Author: Wendy Greenhouse, Yale Class of ‘77
Wendy Greenhouse ‘77 and her husband, Mike Trenary, have owned a Chevy Volt since 2012 and a Chevy Bolt EV since 2019. They will never go back to driving an ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle.
“In the summer of 2019, we drove our new Bolt EV round-trip to Denver,” Wendy says. “With fast chargers along the interstate, we timed our stops with our own needs and weren’t greatly inconvenienced: a fast charger can take our battery from 10% state of charge to 80% in a lunchtime. On our overnight stops in Lincoln, NE, we were able to leave the Bolt charging overnight in a public garage near our hotel—one reason we chose to stay there. There were some hiccups with charging, but we found the trip manageable, and our zippy, quiet Bolt was a pleasure on the road. What was an experiment a couple of years ago would be simply a long drive now, given how much the charging network has grown in just this short time.”
Below, they answer some common questions they get asked about owning and operating an EV, and provide helpful information if you are thinking about switching to an EV.
What are the benefits to driving an EV?
It only starts with never having to buy gas, and the environmental benefits of emissions-free driving. EVs are just fun to drive. Instant torque makes for super-quick acceleration and a zippy drive. They run super-quiet, with no vibrations or engine noise. Some, such as the Chevy Bolt EV, offer “one-pedal” driving, which means total control of both acceleration and deceleration using only the accelerator, for responsive and efficient driving–and only rare use of the brakes (for those who want their EV to drive like a conventional vehicle, the Bolt also offers a conventional drive mode). So-called regenerative braking captures unused energy from coasting or braking and returns it to the battery, for a buffer against depletion of the battery. Instantaneous feedback on energy depletion and recapture helps drivers modify their driving to maximize battery range. Large, heavy battery packs give the vehicles the greater stability of a low center of gravity, as well as structural strength in collisions. EVs have very few moving parts, meaning very little to maintain or to fail, so operating costs are low. In our years of owning the Volt and Bolt, maintenance has been limited to rotating and replacing tires, replacing wiper blades, and refilling washer fluid. Problems are more likely to be software-related rather than mechanical. Most EV owners want to never go back to driving an ICE.
What do you need to know to buy an EV?
Dealers for traditional car manufacturers vary widely in their knowledge of and interest in selling EVs. It is up to purchasers to educate themselves. Often EV purchasers are converted before they enter the showroom, and early adopters tended to be people with technical training, especially engineers (until Tesla made their EVs the cool brand for rich young tech entrepreneurs). For the rest of us, online communities of owners can be a great resource. Multiple Facebook groups as well as forums dedicated to particular models let buyers listen to the experience of EV owners, some of whom have real technical expertise. Equally important are sites such as https://insideevs.com/ and https://electrek.co/ and the many Youtube channels such as E for Electric and Fully Charged.
Legacy manufacturers such as GM have long relied on sales of high-markup vehicles such as SUVs and pickup trucks, financing, and servicing for revenue. They’re not financially incentivized to sell EVs because the markup is minimal and these vehicles require very little regular servicing. But in larger metropolitan markets, buyers can locate dealers that do care about selling and servicing EVs. They will have specially trained techs and appropriate equipment. As with charging stations, this varies with region.
What are the considerations for choosing a particular EV?
In addition to the usual car-purchase considerations of cost, size, styling, and features, EV buyers need to consider how they will drive the car, which affects their choice of driving range (battery capacity), and how they will charge it on a regular basis.
High battery capacity giving a long driving range is important for long-distance driving or those who drive for a living. Manufacturers are pushing typical range limits higher to make EVs more practical for such uses. However, with daily charging even smaller-range EVs can still be quite practical for daily use, considering that the average American’s daily commute is just 32 miles–within the range of even the smallest EV battery. Our 2013 Volt, which runs on a small-range electric battery before it switches seamlessly to a gas-powered engine, has an electric range of only 35-48 miles (depending on outside temperature, driving speed and style, and terrain), sufficient for all electric/gas-free driving for my husband’s daily commute of 20 miles. For EVs with the 250+-mile range of my Bolt, typically used for local errands, daily charging is quite unnecessary. For those with little tolerance for range anxiety, there are numerous hybrid and plug-in hybrid (PHEV) models available, which allow driving on a combination of electric power and gas.
Owners without their own garages with convenient outlets will need to plan to charge periodically at public stations (free or at various price-points), possibly by leaving their vehicle overnight. Those with garages can charge their cars overnight at a low rate at a standard 120-volt outlet (with no equipment apart from the cable that comes with the vehicle) or install a faster Level 2 charger. For those who drive to work, EV charging is available at more and more public garages and workplace parking lots where drivers leave their cars for their work day. And opportunities are increasing for drivers to pick up a little charge while shopping, dining, or spending time in a theater. On the road, fast chargers that can take a battery from a 10% to 80% state of charge within an hour are distributed along interstate highways, with more being installed all the time. Distribution nationwide is uneven, with California uniquely saturated with charging stations—and EVs to use them. Apps help drivers locate charging stations along their route and plan to coordinate charging with stops for meals and activities, so that the net loss of time for charging is minimal. Tesla has blanketed the continental US with their exclusive fast-charging stations (soon to be usable also by other EVs) and greatly reduced the “range anxiety” associated with EV driving. Public chargers can be free or more costly per mile of energy than buying gas. Currently, however, many are free (sometimes for the cost of parking) or charge only a modest fee. The cost of home charging is quite low (much lower than gas), especially for those on a variable pricing plan who set charging for nighttime hours when rates are lowest.
