So You Want To Buy An Electric Car? It Requires Some Planning

Sep 4, 2017
Originally published on September 4, 2017 5:50 pm

Over the last few years, many of my colleagues have asked me questions about cars. Recently at NPR West in Culver City, Calif., we got two electric chargers. When my colleague Melissa Kuypers said she wanted an electric car, I thought: perfect guinea pig for a little test.

"I drive by myself 13 miles each way. I don't care about performance. I sit in a lot of traffic," says Kuypers, the mother of a toddler. Her family also has another car that can serve as primary vehicle. And since NPR recently installed an electric charging station, Melissa would have a place to charge a car.

"I thought, why not," she says.

Two electric cars meant for the masses are hitting the market this fall, the Tesla Model 3 and the Chevrolet Bolt. And with India, France and Britain planning to ban the sale of gas-powered cars, electric vehicles seem to have a bright future.

Sales of electrics have increased, but they remain a tiny fraction of overall auto sales — about 160,000 out of over 17 million new cars sold in the U.S. last year. That means that many people have never even been in an electric vehicle, let alone driven one.

Over the course of the summer Kuypers has been testing electric cars, including a Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Bolt, Volkswagen e-Golf, BMW i3, Prius Prime and an Audi e-tron. We're going to use some of her experiences in a few stories about electric cars.

Micah Muzio, who does car review for Kelley Blue Book, took us on a drive to help us understand the difference between gas-powered cars and electrics.

One of the first changes that drivers of electrics are likely to notice is the quiet in the car's cabin. "There's no firing up the engine," Muzio says. "You just kind of get in and then you quietly leave."

Electric motors operate very differently than the internal combustion engines most of us are used to.

"They basically have one moving part," Muzio says, whereas a normal gas engine has lots of moving parts. As for reliability, he says electric motors are "head and shoulders above the normal internal combustion engine" — with fewer moving parts, there are fewer things to go wrong. There are also no corroded fuel or oil lines, or need for oil changes.

As we turn out of the NPR parking lot, Muzio puts the Chevy Bolt through its paces. He puts the car into sport mode and immediately floors it. There's a little bit of tire squeal, then instantaneous acceleration.

"The power happens immediately; The torque kicks in as soon as you push the throttle," Muzio says.

In June 2016, NPR West installed its first electric chargers. The two chargers immediately drew the interest of coworkers. Before the installation, one worker had an electric car; within one year that number grew to five.

It's a Level 2 charger, with a plug and long cord attached, that puts out 220 volts. It's like the power used for your dryer or other heavy duty appliances at home, says Joel Levin of Plug In America, a nonprofit that represents plug-in vehicle drivers.

He says chargers in the workplace have encouraged people to buy electric cars. Homeowners, landlords and businesses get tax breaks for installing them. Consumers get even larger federal and state tax credits for buying the cars.

Standard chargers take eight hours for a full charge. The plug on the Level 2 chargers is universal. At supercharging stations that are popping up around the country you can get it done in about half an hour, but they differ depending upon manufacturer.

Levin says the range anxiety, a concern when electrics were introduced, has eased now that the charging infrastructure is growing. He says people thinking about getting an electric car should make sure they have consistent access to charging, whether at work or home.

There are several apps, and websites that track the availability of charging stations. Also, AAA and several insurance companies offer roadside assist for EVs.

"It's a bit like driving across the desert," Levin says. "If there's that one gas station, you want to make sure that gas station works when you get there."

Sandra Button, who chairs the Concours d' Elegance at Pebble Beach, the premiere luxury antique car show, says that like many people she was reluctant to embrace electric cars, until she began driving them.

"They're responsive, quiet, and you know what, they can be really 'torque-y.' They can be really fun," she says. Button predicts that eventually electric cars will catch on with the public, so much so that for antique collectors, "Access to gasoline will eventually become an issue."

Kuypers wonders if her local mechanic would be able to fix a new electric car.

Muzio laughs. "You're probably not going to any repairs any time soon because it's a very simple system," he says. "The bigger question is the batteries. And the batteries that you find in any electric car now have super, super long warranties."

Muzio says range becomes less of an issue because "we've got cost-effective cars that have more than enough range for people's normal activities. ... The electric car is no longer an outlier."

The Bolt we drove gets a range of 238 miles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. "For just driving around Los Angeles, this is all the range you need," Muzio says.

