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February 19, 2013 • Editorials

Have Electric Cars Become Practical Yet?

Electric Cars

Electric Cars: Is 99 miles per charge enough?

One of the things I have been thinking about since the eruption of the Tesla/New York Times feud, is whether electric cars are truly practical yet for the average family. I’m not talking about a $100,000 Tesla S, or taking a road trip up the Mid-Atlantic coast in the middle of a harsh winter; I’m talking about for local driving, commutes around town, etc. Can electric cars fit into a real life scenario well, or are there just too many drawbacks?

For me, the biggest issue is the range. Even if it’s just tooling around town, the miles can add up quickly. Last weekend Sarah and I ran a handful of errands. It started out with a trip to a quick morning appointment and breakfast, which turned out to be 20 miles round trip. We were home for an hour, then headed back out from my parents house to our future house (20 miles), from the new house to a furniture store (another 7 miles), to the movies, and then on the back to my parents again (20 more miles). Altogether, that’s almost 70 miles of driving in one day. It’s a bit unusual, as we usually don’t do quite that much driving in one weekend, but some of it included spontaneous detours for furniture shopping and the movies.

What would worry me if we’d used an electric vehicle with a 100 mile range (like a Nissan Leaf), is that we would be down to a very narrow range before running out of juice. 100 miles sounds like a lot of miles, but we blew through close to that in one day without even noticing. If I hadn’t added it up for this thought experiment, I would never have guessed that we had covered that much. It makes me wonder whether an all-electric vehicle is truly practical for a spread out, suburban existence.

This isn’t an entirely hypothetical conversation. Sarah’s car lease is up in about a year and we are slowly discussing what her next vehicle should be. I drive a Prius, and we take it everywhere; I can’t even begin to quantify the savings over the last few years, but it has been a great investment. We debated electric cars, but our lives are just a touch too spread out; we both drive 15-20 miles each way to work, and having a car that would require being recharged or swapped out at the slightest detour or deviation from routine would not fit for us, as much as we would love to try.

Do you drive an electric car? Have you had any experiences with range issues? Let us know in the comments!

20 Responses to " Have Electric Cars Become Practical Yet? "

  1. thsu says:

    One of the big problems with electric cars is that you still need to own another, non-electric car, for those times when you need to take long distance trips.

    Almost everyone takes several long trips a year. Be it for skiing, hiking, or even shopping, you’ll easily find yourself taking a 3 hour one-way road trip a half dozen times a year.

    Thus, an electric car, if you own one, can only be your second car.

    • Exactly (both of you). As you say, Carly, the NYT thing is totally separate from the practicality of electric cars. Tesla touts their charging network along the east coast, but how far inland do you need to go before that disappears? And even if there ARE stations, chances are they are mostly the slow kind requires an overnight hookup.
      In some ways it would be perfect – one of my current projects is 5 miles from home, and my wife works ~2 miles from home. Her job in particular would be ideal as it isn’t a walkable/bikeable route. But for me I have too many occasional days like yesterday where I drive 75 miles due to project and family requirements!
      I love my hybrid, but don’t see an electric in my (near) future.

      • loopyduck says:

        “Tesla touts their charging network along the east coast, but how far inland do you need to go before that disappears?”

        There’s only two Superchargers available on the East Coast (as opposed to six on the West Coast), so… not very far. However, I believe you can also fill up at dealerships, of which there are a few. There also at least 60 Level 3 (same as the Superchargers) in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York as part of the Blink network. And for what it’s worth, Musk is on the record as saying that Tesla will be building more Superchargers through out the East Coast.

        But you’re right; they really positioning the Model S toward the NY-CT folks, and Nissan is setting up the Leaf as the second car. There’s been a long history of folks with… greater disposable income subsidizing the cost of new technologies before costs are driven down and infrastructure is put in place. EVs seem to be following the same path.

  2. I’m in total agreement. When electric cars first came out (in the 90s), they had a maximum range of 80-100 miles, and a charging time of 8-12 hours. Now, there are a bunch of different electric cars available and they have . . . a maximum range of 80-100 miles, and a charging time of 8-12 hours. Yes, they have more bells and whistles, but they still have those two key limitations, and in my opinion they’re *big* limitations.

    When you can go 350 miles on a single charge, and can charge up in a couple hours maximum, I think people will go for it. But honestly, I just don’t see the tech supporting that. I think hydrogen cars are more likely.

    • loopyduck says:

      “When electric cars first came out (in the 90s)…”

      One could make the same argument about the Honda Civic. Compared to a Civic from the ’90s, a modern-day Civic is between 300 to 500 pounds heavier! Some of it is from safety requirements (reinforced crumple zones, additional air bags, etc) and some of it is from creature comforts. At the same time, the modern Civic has equal or worse gas mileage.

      I should remind you that the EV1 used lead-acid batteries, which are incredibly inefficient. Given the exact same weight, a lithium-ion pack has triple the energy capacity while being half the size. A portion of that space and weight savings would be used up by additional cooling equipment, true, but we’re still looking at a retrofitted EV1 that could travel 200 miles.

