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Sizing up the state of electric vehicles—current and future

Illustrations by Chris Whetzel

I’m sitting on a curb with 3 of my colleagues at a mini-mart in the Sierra Nevada foothills. We’re swatting flies, reapplying sunblock, and waiting for our electric vehicle to charge when a Subaru Outback, bikes loaded on the back, pulls up to a gas pump. In 7 minutes (I timed them), the family fills the tank, tosses its recyclables, and even uses the bathroom. Then they’re off, leaving us in their dust.

My crew had pulled in to the spartan charging station next door nearly an hour earlier—and our EV is still plugged in. Once it’s charged, we’ll hop back on the road, only to repeat this ritual in a parking lot about 3 hours and 180 miles from here. The irony isn’t lost on us: We’re experiencing what’s billed as the automotive future, yet the family in the Subaru is the one on its way to a weekend of fun.

But we’re not here for fun. Vehicle testing is what we do for a living. For 20-plus years, our company, The CarLab, has helped more than a dozen carmakers design new vehicles. We’ve done consumer research and testing—tens of thousands of miles of it—on more than 20 EVs since 2005. And we’ve never been busier than we are now.

That’s because in the world of cars, EVs are the buzz. They’ve made some of America’s newest billionaires, are promoted by governments around the globe as a way to combat climate change, and are more widely available than at any time in the past hundred years. And there’s no shortage of pundits predicting an all-EV future.

But as with any hot new product, how do we separate truth from hype? What does the EV future hold? And is it time to start shopping for one?

EVs redux

EVs may be in the news, but they’re not new. Young Ferdinand Porsche—yes, that Porsche—did some of his first automotive engineering on an EV in 1898. Electric vehicles shared the roads with steam- and gasoline-powered cars in the early 1900s. Then gasoline cars—quick to refuel and with longer driving ranges—took over in the late 1920s. EVs—smooth, swift, and silent—went into a prolonged hibernation.

Today, growing environmental concerns and ongoing improvements in battery technology have reawakened interest in EVs. Carmakers, from hopeful start-ups to established brands, are serving up plenty of new models, with more on the way. At this writing, 29 EVs are currently for sale and nearly 100 EVs are scheduled to debut by 2025.

That’s good news for anyone thinking about buying an EV. The current and coming crop includes exciting cars and trucks that provide a unique, engaging driving experience. EVs accelerate almost instantly—sometimes startlingly so. And, because they don’t have an internal combustion engine, EVs are eerily quiet and vibrate much less than conventional cars.

Going big

In the 2000s, automakers developed small, fuel-efficient EVs: the Chevrolet Bolt, the Mini Cooper Electric SE, and the Nissan Leaf, to name a few. Alas, such diminutive vehicles have limited appeal and suffer from relatively short driving ranges—about 250 miles at most. This combination of small size and small range means the position of such cars in the market will always be, well, small.

Most American households want bigger vehicles with longer ranges. Tesla made the first modern EVs that hewed to this formula, and the upstart automaker now offers 4 models that are midsize or larger, with ranges up to 405 miles. Other automakers have followed suit, putting bigger batteries into bigger vehicles—with window-sticker prices to match. Recent EVs from brands such as Audi, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Volvo are all larger-than-Leaf vehicles, offering more space and longer ranges to better meet most buyers’ needs.

The trend toward larger, pricier EVs with extended ranges will continue, and not just because that’s what car buyers want. Such vehicles also allow automakers to better recoup the considerable extra expense of producing EVs.

That extra expense has been—and will remain—dominated by battery costs. Batteries rely on heavy mineral content to store energy, and their high manufacturing costs stem mostly from the costs of the lithium, cobalt, nickel, and other rare-earth metals they contain.

Many people are waiting for the cost of EV batteries to come down, hoping that EVs will become more affordable—like 65-inch flat-screen TVs have. But if anything, greater demand for the minerals in EV batteries may only increase their cost, and so-called cost parity between EVs and gasoline cars is likely a distant hope at best.

Vehicle size equates with vehicle price, meaning that electric cars will assume a premium position in automakers’ new-car lineups, many with price tags north of $50,000.

