Practical Concerns of Electric Cars

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What most people really want to know is how electric cars perform in comparison to conventional cars. Most people don't really care what's under the hood; they simply want to know what happens when you press the accelerator pedal.

One of the biggest changes you'll notice as a driver of an electric car is that you can't just say to yourself, "I'll charge in the morning." You need to plan ahead because, unlike internal-combustion vehicles, electric cars cannot simply be filled up at the corner gas station. It takes time to charge the batteries, and so foresight is a necessary component of electric car ownership. The following sections outline some of the other practical considerations of owning an electric car.


All-electric cars can be made every bit as powerful as a conventional auto, and some all-electrics are even more powerful. The problem with power is that it takes a lot of juice out of the batteries in a very short time, and recharging becomes necessary. The ride of an electric car is also smoother and quieter than the ride of a gasoline-powered car.

Keep in mind that batteries are temperature sensitive and lose some of their output power when temperatures fall below freezing. The more features you use while you're driving your electric car, the shorter the range as well. While this is true for conventional autos, it takes a lot less time to refill a gas tank than to recharge, so the burden is less.

All-electric cars are particularly good for some applications: namely, city driving and driving short distances. This is one of the reasons why these vehicles are most common in cities, where commute distances are shorter than in the suburbs and where the narrow city streets and the crush of traffic make the generally smaller all-electric vehicles easier to maneuver. But there are a few things that electric cars aren't so good at:

✓ Hauling loads: Don't expect to see electric trucks anytime soon.

✓ Including creature comforts: Electric cars are necessarily spare and simple. They will not come with a lot of options and accessories simply because these limit the range of the vehicle.

✓ Long distance travel is generally out of the question: Why? Because there are no charging stations along the roadways — a situation that may change in the coming years. One scheme attracting interest is a battery-swap arrangement where you simply hand in your exhausted batteries and get freshly charged units installed in their place. This kind of swap will enable a quick "fill-up."

¿SJUBEH The performance of an electric car is really based on the batteries it uses.

Because battery technology is constantly improving there will likely be much better batteries in the next few years. It's likely that you'll be able to achieve a much better performance in a couple years by simply swapping up to a higher grade of battery when your old batteries need replacing. No other vehicles on the road can offer this promise.

Service and maintenance

Electric vehicles are extremely simple compared to any other type of vehicle, particularly ICE-powered vehicles. Service is easy, and straightforward. There are no tune-ups needed, no radiator flushes, no change of spark plugs, no filters. A single person can remove and replace an electric motor, and there are very few support systems needed (like carburetors, radiators, and so on) that need care.

Because electric cars are rare, finding qualified service technicians can be prohibitive. This will change over time, but it's going to take many years before the infrastructure is in place to adequately handle electric cars.

Battery charging and replacement

Keep in mind the following considerations about charging and replacing the batteries in electric cars:

✓ The batteries in electric cars need to be charged regularly. Most of the new electric vehicles being developed include an on-board charging scheme so that all you have to do is plug your electric car into a wall outlet that provides utility power.

✓ If you plug your electric car into an outlet in your garage your electricity bill is going to go through the roof. If you're on a tiered rate structure (the more electricity you use, the higher the cost) you could be in for a major shock when you see your bill. If you can sign up for time-of-use (TOU) metering, an electric vehicle will work better, if you charge it only at night.

✓ Even with the new-and-improved batteries, batteries on electric cars will eventually wear out and need to be replaced. The best batteries will last over five years, with some auto manufacturers warranting batteries for the lifetime of the car. Electric cars use a good number of batteries, so changing to new ones can be very expensive. It's not a difficult job to change batteries, so the labor costs are low, and most hybrid and electric car manufacturers will not warrant a battery pack unless it's changed by an approved service pro.

✓ Because batteries contain a lot of harmful chemicals you can't just throw them away. They must be disposed of properly (at approved disposal sites they will take batteries, but they charge for this service because they have to dismantle the batteries and dispose of the chemicals via specialized processes).

Environmental impact

Electric cars produce no tailpipe emissions and only miniscule amounts of evaporative emissions (emissions from evaporating fluids, like gasoline and oil in conventional autos).

Despite the fact that electric cars need to be charged via grid power, which uses coal and other fossil fuel power sources (see the next section "Where you get your charge" for info you need to know about that), mile for mile, the pollution effect is much less for electric cars because they are smaller and more efficient, and widespread use of electric cars will decrease the aggregate pollution levels of transportation.

Where you get your charge

The electricity to recharge the electric car's batteries has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is generally the electrical grid. Grid power is mostly derived from the burning of coal (52 percent, in the U.S.), a situation that's not likely to change over the next few decades for reasons that I explain in Chapter 4. Coal is widely available, and the supplies are mostly domestic.

Coal-fired electrical power is one of the most polluting sources. Recharging an electrical car from the grid is not necessarily going to solve our fossil fuel problems. In fact, it might make them worse if enough people buy electric cars because the grid will come under heavier and heavier use. The only way that electric cars will mitigate our dependence on fossil fuels is if they're so efficient in their battery-to-wheels operation as to offset all of the inefficiencies encountered along the energy line. This means that electric cars need to be small and spare, with few creature comforts.