Greater driving range and faster charging speeds tend to be found in the pricier EVs, but with the technology improving rapidly, these features will soon be found in more affordable models.
What about the cost of buying an EV?
EVs in general are priced higher than conventional cars, but the cost of the most expensive component, the battery, is falling due to economies of scale and improved technology even as range and charging speed are increasing. More EV models priced for average consumers will be released in the next couple of years.
Rebates and tax credits lower the cost of many EV models when purchased new. The federal government offers a tax credit which is variable and income-tied. Some states, including California and Illinois, offer their own rebates. These incentive programs saved us around $11,000 for our Volt and $7,500 on our Bolt, bringing them within range of the price of a new Prius. The Biden administration is also offering rebates on the installation of charging stations, including Level 2 chargers for home use, and some states such as Illinois are doing the same.
Plenty of previously owned EVs are available as well. Higher-range used EVs hold their value impressively, and a second-hand Tesla can cost even more than the same model new. These prices reflect not only the overall shortage of new cars currently but the higher values of vehicles with few components to break, malfunction, or age. The upside of these higher prices is the greater confidence a buyer can have in the value of a used EV. The degradation of a battery’s energy storage capacity is the biggest potential concern in a used EV, but experience has shown that most battery technologies realize less degradation than once anticipated—a good thing, as they are an EV’s single most expensive component to replace.
Buyers should consider that the higher purchase price for an EV will be offset by lower maintenance costs as well as savings on gas purchases.
What about those battery fires?
Fires have occurred in Teslas, Hyundai Konas, Chevy Bolts, and other EVs. (They also occur in ICE vehicles!) These have been terrible events for individual owners, but statistically they are rare and they have not noticeably affected sales of or interest in EVs. And they have led to improvements in technology and manufacturing. Few drivers of models affected by fires have returned to driving ICEs, even if they have lost confidence in that particular model. Challenges and set-backs are bound to occur with any new technology.
Fires in the Chevy Bolt prompted a recent recall of all 140,000+ units (110,000 in the US), a sales stoppage for unsold vehicles, and a temporary shut-down of production as the battery manufacturer, LG Energy, corrected the manufacturing defect that predisposed certain batteries to catch on fire. Production of batteries as well as vehicles has resumed and GM has committed to replacing entire battery packs in the 2017-2019 model year cars and defective modules in 2020-2022s. Our 2019 Bolt with its South Korea-made battery was in the group of Bolts most affected by fires, which did bring some anxiety with it. For several months we put up with reduced range to follow GM’s guidance for minimizing the chance of a fire, and we paid to park it in an unheated local municipal garage rather than in our condo building’s garage to reduce risk to our neighbors’ property. We also pursued a repurchase from GM and eventually received a generous offer. However, we decided to wait for the replacement battery because we so enjoy the car and because we could not find even a preowned EV that gave us the Bolt’s combination of generous range, zippy one-pedal driving, and small size at no net cost to us. Because our car was in the high-risk group it was among the first to get a battery replacement. The new battery has the enhanced range and faster charging of the 2022 model year, as well as a new 100,000-mile/8-year warranty, effectively giving us a new car in the body of a 2019. We are very glad to be able to keep our Bolt. Not every manufacturer has handled fires in their models in this way. EV buyers should consider the history and statistical likelihood of a battery fire and weigh the rare chance of one with the many upsides to EV ownership.
What are some exciting new things happening with EVs?
This is the moment for EVs: an ad for the new Polestar (made by a bespoke EV manufacturer owned by Volvo) was shown on Fox Sports’ broadcast of this year’s World’s Series. Exciting new things are happening all the time, in addition to announcements of new and improved models. For example:
- Hertz announced its plan to buy 100,000 Teslas, which will make EVs one-fifth of its rental fleet. This chance to drive a Tesla could convert a lot of drivers to EV ownership.
- Tesla is planning to make its huge network of charging stations accessible to all other EV models, while GM and the federal government are also planning to expand this essential infrastructure. With manufacturers working on technology for faster-charging batteries, public confidence in the feasibility of EV driving, especially long-distance travel, will follow.
- Recycling of lithium-ion batteries (currently the standard for EVs) is essential to making EVs an even greener alternative to ICE vehicles. This recycling is currently the focus of much research and entrepreneurship. GM claims to recycle 100% of its EVs’ discarded batteries, and researchers recently announced that the recycled cathodes from old batteries can even outperform new material
Get Involved: Learn More
Are you excited about EVs? Here are some places you can learn more:
- Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC) Electric Vehicles
- AFDC Fueling Station Locator
- Plug In America