These days, it’s tough to look around and not feel guilty about your impact on the environment. Sitting in traffic, you can see the pollution spilling out of tailpipes. Even if you don’t give a hoot about the environment, constantly having to worry about gas prices is a stress you can do without.
But is going gas-free practical? “We’re entering a new era of private, car-based transportation,” says Brad Berman, editor of plugincars.com. “All drivers have an array of fuel options. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.” While drivers today can choose between gas, diesel, biofuel, compressed natural gas and even hydrogen cars, many alternative technologies are still in the testing phase. Electric cars, or EVs, are slated to roll out in force starting this fall. In the next few years, the number of electric cars available for mass purchase will skyrocket.
That leaves many consumers wondering: Does an electric car make sense for me? Before shelling out cash to plug in your car, consider these realities of EV ownership.
One of the major limitations of electric cars is their range. Since electric cars use motors that are charged by batteries, and batteries can only hold so much power, EVs are limited in how far they can travel. Of course, so are gasoline-powered cars, but there are gas stations on almost every corner. Recharging an electric car can take hours -- and that’s if you can find a place to plug it in.
For many people, the limited range of an electric car shouldn’t be an issue, says Berman. “We’re used to having hundreds of miles in range with our cars, but the majority of people drive less than 40 miles per day. “ Cars like the soon-to-be-released Nissan Leaf have a range of about 100 miles on a full charge -- plenty for the majority of driving that most people do.
For those days when you need to drive further, Berman says there are other options. Even though they aren’t fully electric cars, plug-in hybrids or extended range EVs like the Chevrolet Volt can use a limited amount of gas to either power the car or charge the batteries when they are depleted. “For the vast majority of driving, EV range should not be a problem,” says Berman. “But, a plug-in hybrid or an extended range vehicle makes a good compromise.”
In addition to a more limited range than gasoline powered cars, electric cars can’t be charged as quickly as you might fill a gas tank. Plus, you actually have to have a place to do the charging. On the upside, electricity tends to be a lot less expensive than gas. The downside is that the country doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure for everyone to plug in their cars.
Interestingly, the people who drive the least may have the most trouble charging EVs. People in urban areas usually don’t leave their cars overnight in garages, which is the easiest way to charge an EV: park it and plug it in overnight, like a cell phone. If you park on the street or a shared garage, however, that might not be an option. The irony is that electric cars are well-suited for short, urban trips -- so long as urban dwellers can figure out a way to charge them. While a number of cities are looking to improve their charging infrastructure by offering charging in public garages or parking meters, this is one hurdle that urban-dwelling EV lovers may have trouble clearing.
On the other hand, suburbanites should have no trouble charging electric cars. Consumers can either use a standard household outlet in their garage, or have a charging station, which can cut charging times, installed. They can also set the car to charge during off-peak hours. Ford is even working on a smart charging system that allows their plug-in hybrids and EVs to measure electrical grid stress and take turns charging with other Ford cars in the same area to avoid power outages.
Comfort and Safety
Electric car motors tend to be less powerful than gasoline engines. As a result, they have to work harder to move the car. The harder they work, the more juice they drain from the batteries, which limits range. To increase range, carmakers try to keep electric cars light. That means thinner seats and different construction materials. That’s left many consumers wondering if electric cars are as comfortable and safe as gasoline-powered cars.
On the safety front, we just don’t know how electric cars compare because they haven’t been crash tested yet. That said, every car sold in the U.S. has to conform to minimum safety standards set by the federal government concerning crash-test performance and safety equipment. Plus, car makers know that safety is a major concern for car buyers. It wouldn’t be smart of them to alienate buyers by sacrificing safety for range.
Comfort, however, is another story. With hybrid cars, we’ve already heard car reviewers complain about thin seats that aren’t comfortable. On the plus side, some of those seats are made from eco-friendly materials, and some buyers may be willing to deal with a sore bottom for a smaller carbon footprint.
For many people, the biggest obstacle to adopting an electric car is the price. Developing electric cars required massive investment from car companies; technologies had to be developed, factories built and retooled. Because they need to make that investment back, electric cars tend to be more expensive than their gasoline-powered counterparts. Until the price of electric cars comes down, many consumers will simply be left out. Right now, the least expensive EV coming to the mass market in the next year is the Nissan Leaf, and it starts at around $33,000. While tax credits should offset some of the costs, that’s still more than many people want to spend on a car. Berman points out that leasing is one way to bring the cost of an EV down, but if that's still stretching a budget too thin, consumers can always wait for prices to fall or for a used electric car market to develop.