Easing the burden

That’s a lot of money for most households, but various incentives can take the edge off. Financial stimulus from federal and state governments is the main one. EV buyers may receive a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 until an automaker sells 200,000 units of a specific vehicle. State and local agencies—and even utility companies—also offer financial incentives.

Such subsidies will likely remain in place for the foreseeable future. Their original intent was to pique new buyers’ interest, but car buyers get used to incentives and are quick to punish their removal. Recently, the U.S., Germany, and China have favored extending incentives to further encourage EV sales.

Rebates aren’t the only benefits. In surveying countless EV owners, The CarLab has found that “never having to visit a gas station” is far and away their favorite aspect of EV ownership. Most EV owners—about 80%—charge their vehicles at home. And as long as a home has a garage (or maybe a carport) with access to 240-volt electric power, a qualified electrician can typically install a charger easily and inexpensively.

Most EV owners report total installation costs of less than $1,000 for a wall-mounted charger that conveniently “fills” their EV overnight, when electricity rates tend to be cheaper. Home charging may reduce the cost-per-mile of electricity to about half that of fueling a gasoline-powered vehicle.

EV buyers can usually save on maintenance costs, too. A study by the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy found that EVs are 4 cents per mile cheaper to maintain than gasoline vehicles—a small difference, but one that adds up over time.

Solo travel in high-occupancy vehicle (HOV, or carpool) lanes is another perk. Several states allow single-occupancy use of carpool lanes for EVs—a real bonus for drivers who commute on crowded highways. Many EV owners cite their carpool sticker as the second-best thing about owning their car.

Illustrations by Chris Whetzel

Range anxiety

Limited driving range is still the main reason most people hesitate to buy an EV. Even with better batteries, few EVs today can provide the 370-plus-mile ranges that people who own gasoline-powered cars take for granted. Only one EV, the Lucid Air, has the 500-plus-mile range typical of many standard SUVs and pickups.

At present, there are just over 50,000 public charging stations in the U.S., compared with about 150,000 gas stations. Federal and state agencies and private companies are expanding the charging infrastructure. But EV field chargers cost more money to build and maintain than they take in. That means government agencies must subsidize their construction and charge high user fees, limiting both how many charging stations are built and how often people use them.

Most EV drivers who travel long distances have to make frequent charging stops. Thus, mapping a trip ahead of time and locating commercial chargers is crucial, as is patience if chargers aren’t available when you arrive at a station. Our EV testing often finds us waiting for an open field charger, which can really affect expected arrival times.

There’s also the time and cost required to charge a vehicle once it’s hooked up. Most EVs require about half an hour on a Level 3 commercial “fast charger” to achieve a 20%-to-80% charge—that is, from not quite empty to not quite full. A full charge takes about 45 minutes. And using a commercial charger costs more than charging at home—sometimes nearly as much as gasoline on a per-mile basis.

For all these reasons, road trips in an EV take longer and are more challenging than trips with a gasoline vehicle. On several recent test trips with late-model EVs, we spent more than 25% of our travel time charging them. That’s a lot more than modern families are accustomed to, making planning and flexibility the watchwords of an EV road trip. It’s also why most households that use an EV for weekday commutes also own a gasoline vehicle for leisure travel.

The road ahead

So what does the future hold for EVs? After more than 120 years of development, EVs still seem destined to fill a somewhat narrowly defined role in today’s world, at least in the near term.

Consider: The most desirable EVs are large and expensive; that’s not likely to change anytime soon. Of nearly 290 million passenger vehicles in the U.S., only about 2% are EVs. So even with ongoing EV incentives, America’s automotive fleet will remain mostly petroleum-fueled for now—which also means our current vehicles won’t be considered outmoded in the foreseeable future.

However, for people with ample budgets, home garages, low electricity rates, and perhaps a daily commute with a carpool lane, an electric vehicle can be a good choice. Never visiting a gas station again—at least with one of the cars we own—is a more realistic possibility than ever.

Eric Noble is founder and president of The CarLab, a Southern California–based company that helps manufacturers and suppliers plan and design new vehicles. He’s also a professor of vehicle technology at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.

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