      One other point: EV1s (and other electric cars, like the Toyota RAV4 EV) were only leased, not sold. You couldn’t buy one even if you wanted to, and monthly payments ($400-500/mo back then for an EV1) would be roughly $700/mo in modern dollars. That’s BMW 7-series (which are priced pretty closed to the Model S) territory for a car that was less well-equipped than a Corolla! You dismiss the “bells and whistles” a little too readily, I think.

      • But the Civic of today isn’t the same core vehicle, it just carries the same name. It has shifted in purpose and market segment. Whereas the term ‘EV’ suggests a core technology that has advanced in many ways … but for more adoption you need to give people more of a comfort zone around range and recharge, I think.

        • loopyduck says:

          That’s a somewhat fair point, but even if you look at the least expensive Honda–the Honda Fit, I believe–we see the same situation: a heavier, more sluggish vehicle with worse gas mileage. Just as EV technology *has* advanced, so has ICEV technology, but both have been burdened with various requirements (legal and market-driven) that make that all for naught.

          If folks are willing to have a Nissan Leaf at current prices but in a two-seater configuration–that is, trade versatility for range–then the range issue would not be the problem. That’s really easy to fix… if the consumer is willing to be flexible about it (heck, I could kinda see a 3+1 arrangement like the Toyota/Scion iQ working out). But recharging is a matter of available infrastructure, not a characteristic of the car itself. That won’t improve quickly unless there’s a greater number of electric vehicles out there (chicken-or-the-egg problem), or local/state/federal governments incentivize their construction. And honestly, I can’t see that last part really happening.

          • Totally, totally agree – and I read about a failed initiative in northern NY state (Watertown, I think?) to bring chargers to town with cooperation from someone else for funding. I guess only ‘earthy crunchy’ places like Ithaca will have them for now outside of metro areas.

            Total chicken-and-egg …

      • I’m honestly not sure what you’re arguing here, loopyduck. You take issue with some of the details of my post, but don’t address what I consider the basic point: Driving an electric car right now is too much of a PITA, and until it gets closer to the same level of PITA as a gas-powered auto, people won’t buy them. And I think that means a refuel time reckoned in minutes rather than hours, and a range of 250-350 miles. You can quibble over the details, but I really don’t think you’ll see mass acceptance with long recharge times and low range.

        • loopyduck says:

          I’m not “arguing” anything; I’m merely providing some perspective to your (in my eyes unfair) comparison. Well, I take that back; my edit does argue that hydrogen powered vehicles are not suitable replacements for ICEV/EVs.

          I did not address your “basic point” because you’re looking at EVs as a complete 1:1 replacement to all the vehicles on the road and find them lacking. Certainly, if you’re taking the perspective of a 90-minute-each-way daily commuter or the annual road-tripper, this wouldn’t work. It would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise, so I didn’t comment on that. But the fact is, there are plenty of TWO-car households where one vehicle serves as a commute-only (or nearly so) vehicles, and I don’t see why an EV wouldn’t be a suitable alternative in that scenario.

  3. loopyduck says:

    I think there’s a couple things you’d need to factor in from the description of your day: “We were home for an hour” and “to the movies”. If you had the quick charger at home, that stop at home would give you another 20 miles. The charger is an added expense, but there’s a federal tax credit for that. When you were at your parents’ house, you could have used the Level 1 charger (I imagine they wouldn’t begrudge you a few dimes’ worth of electricity!), that Nissan provides. It wouldn’t give you *a lot* extra, but still maybe 5 to 10 extra miles per stop.

    As for the movies (what movie did you go see?), I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but many movie theaters around here have chargers available for EVs. If you figure in a two hour movie, that’s another 35-40 miles of charge. And LA, San Francisco, and Seattle all have a decent number of public park-and-charge spots, which would have let you charge your car while you looking at sofas.

    The issue is getting the infrastructure in place, and that can happen… but only if there’s a critical mass of EV owners, be it as a 2nd car or for folks who never drive more than 20 miles in a day.

    • Carly Z says:

      Good point about the stop at home.

      We saw Silver Linings Playbook, it was very good. The movie theater did not have chargers as far as I saw, but it’s suburban NJ and an older theater, so the idea of chargers there probably haven’t spread yet.

      You nailed it with the infrastructure comment though. If the movies, grocery store, large stores like Target and shopping malls all had convenient chargers handy, I think it would make it easier to be electric in a spread out area.

    • But … that critical mass won’t come until people feel they can get their vehicle charged up reasonably. It is a HUGE impediment to non-‘gimmick’ purchases at this point. No one would seriously be buying these for their intended purpose outside of a half-dozen cities at this point.

  4. thsu says:

    What’s funny about the whole electric and self driving car fad is that we already have both of those today.

    They are called subway trains, and you can ride them in Boston, NYC, and DC, where a large portion of the population do not even own cars.

    • That’s true, but it’s not as if mass transit in the Northeast corridor is lightly-used. Certainly you can make an argument that it needs to be expanded, but it’s heavily used now.

