July 22, 2019

What it’s like to own an electric car

It’s probably not a huge surprise to some of you that I’m a big cleantech booster. One such facet of cleantech that I suspect will soon be a big deal is electric cars.

I could talk for a long time about the impact of electric cars – their value, their effects, and how much of a solution they are for all the various problems we’re facing – but I won’t go into that now. What I’d mostly like to talk about now is what it’s like to make the jump.

And it does feel like a jump. An electric car isn’t cheap, and it’s a whole new method of transportation, requiring a different sort of thinking. Lots of people I know responded with mild incredulity when they heard what I was considering.

So, I thought I’d go into a brief explanation of the experience thus far, which is about 8 months of vehicle ownership as of today.

PART ONE: PRICE AND OWNERSHIP

This hardly needs to be said, but electric cars are expensive. They are going to be expensive until about 2022-2025, which is when they’ll probably be about cheap enough to be competitive with traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. We were in an unusually good economic place as a family, so we went with the Chevy bolt, partly because it offered an extremely high range (270 miles) and because we wanted to support a traditional American car manufacturer’s efforts to be part of the 21st Century.

However, it’s worth saying – most of that money is going toward the 270 mile range of the Bolt, but… 270 miles is kind of overkill.

Most people do not need a 270 range car. If you cut the battery in half, you’d make a huge cut in the price, and it would still fit most of the needs of most driving Americans. But I’ll go into that in our conclusions.

On the other hand, as a dude who just paid $500 to have his Subaru Outback serviced, check out the service schedule for the first 150,000 of the Chevy Bolt:

bolt

 

In other words, it’s nothing.

This is because electric cars have about 120 moving parts, as opposed to ICE cars, which have 1,200.

It takes a lot of work to explode fuel efficiently – and that’s what ICE do for you. There’s a lot of grease, friction, and breakdown. There’s also a tremendous amount of energy waste. Only a fraction of the burned gas actually goes toward turning the wheels. EVs are, from a purely engineering standpoint, an order of magnitude more efficient than ICE vehicles. But this is well-documented.

PART TWO: CHARGING – THE FIRST 6 MONTHS

When we first bought the Bolt, we did not have home charging. So we were dependent on finding a place to charge, and let me just say this: you do not appreciate an infrastructure until you do not have one.

Because even in Austin, home of the granola hippies and tech folk, the public charging infrastructure is pretty minimal. There’s free charging available at Whole Foods, but guess what, that’s in hot competition. The Whole Foods downtown even dedicated one of their two charging spots to Amazon Prime Partner parking (but the staff told me if I charged there they wouldn’t tow me).

So – that’s a level of insecurity right there. The onus is on the driver to find a place to fuel up. This made me very aware how we take it for granted – and how weird it is – that we’ve installed giant tanks full of processed petroleum in the ground all over the nation, and we ship giant trucks full of more of it to these countless, countless places to fill up those big giant tanks, all to make sure that if we want gasoline, it is always available, almost more than water. It is weird that fuel is so ubiquitous, once I thought about it.

Suddenly having a mode of transportation that didn’t rely on this made me anxious. However, I was starting a new job in October, and they had charging – not free charging, but charging nonetheless – at my parking garage.

Charging at a Chargepoint location isn’t as cheap as one might think. When you look at electricity prices per kWh, it’s a matter of cents, but when you add about 100-150 miles to your car, it’s about $18 bucks. I usually charged up twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, to make sure we were full for the weekend. This meant I was paying about $40 a week, though the car would charge up super fast, and be ready before 11 AM for me to drive away.

But the price wasn’t the issue. The issue was that my parking garage had four charging stations, with two charging spaces apiece, meaning eight total spaces… and usually 6/8 of those spaces were broken or down at any moment.

So. 3/4 of all the available charging was never, uh, available.

I wasn’t quite sure if the property owners were required by the City of Austin to install chargers – I can’t find anything saying so – or if they’d just done it as an attempt at being green. But it was pretty clear they didn’t give a shit. And yes, it is incumbent on the property owners, not Chargepoint – not the company that will, I believe, get most of the profits – to maintain the chargers.