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Two long-range electric cars meant for the masses are hitting the market - the Tesla Model 3 and the Chevrolet Bolt. With India, France and Britain promising to ban gas-powered cars, electric cars seem to have a bright future. Prices are down, and electric charging has become more widely accessible. From Southern California, NPR's Sonari Glinton reports on what to look for if you're thinking about going electric.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Over the last few years, dozens of my colleagues have asked me questions about cars. But recently here at NPR West in Culver City, we got two electric car chargers. And so when my colleague Melissa Kuypers said she was interested in buying an electric vehicle, I thought, perfect guinea pig for a little test.

MELISSA KUYPERS, BYLINE: I mean, I definitely have commuter guilt. I drive by myself 13 miles each way. I don't care about performance. I sit in a lot of traffic. And so - I also live in a climate where it doesn't snow. I can pretty much rely on what the weather's going to be. I just felt like I was a good candidate for it, and so why would I not?

GLINTON: Now, Melissa is the mother of a toddler. She owns a house. She has a garage and a place to charge it. And this would be her family's second vehicle. And I wanted someone who I could check in with on a regular basis. So she test drove six electric cars. Now, I'm going to use her experience and a couple of stories to help you understand the world of electric cars. To help Melissa pick a car, we're going to talk to some experts.

MICAH MUZIO: I'm Micah Muzio, and I work at Kelley Blue Book.

GLINTON: Do you think we will notice the most difference driving it, or...

MUZIO: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

GLINTON: Now, the three of us piled into the new Chevrolet Bolt. It's the long-range, all-electric car. It's in the same category as Tesla's Model 3.

MUZIO: Yeah. As you get in here, the first thing I did is pushed the power button. It's not really an ignition. And you hear nothing except the smooth sounds of NPR coming on the radio. And that's one of the big changes that you have to get used to, is that there's no firing up the engine. You just kind of get in, and then you quietly leave.

GLINTON: I want to add that the quiet can be an issue for pedestrians who don't hear the car and for drivers who sometimes leave them on accidentally.

MUZIO: So, yeah, let's get moving here. And electric motors operate very differently than the old internal combustion engine.

GLINTON: Can you click through the ways in which they're so different?

MUZIO: Well, one, electric motors are much simpler. They basically have one moving part. Electric motors are head and shoulders above the normal internal combustion engine. As I creep out onto the road, I'm just going to kind of floor it. I'm going to be very presumptuous and floor it.

KUYPERS: Do you want to put it on sport mode?

MUZIO: Yes. I always want to put it on sport mode.

KUYPERS: There we go.

MUZIO: Ready?

GLINTON: Yeah.

MUZIO: Little bit of tire squeal and then instantaneous acceleration. The power happens immediately. Torque kicks in as soon as you push the throttle. If I just floor it right now...

GLINTON: Whoa.

MUZIO: That instant power means they're actually kind of fun.

GLINTON: One of the ways in which electric cars are different is, well, you have to plug them in. Before we went out on our drive, we spoke to Joel Levin with Plug In America in NPR's parking lot.

JOEL LEVIN: We're looking at what's called a Level 2 charger. It's 220 volts, the same power basically as you use for plugging in, like, your dryer at home or, like, heavy-duty appliances. And this is basically - it's got a plug and a long cord attached to it. It's essentially just a very fancy 220 outlet that has some safety equipment in it so that it doesn't overheat.

GLINTON: An interesting note - it's these chargers that have encouraged many people to buy EVs. Homeowners, landlords and businesses get tax breaks for installing chargers. And consumers get even larger federal and state tax credits for buying the cars.

With the standard charger, it takes about eight full hours for a charge, and super fast charging stations are popping up around the country where you can get it done in about a half an hour. Back in the car, Melissa has another pressing question for Micah Muzio from Kelley Blue Book.

KUYPERS: Like, is only the Chevy dealer going to be able to fix this car?

MUZIO: The good thing is that from a - the motor side of the equation, they're not going to need repairs any time soon 'cause it's a very simple system. And it's going to be like that in any electric car. The bigger question is the batteries. And the batteries that you find in any electric car now have super, super long warranties.

GLINTON: When electric cars were introduced, Muzio says range was a big issue. It's become less of one now.

MUZIO: We've got cost-effective cars that have more than enough range for people's normal activities. The electric car's no longer an outlier. EPA says it'll top out at 238. Yeah, like, for just driving around Los Angeles, this is all the range you need.

GLINTON: Two thirty-eight is pretty good, especially when you figure my gas car gets a range of about 220. After this and other test drives, Melissa became convinced that an EV was indeed right for her. If other consumers are also convinced, the question becomes, how do cities and power companies handle the electric car? Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Culver City.

(SOUNDBITE OF M83 SONG, "MIDNIGHT CITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.