicle's mpg.
Plug-in-hybrid electric vehicle, which uses both internal-combustion and electric power sources and has a battery that can be charged by plugging in.
Using the electric motors to decelerate a vehicle by converting kinetic energy into electricity, which is stored in the battery pack.
State of charge, the level of energy currently stored in a battery pack expressed as a percentage of its usable capacity. —Maxwell B. Mortimer
11. When will Americans start buying EVs in large volumes?
It's all about the combo of the right body style at the right price point at the right range and getting the consumer confident about access to charging infrastructure, whether it's public or at home. Part of me wants to say now, because you can almost check all the boxes. But by 2025, I think it will be a whole different game. In the next four years, we'll achieve that scale. —Lea Malloy, head of research and development, Cox Automotive
12. Does an EV's battery degrade like a cellphone's?
Yes. A battery pack's ability to store energy will deteriorate based on numerous factors. Charging habits are the biggest variable. Replenishing to maximum capacity and running the battery down until you see the "Pull over now" warning will weaken the anodes within its cells. To increase longevity, manufacturers typically recommend charging to a threshold of 80 to 90 percent for daily use. GM claims it's found a way to avoid this strain [see page 26], but no one has a good solution to combat battery deterioration caused by extreme climates.
Most automakers warranty their packs for eight years and 100,000 miles. Our long-term Tesla Model 3—covered for 120,000 miles—has lost 7.6 percent of its battery capacity over 33,000 miles. If this rate persists, we'll come just shy of qualifying for replacement under Tesla's 70-percent-capacity-retention policy. —David Beard
13. How do I prep my garage for an EV?
You'll want a dedicated 240-volt circuit for charging your car. A professional installation generally runs between $750 and $1750, plus the price of permits, according to Qmerit, a company that specializes in this kind of work. If your current electrical supply can't handle the extra load, you'll need a new service line run to your house, pushing your cost to the high end of that range. A modest house with 150-amp or higher service can perhaps squeeze in an additional 30- or 40-amp circuit, but it depends on whether there are other large draws, such as a tankless water heater, an electric stove or dryer, or a hot tub. In addition, you may have to purchase charging equipment to connect your EV to the new circuit . . . Read More
14. Can I own an EV without home 240-volt charging?
Sure, just like you can theoretically browse today's internet with a 14.4k dial-up connection. A standard 120-volt (a.k.a. Level 1) household plug adds only a few miles of range per hour, so replenishing a large battery pack from empty can take days. You might be able to make do if you regularly drive less than 30 miles a day or have access to charging equipment at work. Using a local DC fast-charger like it's a gas station might be tempting, but it comes at a cost. Charging at Electrify America stations can be more than three times as expensive as using residential electricity, and fast-charging can reduce a battery's longevity. A survey by UC Davis found that 21 percent of Californians who owned a plug-in eventually gave up on the technology. Among those who quit the electric life, 71 percent did not have 240-volt (Level 2) charging at home. —David Beard
15. How does the EV tax credit work?
Come filing time, it gives new-EV buyers a one-time break ranging from $2500 to $7500 depending on the vehicle's gross battery capacity (we report usable battery capacity, which is always lower). But there's a catch: If your taxes don't exceed the amount your vehicle qualifies for, you won't get a check in the mail for the difference. For example, someone whose income puts them on the hook for $5000 over the course of the year can't pocket $2500 from a $7500 credit. In 2020, a single person would've needed a taxable income of at least $53,200 to qualify for the full kickback. Another thing to look out for: Once a carmaker has sold 200,000 plug-in vehicles (so far, that's just GM and Tesla), the credit enters a yearlong phaseout period, after which vehicles that manufacturer sells become ineligible. If all of this sounds too complicated, consider leasing. Though the automaker claims the tax credit, many pass those savings on to you in the form of a lower monthly payment. —Annie White
16. Are used EVs the bargains they appear to be?
While Teslas hold their value relatively well, EVs in general depreciate quicker than gas-powered cars. On average, after three years, EVs lose 13 percent more of their value than gas sedans, according to a study from iSeeCars.com. For a good deal on a great car, we recommend looking for a Chevy Bolt, a former 10Best winner. Cars with under 30,000 miles go for less than $20,000, and the EPA-estimated 238 miles of range is competitive with what several $50,000-plus new EVs can manage.
When shopping for used electric vehicles, maintenance history is less of a concern than with gas cars, but you'll want to verify the health of the battery. The easiest way to do this is to fully charge the vehicle and see how the predicted range compares with the original advertised range. Are the numbers close? If so, good. Also, while a "Southern car" may be a selling point for a gas-powered vehicle, that's not necessarily the case for an EV; hot climates can take a toll on battery health. —Connor Hoffman
17. Is an EV cheaper to own than a gas car?
This one's too close to call. We calculated the five-year cost of ownership for the electric Volkswagen ID.4 and the similarly sized and equipped gas-powered Tiguan. The ID.4's higher price means more interest if you're financing (our figures are based on a 60-month loan at 3.11 percent APR with $3000 down). The EV is also more expensive for a 29-year-old man to insure, per GEICO. And Black Book tells us the ID.4 will retain just 32 percent of its value compared with 41 percent for the Tiguan. But the EV saves on maintenance and fuel (assuming 10,000 miles a year with gas at $2.96 per gallon and electricity at $0.13 per kilowatt-hour). With the federal tax credit, the total five-year costs are nearly equal. —Joey Capparella
18. Will EVs ever be as affordable as today's cheapest gas cars?
I believe it's possible to get EVs close to about $20,000, but that will depend on segment and range. That could be the case for small cars in the U.S. by 2030. By then, they could have an efficiency of 0.23 to 0.25 kilowatt-hours per mile, and a roughly 50-kWh battery—providing about 200 miles of real-world range—would be less than $3000. —Nikolas Soulopoulos, analyst, BloombergNEF
19. Is a battery breakthrough imminent?
Investors have poured billions into research on more advanced batteries, with solid-state cells the most promising contender. They would replace today's liquid electrolyte—the solution ions travel through as a battery charges and discharges—with a solid material. Solid-state cells promise greater energy density, reduced costs, and lower risk of fire than conventional lithium-ion batteries. But developing new types of cells, from the first lab tests to widespread implementation in EVs, has historically taken a decade.
Carmakers are optimistic for the long term: Toyota does its own R&D on solid-state cells, Volkswagen has backed QuantumScape for years, and Ford and BMW recently increased their investments in Solid Power. The first EVs with these cells could arrive as soon as 2025, but high initial costs may confine them to the top end of the market. We predict that affordable EVs using this tech are at least a decade away. —John Voelcker
20. Is now the right time to buy an EV?
"I'll wait till next year." Stalling on an electric-vehicle purchase has been a tempting strategy since the inception of the modern mainstream EV. Year by year, range increased, charging got easier, and manufacturers rolled out better electric options. But as barriers were removed, so too were early-adopter perks. Tesla stopped giving away free electricity at its Superchargers. GM and Tesla vehicles became ineligible for the federal tax credit. Primo parking spots with Level 2 charging are no longer perpetually empty, awaiting the stray futurist in a Model S. This is the inflection point . . . Read More