You can help save the planet by buying an electric car, right? Yes but… [insert tough, skeptical question here].
If you know someone who’s thinking about buying an electric car, please share this with them; I put it together for my own (detail-oriented and demanding) friends.
When and What to Buy
Should my next car be electric?
Absolutely. Electric cars are now completely superior to gas cars (my opinion). Why kill the planet when you don’t have to? By buying electric, you’re getting a great car, plus using your cash to help speed the transition away from fossil fuels.
Should I wait until electric cars get cheaper or better?
No, because they’re already a better value than gas cars. They cost more up front, but have much lower operating costs (fuel and service). They get cheaper and better each year, but it’s impossible to predict which year that next killer feature or improvement is going to come. Mostly the advances are in cost (per range) and new form factors (crossover, SUV, truck).
What’s the right range electric car to buy for me?
You want more than enough for your typical driving distance between charges most days or weeks of the year. Most electric cars are converging in the 250 to 350 mile range (on a single charge). If you do lots of regular, long trips then go for the highest range you can. But if you drive just one extra-long trip per year, maybe get the lower-range electric and rent a gas car for that one trip.
How about a plug-in hybrid instead of pure electric?
Don’t buy one! Plug-in hybrids (battery plus gas engine) are selling well and manufacturers like Toyota are betting their future on them. But they’re a compromise design that tries to squeeze two cars into one, and is good at neither. You waste all that space that could have enabled better electric performance and range, and more passenger room. Go for the real thing.
Aside from Teslas are other electric cars any good?
Tesla is far ahead on EVs right now – in design, powertrain engineering, software, charging network, everything. I hope this will change, but I’m not holding my breath. It’s still worth looking at other brands, though, because many of them are eligible for the U.S. $7,500 tax credit, which Tesla isn’t anymore.
Are electric cars definitely better for the planet?
Yes, much. The electric grid is getting greener by the day, and the more electric cars there are, the more efficiently renewables can be used (and the less carbon emitted). All the more if you sweat the details: e.g. if your state has lots of renewable energy at night (wind or hydropower), you’ll be greener if you charge at night.
Should I drive my current car until it dies before buying electric?
Not necessarily. Although the greenest new car is generally ‘the one you don’t buy,’ in this case by acting sooner you can accelerate the world’s shift away from fossil fuels. You’ll sell your gas car to someone who otherwise might have bought a new gas car… thereby adding one net new electric car to the world.
Will the battery ultimately be recycled, or just go in a landfill?
Since batteries are such a big part of EV costs, and there’s a global scarcity of the materials to make them, many companies are working on recycling them when they’re done in your car. One approach is to use them for storage in the energy grid, and another is to break them down to recycle their cells into new car batteries.
How about the (embedded) carbon footprint of electric cars?
Ignore the fear-mongering about electric cars that battery production is so energy intensive. It does take more energy to produce an electric car than a gas one, but multiple studies (T&E, MIT) have confirmed that lifecycle carbon emissions (including manufacture) for electric cars are far lower than for gas cars.
Will I get the full advertised driving range?
If you drive conservatively you may actually get more than the advertised range. But if you drive very fast (above 70 or 75) you’ll get less, though this varies by car. Note also that you never actually drive the car down to zero (I got to four miles once).
How safe are electric cars?
On average, electric cars should be safer than gas cars, because their electric motors can be more precisely and quickly controlled by software designed to protect you. But safety software is evolving quickly and all over the map for both electric and gas cars, varying widely by manufacturer.
Electric cars are so quiet, am I more likely to hit a pedestrian?
Almost all electric cars have a system built in that projects noise at low speeds so pedestrians can hear them coming.
Are there all wheel drive (AWD) electric vehicles?
Yes. Tesla has an all-wheel drive (‘dual-motor’) option, as do Mercedes, Audi, Ford and others.
How do electric cars do in the snow and cold?
EV batteries can experience reduced range in very cold (or very hot) weather, though engineers are finding ways to lessen this issue (e.g. Tesla’s heat pump cabin heating). On the flip side, AWD electric cars with the right software can be safer on snow and ice than gas cars, since they can compensate quickly to avoid skids.