One just never stopped updating. It has never stopped updating in the 8 months I’ve worked at this location. Another would accept my Chargepoint card scan, but its locking mechanism kept failing to actually unlock, so I couldn’t get the charger out. This meant I was competing for two charging spots at all times – still extremely dependent on the meager infrastructure that was available.

And that’s the problem. Most charging suppliers just don’t give a shit. Most everyone doesn’t give a shit. Even the Whole Foods near my house left one of their chargers down for nearly a month.

But I made it work. And when I wasn’t charging, I gladly took the super-close electric car parking at the non-functional stations. Because if you’re not going to put in the effort to let me charge, I’m going to take whatever I can get from you.

PART THREE: CHARGING – THE PAST TWO MONTHS

There are three charging levels, but really only two we need to talk about: Level One, and Level Two.

Level One is a wall socket. Basic 120 volt connection. Same thing you’d use for a vacuum or a hair dryer. You almost always get a cable for this when you buy your car, and it looks exactly like what you might think it would: a car charger bit, connected to a very, very long cable, which ends in a three-pronged plug. This is not a terribly fast charge: it adds about 3-4 miles per hour.

Level Two is a 240 volt socket, which are the weirdo-looking ones you see for your washer or dryer or some kinds of ovens. This is a much faster connection, adding 20-25 miles per hour, but most garages don’t have them, so you need to get an electrician to install them (that’s $2,000 right there) and then you need to buy the charger itself (usually about $600, though there are often rebates for this sort of thing).

Most people just assume that you need a Level Two charger when you use an EV.

But to be honest, I’m not sure you do.

My work is about 20 miles away from home. That’s 40 miles of driving each day, at least – but let’s say 50, based on AC usage.

However, if I get home at, say, 6 PM, and plug my car in right away to my Level One charger, then by 6 AM the next morning, I’ve added 48 miles – about enough to make it up. And on the weekends, I can charge for a lot longer, which can more than compensate.

And this is the real revelation buried in a lot of my experience with electric cars: the driving experience is in no way right-sized. 

When you buy an ICE vehicle, you are not buying a transportation solution to fit your regular transportation needs. You are buying a transportation solution to fit your most abnormal, maximal transportation needs.

This varies from person to person, of course. But I would say that our family makes a 200+ mile trip, oh, about 6-8 times a year, 400 miles round trip. So that’s, at most, 3,200 miles of long-distance driving a year.

But my short range, daily driving is much, much, much more frequent. I’m driving my 40 miles to work every day – probably a long commute for most, really – and on the weekend, I’m driving much less, probably 15-20 miles total. So that’s 9,600 miles of weekday driving, and 960 miles of weekend driving (assuming 20 miles of driving total per weekend), for a total of 10,560 miles of short range driving a year.

In other words, my short range mileage needs are about over three times as large as my long range needs.

And on a frequency basis, it’s even more absurd. I probably take about 624 short range trips a year, back and forth from destinations. Long range trips – about 16.

I take thirty-nine times as many short trips as I do long each year.

This is a little bit like saying, “I drive from Houston to Austin a fair bit – but occasionally I fly to London for work. So, it makes total sense to buy a private jet, just in case, and fly that to Houston and Austin.”

This is dumb.

Cars, really, are dumb. It just takes evaluating other transport options to make you realize that.

And one big revelation is that America does not think of transport in terms of distance. Rather, we think of transport in terms of time. 

When someone asks how far away something is, we say, “It’s about two hours.” We do not say, “It’s about 300 miles.” And this isn’t a great way to plan transport. When you’re building a road, you don’t think, “I need to make this fit a two hour commute.” You’re thinking about route and distance, first and foremost.

A car is tool a that allows you to skip over a certain amount of miles. It is not a tool designed to run for X or Y amount of hours. So we’re thinking about transport with the entirely wrong mindset.

And this is what range anxiety really is. It’s not a concern about running out of battery. It’s a sudden awareness of all the infrastructure you take for granted, AND an awareness that you have been shoved into a transportation monoculture that decides what mode you’re going to choose. An electric car is a paradigm shift in that transport mindset.

