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Pros and cons of electric cars

By Claes Bell · Bankrate.com
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Posted: 4 pm ET

A lot of recent car shows, including the recent Detroit auto show, have showcased automakers' push to bring practical, fully electric cars to market. With one new all-electric vehicle already for sale from Nissan and with others on the way from Ford, Volkswagen, Honda, Toyota, Mercedes and Fiat in 2011 and 2012, I thought it might be worth looking at some of the pros and cons of electric cars as they now exist.

Pros:

  • Cheap fuel. Nissan estimates it will cost approximately $2.75 at average utility rates to charge its Leaf from empty to full. The Leaf has a range of around 100 miles, a distance that would cost about $10 to drive in a compact car getting 30 mpg (3.33 gallons x the average gas price of $3.089). That gap will become even wider if gas prices rise in the coming years.
  • Less frequent maintenance. Because they don't have to deal with the heat and force generated by an unending series of powerful explosions the way combustion engines do, electric engines don't need the oil changes and other regular maintenance that conventional engines need to stay running. That can add up to significant savings over time.
  • Tax credits. Buyers of electric vehicles can get a significant tax credit from the federal government. The Nissan Leaf is eligible for a tax credit up to $7,500, for example.
  • Cleanliness. Leaving aside the environmental benefits, which are considerable, an all-electric car means freedom from a substance that can be really messy: oil. If you've ever knocked over an oil pan, spilled gas on yourself while refueling or loaded a car up while it was idling and blowing exhaust all over you, you know oil and gas can smell, look and feel disgusting. Saying goodbye to all that could be a big motivator for some.
Volvo displays a crash-tested electric C30 at the Detroit auto show

Volvo displays a crash-tested electric C30 at the Detroit auto show

Cons:

  • Short range. Current battery technology can't yet match the energy stored in a regular old tank of unleaded. That means in the near future, electric cars will have significantly less range than comparable combustion cars.
  • High sticker prices. The subcompact Leaf retails at $32,780 before federal tax credits, $25,280 after. In contrast, the slightly bigger Nissan Sentra will cost you around $20,000, loaded. Plug those numbers into the Bankrate auto loan calculator, and you see the difference in monthly car payments with a 10 percent down payment and a 48-month loan term is significant: $537.05 for the Leaf vs. $424.88 for the Sentra.
  • No used option. Bankrate readers love their used cars, because they can offer a way out of the galling depreciation new cars experience once they're driven off the lot. Unfortunately, there likely won't be a used inventory of electric cars for years.
  • Few independent mechanics. I spoke to a mechanic I know over the weekend, and we got on the topic of upsides and downsides to electric cars. He said one major sticking point of ownership would be finding an independent shop that would work on all-electric vehicles, since the cars are both very different from their combustion counterparts and still quite rare. That will likely mean higher maintenance costs, since dealerships often charge more for the same repair than independent shops.
  • Less existing infrastructure. It's not uncommon to see a gas station on every corner, but I haven't yet laid eyes on one public car charger. Even if sales of electric cars take off, there won't be public chargers widely available in most cities for years to come.
  • Expensive home chargers. Unless you want to wait eight hours or more to "fill up your tank," you'll want a high-speed charger installed in your home, potentially adding thousands to your electric-car price tag.
  • Skimpy safety record. It's still too early for manufacturers and auto safety regulators to see how electric cars react to being subjected to the tremendous forces at work in an auto accident.
  • Battery uncertainty. Just like the batteries in your iPod or laptop, the large, expensive batteries in an electric car will inevitably run down and become unable to hold a full charge. The question is, how will they perform in the real world, under real-world weather and traffic conditions, over the many years buyers hope to own their cars?

What do you think? Do the pros outweigh the cons, or vice versa?

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11 Comments
Bill
March 13, 2011 at 4:29 am

Why has no one mentioned that an already busy driver arrives home, gets out of their warm car into a cold dark garage, get her children seat belts off and into the house, returns to get groceries unloaded and then must plug in day after day after day.