How’s the interior and trunk space?
You’ll have more interior and trunk space than a comparably sized gas car, because the engines and guts of electric cars are so much simpler and take up much less room.
Will an electric car save me time?
If you can charge at home, then the 30 seconds it takes to plug in is way faster than driving to a gas station. You’ll also never need to go for oil changes or other common gas-car maintenance. And you may save time with carpool lanes and primo electric-only parking spots.
Can they tow?
Electric motors are strong, with high torque. Some EVs come with tow hitches and rated capacity of 3,500 or even 5,000 pounds, which is enough to tow small equipment but not a large boat or RV. Upcoming electric truck models will have even more towing capacity.
How hard (and expensive) is it to get a home charger?
Easy: you buy a ‘Level 2’ charger online (around $750) and an electrician installs it in your garage. Installation can cost as little as $250, or a lot more if you need a higher-capacity electrical circuit (or panel).
Can’t I just use a normal electrical outlet?
Yes, you can, but it’s much slower (will take all night). This is called ‘Level 1’ charging – aka ‘trickle charging.’
What if I live in an apartment building, or share a parking lot?
You may have to use public chargers, but could also lobby your landlord or neighbors to install one. Many cities are now mandating chargers in new construction or garage rebuilds, and even trying on-street/curbside charging.
How much will it cost to charge the car at home?
Depends on your electric costs where you live. Many utilities have ‘EV’ rates that equate to about a quarter of what your gas cost would be for equivalent driving. In the worst case it will still be cheaper than buying gas.
How long will a home charger take to fully charge my car?
Depending on the size battery and the exact speed of your ‘Level 2’ home charger, between four and ten hours from near-empty to full.
How long will a public charger take to charge my car?
The same amount of time as your home charger, if it’s a ‘Level 2’ charger. But much less (30-90 minutes) if it’s a ‘Level 3’ DC fast charging station – like Tesla’s ‘Superchargers’ – which pump direct current straight into your battery.
How much do charging stations cost?
There’s lots of different plans… your cost will be higher than your home charger costs, but likely still lower than what gas would cost.
What if there’s a line/wait at a charging station?
At larger charging stations (with 10+ ports) this almost never happens, but with 2-3 ports it sometimes does. There are apps which tell you what’s available before you head to most charging stations.
What happens if there’s a power outage?
If you know a storm is coming, you should charge your car in advance, just as you would stock up on water, batteries, or even fill your gas car’s tank. And if the power is out in your area, you can always drive to a public charger somewhere where the power’s on.
Can I leave my car parked with a charged battery for a couple weeks if needed?
Yes. You’ll lose some small amount of charge over time, but as long as the car’s not 100% charged (which isn’t good for a resting lithium-ion battery) you should be fine.
Service and Durability
Can you put very high mileage on an electric car?
Yes. There are plenty of examples of Nissan Leafs and Chevy Bolts with over 150,000 miles and Teslas with over 300,000 miles, and at least one Tesla Model S has already surpassed 750,000 miles.
Are electric cars expensive to repair?
No… they’re actually much cheaper to service than gas cars, because they’re much simpler and have fewer things that can go wrong. There’s no oil (or oil leaks), cooling system, transmission, drive belts, spark plugs etc. And the brakes rarely wear down because the electric motor does most of the braking. You do have to replace the windshield wipers and rotate the tires though.
Where can I get it serviced?
Depends on the manufacturer: most offer service through their dealers, while Tesla has its own service center network (details below). The service needed by electric cars is typically very minor, but currently, if something major happens and you don’t live near a city, you might have to drive (or get towed) a ways.
Will I need a battery replacement, and how much does that cost?
Probably not. We don’t yet have conclusive data, because most EVs on the road are still under battery warranty (e.g. if it drops under 70% capacity within eight years, they replace it free). Since batteries keep getting better (less prone to degradation) and cheaper, and don’t just die unexpectedly, we may not have good data on this for years.
More Buying Questions
Is it better to buy or lease an electric car?