It’s like being in a long, very controlling relationship, and suddenly wondering what it’s like to be with someone else – there’s excitement, perhaps, but also fear when you imagine a change. When you’ve never been able to make your own choices before, the idea of having to actually think through your day can be overwhelming.

But it doesn’t really need to be overwhelming at all, at least when it comes to electric vehicles. 90% of the time, you’re not going to need a 20-25 mile an hour charger. Odds are, a 4 mile an hour charger will suit most of your day to day transport needs.

I didn’t really become aware of this until we took the Bolt to see family in Marble Falls, which is about 50 miles away. When we took it out there, it was already 20 miles down, since I drove it to our house from work, so really it had lost about 70 miles before we’d gotten to the house. But I plugged it in in their garage, and we hung out at the house, and within 18 hours it was all charged up again.

Don’t get me wrong, 18 hours is a long time. But if your car isn’t doing anything on the weekend – and ours sure as hell wasn’t – why not make it work? Why not do something?

However – another “however,” yes – our house was old, and badly needed electrical updates. This meant we didn’t quite trust it with the Bolt, even with Level One charging. (To be honest, I was game to try, but since a new fridge had shorted out half the house once, I was talked out of it – probably wisely.) So, when we updated the house two months ago, we also got a Level Two charger.

So, for the past two months, we’ve gone with the traditional electric car charging configuration – a home charger – and each day, the car is ready to go two hours after I get home.

Understand, please, the extent to which that is overkill. I am grateful to have a fast charger – but I am also keenly aware that I paid a lot of money for a capability I’m really only going to need 5-10% of the time.

CONCLUSIONS

Would I recommend buying an electric car? This is a bit like asking if someone should buy a computer. The answer is, “Probably – but what do you need it for?”

And that’s the question that’s missing in a lot of our ICE culture. We are arranging it so that people feel obliged to buy a tricked-out graphic design laptop when really they just want to play Solitaire. You are devoting money, maintenance, time, and most importantly land into possessing a solution that will meet your maximal needs. It’s insane. This doesn’t even take into account the health and climate impacts, either – which are significant.

If I were to talk to a young person who was considering buying an electric car, and had their own home or garage or somesuch, in 70-80% of the cases, I would recommend that they go with a 100-120 range vehicle, and use a Level One charger.

I would recommend that they do this because odds are, they aren’t driving more than 350 miles a week, which is about what you’d get out of a Level One charger if you’re charging 12 hours on weekdays, and 15 hours on weekends. (Which is, in my opinion, some pretty limited charge times.)

To go over that mileage budget, you’d need to drive about 50 miles a day, which is fairly abnormal. (I am aware that my own 40-50 mile commute is quite abnormal.) So I’d tell them to go with that, which would be considerably less expensive than buying a Bolt or a Tesla or somesuch, and also you wouldn’t have to install a Level Two charger, and also, you’d never have to do maintenance on your car until you’d hit 150,000.

And if you needed a car for a long distance trip, I’d say just take those funds you’re saving, and rent an ICE vehicle for that one instance. I wouldn’t even bother googling charging stations along the way, or public charging stations at your destination – God knows there ain’t many in Houston, and there sure as hell aren’t any in Marble Falls.

For perspective, we own a Subaru Outback as well. With an 18.5 gallon gas tank, and the current price of gas at $2.77, and estimating that we fill it up about 3 times a month, I’d say we’re spending about $1,800 a year on gas. Let’s add another $500 on maintenance – and these are both conservative estimates. That’s $2,300 a year I’d be ducking if I swapped that with a short range electric vehicle.

Just checking out the prices at Enterprise, a 3 day economy car rental costs about $115 here in Austin. All other things equal, that’s 20 weekend trips I could make with this arrangement. Personally, that seems like a lot of trips to me.

In other words – this minimal arrangement, based purely on miles and money, would work for plenty of people.

Or.

Or. 

OR.

We could densify our cities, build bike lanes, invest in public transport and infrastructure, invest in small-scale, micromobile electric transportation, and cut about 90% of this debate to nothing.

We could do that.

We could also do that.