Of course, electric vehicles can be charged by sources other than the coal-fired grid. If your utility derives its electrical power from a nuclear reactor, the net pollution created by an electric car can be very low. Some other possible scenarios include

✓ Using large solar arrays mounted over parking lots. The cars beneath the arrays can be charged during the day when the cars are parked beneath the panels. This scheme reduces pollution levels even further. It has another advantage as well: Cars parked beneath the solar arrays are shielded from the sun, and are much cooler to enter after a long day of work.

✓ Using wind power: In the same way that solar power can recharge batteries, wind power can be connected to the batteries for recharge. Wind power has the added advantage of being available at night, or in bad weather.

The problem is that these sources of electrical energy are not reliable: You're in trouble if you can't charge your car during the day when the sun's out, or if the day is calm or cloudy.

The chemicals in batteries

Lead-acid batteries and NICAD batteries contain a lot of nasty chemicals. The sulfuric acid in a lead-acid battery causes noxious fumes like sulfur dioxide. Hydrogen gases are also produced, and these are explosive when exposed to sparks or flames. Lead and cadmium are heavy metals and cause environmental harm when they enter the water system. NiMH batteries are less harmful than NICAD batteries and because of this there is a push to eliminate NICAD altogether.


Batteries are inefficient. It takes around 10 to 20 percent more energy to charge a battery than the energy that can be derived from that battery. A 12-Volt battery (the most common voltage output available — the type used in conventional autos) rated at 2,000 Ah required more than 24,000 Whs, or 24 kWhs, to fully charge. This amount of energy will drive an electric car for around 50 miles. The average cost of a kWh of energy from the grid is around 10 cents, so the cost of driving an electric car 50 miles is around $2.40. This varies widely, however, and doesn't take into account the cost of new batteries.

Electric car safety

Rumor has it that electric cars are more dangerous than conventional autos, particularly in accidents. But this hasn't been borne out by the record.

Size issues

Electric cars are generally smaller than their conventionally-powered bigger cousins. In fact, tiny cars are ideal for electric power. There are a number of small, one or two passenger vehicles on the market, which can transport one or two passengers over short distances.

Because electric cars are necessarily small and spare, safety is an issue. When a small vehicle gets into a crash with a larger vehicle, the large vehicle will generally win. There are so many large-sized, ICE-powered vehicles on the road now that it will take decades before the average size of a vehicle on American roads decreases. Even if the vast majority of vehicles sold in the next few years are small electrics, there will be a lingering size disparity.

The insurance industry weighs in

Insurance rates for electric vehicles will be higher than for conventional autos for two reasons. First, the increased hazard of higher voltages will result in more injuries. Second, electric cars are rare, and they will be for the foreseeable future. Insurance companies don't like rare cars because they are harder to replace. In addition, the risk that electric vehicles will once again disappear into the vapors of time means that insurance companies may not even be able to replace your electric vehicle, even if they want to. This puts the venture at risk.

Voltages: The shocking truth!

Electric cars also use higher voltages to run. But higher voltages are more dangerous because shocks are easier to get. You can get quite a jolt messing around under the hood of an electric vehicle, and who can resist messing around under the hood of a new car?

Manufacturers have incorporated a good number of safety features into the designs of their electric cars. Batteries are well sealed and the high voltage lines are clearly marked, and when possible, insulated to the point where getting a shock requires one to really try to get a shock.

Economics of electric cars

Electric cars today are very expensive. Production is limited to small manufacturers who don't achieve economies of scale. This may change as more electric cars hit the road, but right now you'll pay an arm and a leg for an electric vehicle. Tax breaks, subsidies, and rebates are available from different government agencies, and this helps to drive the cost of driving an electric car down even further.

The cost of driving an electric vehicle, mile per mile, is less than the cost of driving an internal-combustion vehicle. In some cases, the costs are nearly one tenth. Despite the inefficiencies of the electric grid in providing power to recharge batteries (refer to the earlier section "Where you get your charge"), electric motors are very efficient compared to ICEs, and so even in regions where electrical utility rates are high, driving an electric car is less expensive than driving an ICE-powered vehicle—at least on a mile per mile basis.

And last but not least, the ultimate determining factor of the cost of an electric vehicle is the cost of batteries. There is no way to tell if battery costs are going to rise or fall.


There is an inherent risk in buying an electric car. The same fate may be in store for electric cars as was experienced in the 1990s. New models will be introduced but a few years later the manufacturers may decide to abandon electric cars once again. In particular, hybrids, discussed in Chapter 19, show more promise because they neatly and effectively solve the range problem of electric vehicles. If you buy an electric car, you may be left out in the cold with a vehicle that nobody can service, and nobody wants to take off your hands.

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Renewable energy is energy that is generated from sunlight, rain, tides, geothermal heat and wind. These sources are naturally and constantly replenished, which is why they are deemed as renewable.

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