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4 things to know before you buy an electric vehicle

Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Automotive News

Is an electric vehicle right for you?

Many people will ask themselves that question for the first time this year. Prices are falling, battery range is rising, and mainstream brands are adding new EVs at a breakneck pace.

The technology, for years the province of early adopters eager to buy a Tesla or a pricey compact that looked like a science project, is about to hit the heart of the auto market.

“Three major barriers exist for widespread EV adoption: vehicle price; range, and charging infrastructure,” Autotrader senior analyst Michelle Krebs said. “With expensive Tesla models being the only EVs available — before the Model 3 — the impression was all were luxury models.

“This year and in the coming years, we will see a much wider array of EV offerings — in all body styles and a wide array of prices.”

Similar improvements are coming for driving range and charging infrastructure.

From the Mustang Mach-E and VW ID4 — both on sale now — to the Chevrolet Bolt EUV coming this summer and GMC Hummer EV sport truck arriving in the fall, you’ll be seeing a lot more EVs on the road soon.

They offer a host of benefits, from less greenhouse emissions to refueling while you sleep at home, but they differ from gasoline or diesel powered vehicles in fundamental ways, particularly how often you’ll need to refuel on road trips, and how long that will take.

“It’s not onerous, but there are some things people will have to learn,” IHS Markit senior analyst Stephanie Brinley said.

Here are four things anybody seriously considering buying an EV should know:

1. The price to install a 240v charger is falling

Anybody who owns an electric vehicle needs a 240-volt charger at home. With one, you can recharge overnight, so you start every day with the equivalent of a full tank.

You can charge an EV from a standard 120-volt outlet, but it takes too long.

For instance, a 2022 Chevrolet Bolt EUV that can go 250 miles on a full charge would need 62 hours at 120v, just seven hours at 240.

Without a 240v charger, you can’t realistically expect an EV to be your primary vehicle for daily use.

Just a few years ago, home 240v EV chargers cost $2,500-$3,000, including installation, but prices have plummeted as competition grows with the number of EVs on the road.

These days, Amazon prices for the cord to connect your vehicle to the outlet start under $200, though you’ll probably want one with a few bells and whistles, like Wi-Fi and a long cable.

Wiring a house to add a 240v outlet for EV charging generally runs $500-$1,000, according to Family Heating, Cooling & Electrical, which has three metro Detroit locations.

Incidentally, auto engineers generally call vehicles that get 100% of their power from electricity BEVs. That’s short for battery-electric vehicle. It distinguishes pure EVs like the vehicles we’re talking about from various types of hybrids.

People who have plug-in hybrids may be able to get away with a 120v charger because they have smaller batteries than BEVs. Even those vehicles, called PHEVs because they have a gasoline engine and just enough battery for short trips, benefit from quicker charging at a 240v charger, though.

2. How DC fast chargers work, how to find one

About 80% of miles driven in EVs are powered by electricity that was charged at home, but you’ll need to charge elsewhere occasionally. That’s when charging time becomes a big deal.

You can fill a gas tank in 5-10 minutes, with time left over to wash the windows and get a Coke in the gas station. Charging a battery takes longer, but how long depends on a couple of factors.

First, voltage from the charger. Getting 250 miles of range in seven hours from a 240v charger is fine when you’re charging overnight at home, but it’s a deal breaker if you’re going 300 miles from Detroit to Chicago for a weekend getaway.

In that case, you’ll want to look for a 400v DC fast charger. They’re not as common as 240v public chargers yet, but they’re becoming more widespread. You can find the nearest DC fast charger from the Department of Energy. Companies like EVgo and Electrify America that build charging stations also have apps showing their networks.

Charging at 400v, a Ford Mustang Mach-E’s range goes from 5% to 80% in 45 minutes. That’s about 216 miles for an AWD Mach-E with the 270-mile extended-range battery.

 

Why stop at 80%, you ask? We all fill to the brim when we stop for gas on a road trip.

Because batteries are different from fuel tanks.

A fuel tank is like a bucket of water, a single container.

An EV battery is more like an ice tray.

The Mach-E’s extended range battery pack consists of 376 individual batteries wired together. When all the cells are near empty — let’s say at 5% charge — fresh electricity pours in and immediately finds an open cell. As the cells reach capacity, the battery controller has to find the ones that still have room for electricity and monitor as they top up, like when most of the ice tray’s compartments are full.

Charging to 80% is easy and fast. Finding space for the last 20% could take as long as the first 80. The most time-effective thing is filling to 80, getting back on the road and filling to 80 again in 216 miles, rather than charging for three to four hours and only getting an extra 54 miles.

There’s another factor: the onboard charger. It regulates how fast the battery can accept electricity. A vehicle with a higher-capacity on-board charger accepts electricity faster. For instance: The 216 mile charge in 45 minutes for the Mach-E, which has an 11 kW on-board charger.

In contrast, the Bolt EUV has a 7 kW on-board charger. Connected to the same 400v, it adds 95 miles charge in 30 minutes. You don’t have to be an electrical engineer to know the Mach-E’s 216 miles in 45 minutes equals quicker refueling and more time on the road.

Further complicating matters, some vehicles, like the Porsche Taycan, can accept 800v. That means 5-80% charge — 184 miles range in a rear-drive Taycan — in 22.5 minutes. Expect 800v charging capability to become common.

The holy grail all automakers chase is a full charge in 10 minutes. They’ll probably achieve it, but nobody knows when.

3. Where public charging spots are on your route

But where can you charge?

Public 240v charging stations are pretty common in public parking lots and at businesses. DC fast chargers are increasingly common Meijer, Walmart, Target, Dunkin’ Donuts and more.

Good route-planning apps will help you find DC fast chargers on a road trip. A Department of Energy website, for instance, says there are 45 DC fast chargers near I-94 between Detroit and Chicago. https://afdc.energy.gov/stations#/find/nearest?fuel=ELEC

Ford’s proprietary app will pick the charging spots where it makes most sense to stop along your route for optimum driving time and range. It will even tell you how many charging points are open at a location.

“Most people have no idea how many public charging stations are within, say, a 10- or 15-mile radius because they're small, people don't look for them or even know what to look for, and they're rarely signposted,” said journalist John Voelcker, who has studied EVs and charging exhaustively.

Even during the COVID-19 economic downturn, charging stations continued to grow, according to the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab.

NREL says the U.S. is already nearly halfway to having the number of public DC fast-chargers that would be needed for 15 million EVs in 2030.

It’s virtually certain infrastructure initiatives under the Biden Administration will encourage more charging stations, and investment to make charging faster and more convenient.

4. Gas stations aren't going anywhere

Despite all the attention on EVs, internal combustion engines and vehicles will be around for a long time.

First of all, there are scores of millions on the road today. Some — and not just cherished classics, but daily drivers — will still be in service 20 to 30 years from now.

Second, automakers are shifting investment to EVs, but they're not going cold turkey on internal-combustion engines, also called ICE. Some types of vehicles may remain better suited to gasoline for quite a while. Utilities need to field service vehicles when storm or disaster disables the electric grid. The same goes for emergency vehicles, and many used in wilderness and very rural areas.

If an EV doesn’t meet your needs now, watch this space. They’re coming closer, but large numbers of ICE vehicles will remain in production for years. Beyond that, companies will keep making spare parts for oil-burners for decades.

The same goes for service stations. If you own a gasoline vehicle today or buy a new one tomorrow or next year, you don’t have to worry EVs will render it unusable.

©2021 Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.