      And of course that comment doesn’t address the west, where you have, what, 40 million people driving *a lot*, and where the mass transit infrastructure–not to put too fine a point on it–absolutely stinks. e.g., taking mass transit from Mt. View to SFO is about 25 minutes by car, and 1.5 hour (and three changes of trans) via public transit. That sucks.

      • thsu says:

        I wrote up the comment as a jest, but my feeling on the subject is that an electric car is a dumb idea.

        The problem with electricity is storage, and all storage methods have low energy density, are highly caustic to produce/mine, and wear out in a few years.

        If we converted to electrical cars today, we’d be replacing big oil with big lithium, which is primarily mined in China and Chile, and mined at far lower levels than would be needed to replace oil.

        That’s why subways and electrified buses are the only viable method of using electricity for transportation. Because a power plant can generate the electricity on demand, rather than store it.

        If your region has poor public transportation, that’s a rant all on its own.

        A far better solution to the electric car would be natural gas cars. We have lots of natural gas, which is a renewable fuel, lots existing refueling stations, millions of vehicles already in use that run on it, and it burns clean. What’s not to love?

        • thsu, you just summed up much of what has been my problem with electric cars, once I got past the “idea” of them being better just because they didn’t burn fossil fuels: in order to have an electric car you must have a mine with workers who are being exposed to heavy metals and other toxins.

          http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/09/19/rare-earth-metals-will-we-have-enough/

          “More mining of rare earth metals, however, will mean more environmental degradation and human health hazards. All rare earth metals contain radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium, which can contaminate air, water, soil and groundwater. Metals such as arsenic, barium, copper, aluminum, lead and beryllium may be released during mining into the air or water, and can be toxic to human health. Moreover, the refinement process for rare earth metals uses toxic acids and results in polluted wastewater that must be properly disposed of. The Chinese Society of Rare Earths estimated that the refinement of one ton of rare earth metals results in 75 cubic meters of acidic wastewater and one ton of radioactive residue. The 1998 leak of hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive wastewater into a nearby lake was a contributing factor to Molycorp’s shutdown in 2002.”

          http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/aug/07/china-rare-earth-village-pollution

          Add to that the fact that in order to create the electricity necessary to charge the car, you must mine the coal or extract the gas that will be converted into electricity in order to power the vehicle — assuming it’s not a hydro-electric plant.

          On the surface, electric cars may seem like a better, greener solution, but that’s not necessarily always the case.

          You also brought up what I think is one of our best options — natural gas. We have plenty of it, and it is CHEAP. We should be using more of it.

        • thsu, you just summed up much of what has been my problem with electric cars, once I got past the “idea” of them being better just because they didn’t burn fossil fuels: in order to have an electric car you must have a mine with workers who are being exposed to heavy metals and other toxins.

          http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/09/19/rare-earth-metals-will-we-have-enough/

          “More mining of rare earth metals, however, will mean more environmental degradation and human health hazards. All rare earth metals contain radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium, which can contaminate air, water, soil and groundwater. Metals such as arsenic, barium, copper, aluminum, lead and beryllium may be released during mining into the air or water, and can be toxic to human health. Moreover, the refinement process for rare earth metals uses toxic acids and results in polluted wastewater that must be properly disposed of. The Chinese Society of Rare Earths estimated that the refinement of one ton of rare earth metals results in 75 cubic meters of acidic wastewater and one ton of radioactive residue. The 1998 leak of hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive wastewater into a nearby lake was a contributing factor to Molycorp’s shutdown in 2002.”

          http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/aug/07/china-rare-earth-village-pollution

          Add to that the fact that in order to create the electricity necessary to charge the car, you must mine the coal or extract the gas that will be converted into electricity in order to power the vehicle — assuming it’s not a hydro-electric plant.

          On the surface, electric cars may seem like a better, greener solution, but that’s not necessarily always the case.

          You also brought up what I think is one of our best options — natural gas. We have plenty of it, and it is CHEAP. We should be using more of it.

      • thsu says:

        I wrote up the comment as a jest, but my feeling on the subject is that an electric car is a dumb idea.

        The problem with electricity is storage, and all storage methods have low energy density, are highly caustic to produce/mine, and wear out in a few years.

        If we converted to electrical cars today, we’d be replacing big oil with big lithium, which is primarily mined in China and Chile, and mined at far lower levels than would be needed to replace oil.

        That’s why subways and electrified buses are the only viable method of using electricity for transportation. Because a power plant can generate the electricity on demand, rather than store it.

        If your region has poor public transportation, that’s a rant all on its own.

        A far better solution to the electric car would be natural gas cars. We have lots of natural gas, which is a renewable fuel, lots existing refueling stations, millions of vehicles already in use that run on it, and it burns clean. What’s not to love?

    • loopyduck says:

      “They are called subway trains, and you can ride them in Boston, NYC, and DC”

      Then you have light rail/subway systems in Washington DC, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area, all of which are much maligned and all of which would take tens of billions of dollars to properly fix. As a frequent rider of BART, I often wonder what the designers were thinking: running three (four down some sections!) lines down the same pair of tracks. All it takes is for one train to fail, one system fault, or one object on the track to bring everything to a halt… and I haven’t even gotten into the aging control system that was never properly implemented.