Claes Bell
January 19, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Paul, I think you're right that electric cars are only going to get better as a value proposition, because a rise in gas prices is pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point. I do think the 100-mile limit would be fine for a second car, but I know many people, myself included, who drive more than 100 miles a few times a month. Maybe an electric-car provider could package an EV purchase with cheap long distance car rentals a couple times a month.

EVsRoll, your point about quiet is spot-on. I was talking to a coworker the other day who saw a Tesla pull away from the curb, and she said the silent running was uncanny, especially coming from such a swoopy sports car. A minute later, a Maserati drove by and the contrast couldn't have been more clear. I think one of the most overlooked positives of a transition to electric would be the reduction in noise pollution. But while EVs might be ideal for urban driving, the problem is, city-dwellers already have a number of cheaper/environmentally friendly transport options, from car-sharing to public transportation, to biking. The problem exists for commuters and those living in suburbs and exurbs who consistently are going to be pushing the range limits of these things.

Paul Scott
January 19, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Full disclosure, I sell the Nissan LEAF.

I've also been driving a Toyota RAV4 EV for over 8 years, 88,000 miles.

Range is not an issue. 100 miles is way more than the typical driver needs for daily driving. With a robust charging infrastructure, including Level 3 DC quick charge, there will be few people who can't use an EV. The charging infrastructure is just now being built out, so as the cars are delivered, you'll begin to see them.

Chargers at home can be very inexpensive. Level 1 is a mere 120V plug. Most people already have that. For many people that's all they'll need. Level 2 charge stations can be installed for as little as a thousand dollars, and less as manufacturers get volumes up.

No mechanics needs. In 8 years, 88,000 miles, my EV has needed nothing but tires and windshield wipers.

Lastly, if you are running the comparative numbers based on gas at $3, boy are you going to be surprised! Gas is ONLY going to get more expensive over time. Electricity will, too, but it's controlled by PUCs and the utilities are giving huge rate breaks for those who charge at night, when there is surplus energy on the grid.

Let's keep our energy money domestic. Stop giving it to the Saudis!

EVsRoll
January 19, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Well written article. A few notes:

Costs: Gasoline cost is headed up.

This will alter the equation of EV purchase price in a big way!

The rest really depends on what want, and expect from an EV. EV battery packs typically hold the same amount of energy of around 1 gallon (4 liters) of gasoline, so the range is less as mentioned in the article.

EVs are great for running around town, in fact are better than ICE cars since they are quiet at idle, and offer instant torque.
They are not yet designed to go across country. But how many people really do that? We see photos of new cars in the wilds, but most cars actually end up stuck in traffic. This is where EVs rule!

EVs are FUN to drive! You need to drive one to appreciate the fun, and many people end up with the "EV Grin" after driving one.

Battery Uncertainty: This is a good point. However, notice that most if not all major EV manufacturers are standing behind their battery packs with strong warranties. Battery packs are over-designed (Chevy Volt battery pack over built by 100%) to take in abuse, failures and the like. Note also that Hybrid battery packs have done well over the past 10 years or so, many logging in over 100,000 miles with no problems.

EVsRock!

Claes Bell
January 19, 2011 at 9:09 am

I think you're right that the Better Place initiative shows some promise for smaller countries like Denmark and Israel, but I'm not so sure about bigger, less-densely populated countries like the U.S. While you're right that swapping batteries does take away a couple of the problems I listed, it doesn't automatically solve the infrastructure problem: from what I understand, Battery Switch stations will need to be installed throughout the areas where the cars operate. The range problem also remains; stopping your car every 100 miles to fill up would still be a drag on long trips. Still, it's an interesting concept, and I like that the company is looking to charge less for the car initially than a comparable gas car.

ffinder
January 19, 2011 at 4:30 am

Lets see..

Better Place:

# Lower sticker prices.
# Unlimited range.
# NO Battery worries ever.
# Country wide infrastructure.
# 59.1 seconds 100 mile battery swap
# Free home, business chargers.
# One monthly bill covers everything

Starting end of 2011 in Israel, Denmark then Australia California, Canada.

Full info at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Better_Place

ff