If the economics are roughly the same for a lease on the car you really want, I’d lease. That hedges your bet on the technology improving: you’ll turn in the car when your lease is up and get the latest. But if the dollars aren’t equivalent (outlay per year and residual value), then just buy (or finance) the car. You can always sell it.
What’s the deal with tax credits and incentives?
There are both federal and state tax credits for buying electric cars and also utility company incentives that vary by location. Teslas are no longer eligible because they’ve sold so many cars, while other carmakers are still eligible for the full $7,500 federal credit. This may all change in 2021… google the latest info.
Are used (e.g. off-lease) electric cars any good or should I only buy new?
Used electrics can be great, but caveat emptor, as with any other used car. They tend to be ‘obsolete’ and have inferior capabilities to the newest EVs, particularly range and battery quality. But if you just need it to get around town, some old EVs like the Nissan Leaf can be a great value (I bought mine off-lease for 9k).
Are electric cars hard to insure?
No, but insuring them can be more expensive, because insurers think replacing the battery pack may be costly if there’s an accident. Just shop around on this – rates are changing fast and insurers are all over the map.
How will the car’s resale value hold up?
The jury’s still out, though Teslas have kept their value pretty well (no doubt in part because they’re software upgradable). Demand exceeds supply right now globally for electric cars, so that helps support used-car values.
The Tesla I want is $50k. When can we expect prices to drop?
Prices have been dropping every year, driven by battery and manufacturing improvements and competition. Tesla has kept lowering its prices, while adding capabilities, faster than other automakers: the cheapest new Tesla is $38,000 right now (Model 3 with a 260 mile range). Still, don’t expect to see a $25,000 Tesla anytime soon.
Can you negotiate on Teslas and is the buying process a hassle?
No, it’s more like buying something on Amazon. All orders (including add-ons) are placed online, at standard prices, no discounts or negotiating. Occasionally they offer minor promotions (e.g. a few months free supercharging). The only in-person interaction is when you pick up your car and they walk you through the features.
Must all maintenance be done at a Tesla dealer?
Mostly. Their cars are pretty proprietary (like Apple products), so there’s very little third parties can do, except changing tires or wiper blades. Tesla has its own service center network, and may also send a mobile truck to you for minor service (like a tire leak, which happened to me). All service is scheduled through the app. They also have an approved body shop network.
I’m scared of that huge monitor, it feels strange. Should I be?
No. It took me about a day to get used to the monitor and for it to become second nature. It’s great for doing everything you need to do (coupled with voice commands for music, etc), and for maps.
Should I buy the self-driving software?
I’m not personally into this (I want to control the car myself), but EV makers like Tesla are pioneering it and claim it’s safer than a human driver. I don’t take risks driving now, but when I was in college I remember almost falling asleep multiple times on long highway drives. Self-driving software could have been a life-saver.
Can you opt out of the remote monitoring that Tesla does of its cars?
Not that I know of. And I suspect this will be the true eventually (if it isn’t already) of all new cars, including gas ones. So if you want to drive incognito, you’ll have to hop into your old 1970s or ’80s jalopy.
Does Tesla do trade-Ins?
Yes, and they take gas vehicle trade-ins also. You upload all the info about your trade-in through the website (including pictures), and they make you an offer.
If I live in Battery Park, will I get free charging?
Absolutely, if it’s in park.
Is it safe for me to crank up the AC/DC?
Yes, but you’ll be on a highway to hell if you plug your AC (level 2) charger into the DC fast charge port.
If, instead, I plug into ELO, do THEY charge ME?
Can’t get that question out of my head.
Most importantly, if I rock down to Electric Avenue, will it still take me higher?
Thanks to everyone who contributed questions and ideas for this article: Jeff, John, Pat, Linh, Tony, Adam, Sam, Mark, Andrew, Jon, Ian, Amy, Tom, Chris, Susi, Eric and Anna.
And thanks to everyone who does buy an electric car, and takes other proactive steps to help speed the transition away from fossil fuels and reduce our collective greenhouse gas (carbon and methane) emissions.