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How Driving an EV Differs
After 40,000 Miles, I've Got Some Insights for You
Chances are high, regardless of your politics or thoughts about climate change, you’re considering the possibility that your next car will plug in and may not have a gas tank. For nearly four years and fully 40,000 miles, I’ve been driving EVs. Let me share some of what I’ve learned.
EVs have significant advantages over internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, but I’d be lying if I ignored their disadvantages. Here’s a rundown of what to expect from an EV.
First, EV’s cost a bit more to buy. If you are in a position to buy a car that qualifies for the $7,500 tax credit (Teslas no longer do) and you can’t utilize the full tax credit, that will effectively offset the price differential. If not, you’ll need to rely on the dramatically lower operating costs to justify the higher purchase price.
EVs are simply simpler. They have fewer moving parts and so need less maintenance. They use about one-quarter the amount of energy of comparable ICE vehicles, so powering them is cheap. In Utah, where I live, electricity is cheap. Consumers are typically paying less than a dime per kilowatt-hour (kWh). EVs vary widely in their mileage but usually can go between 3 and 4 miles per kWh.
My Chevy Bolt has averaged 4.2 miles per kWh over the past six months or so, meaning that when charging at home, I pay about 2 cents per mile for energy. While on the road, I typically spend about 31 cents per kWh, more than tripling the cost per mile, raising it to about 7 cents.
In fairness, I should note that there are many free, fast chargers in Utah I use when traveling in-state, so sometimes my road trips are free!
Your big concern is likely range and the experience of charging on the road. I have a friend interested in EVs, but his demand for range always seems to be about 100 miles more than the best available EV range. Maybe you can relate to that fear of starting a road trip and discovering you can’t find a place to charge and being stranded.
Here’s the reality. I’ve traveled extensively through rural Western states. There is only one place I’ve wanted to go but couldn’t reach because of a lack of chargers. The spot is a tiny community called Navajo Mountain in Southern Utah on the Navajo Nation. It is only accessible through a long drive through Arizona. Today, there are no chargers that would allow me to reach it.
That said, Elon Musk has announced that Tesla will open its charging network to non-Tesla EVs before the end of the year, giving me access to a fast charger in Page, Arizona, that should allow me to make the trip. Rivian is also building a charging network in remote places so its vehicles, designed for camping, can be charged where they are intended to live.
In my experience, I typically charge my EV every 90 to 120 miles. I like to stop frequently, so I rarely stop only to charge. Almost half the time, I can get the full charge I want in the time it takes me to do what I was otherwise stopping to do, i.e., use a restroom, get a meal or snack or another errand.
The Chevy Bolt I drive is not the best EV on the market for road trips, yet I’ve gone about 20,000 road miles with it. It charges at a peak rate of about 60 kilowatts (kW). The best vehicles can charge at four times that rate. It will only charge at that rate until the batteries are about 50 percent full. It slows from there. When the battery is more than 80 percent full, charging slows pretty dramatically.
This slowing charge is universal in EVs. Owners typically only charge to 100 percent when cars are parked at home overnight.
My record for the longest drive without a charge in my Bolt is about 245 miles, driving from Reno, Nevada through Lake Tahoe in the Sierras to Danville, California in the Bay Area. My average speed was about 50 miles per hour on that trip.
Speed is a crucial thing with EVs. While all cars get better gas mileage at city street speeds than highway speeds, only EVs are capturing some of the energy lost with stopping and starting. As a result, ICE vehicles get better mileage on the road, giving you the impression that they are more efficient at speed. The truth is, your car is only more efficient at speed than it is at stopping and starting. EVs capture much of that lost energy and so do better in town. My Bolt averages almost 6 miles per kWh in the city. At 60 miles per hour, it gets about 4.5 miles per kWh. At 70, that drops to about 3.2. At 80, it falls closer to 2 miles per kWh, effectively cutting the range in half from 240 miles to 120.
As a result, I’ve spent some time with a spreadsheet and believe the fastest speed of travel, including charging time, for my Bolt is 70 miles per hour. Back East, where speed limits rarely top 70, that would be perfect. Out West, where speed limits in some states (including Utah) reach 80, it feels a bit slow. Driving faster demands so much more time charging that it is quicker to go 70 than 80.
Using air conditioning or heating cuts into EV range significantly. Tesla is now using heat pumps rather than coils to heat some of its cars, reducing this effect in the winter (not eliminating it). All the EVs I’ve seen have heated seats. The reason is simple. Heated seats use a fraction of the energy of turning on the heat in winter, preserving more battery power for the motor.
Much to Gail’s chagrin, I like to maximize range. That means I don’t turn on the air or heat unless it makes a big difference in comfort. I also drive the speed limit up to speed limits of about 65 miles per hour; above that level, I won’t drive faster than 70 miles an hour. Of course, you can turn on the heat and air. Around town, it has no impact on you beyond needing a few pennies more energy every month. On the road, just factor in your climate settings and speed when planning your route and charging.
Teslas incorporate the charging into routing and keep you aware of conditions required to meet your charging destination, alerting you to slow down if necessary. In my Bolt, I need to make those calculations. I keep Google Maps programmed to my next charge and maintain a simultaneous eye on the car’s estimated remaining range and the distance to the charger. I target a 30-mile cushion. When that limit is violated, I slow down. Sometimes topography forces me to slow for a time but then allows me to speed up after descending from a mountain pass.
Finally, the weather has a significant influence on battery performance. Cold weather significantly impairs performance. I don’t understand the physics. Hot weather improves performance. When temperatures top 100 degrees, my Bolt uses some energy to cool the battery. Energy used to cool the battery is a minor effect that only partially offsets the battery’s love of hot days. Ultimately, snow isn’t the only reason to push EV travel to milder weather.
Your experience and preferences will be different from mine. I love driving an EV, knowing that I have no tailpipe emissions and use one-quarter of the energy (some of which comes from renewable sources). You may just value having lower total ownership costs with an EV. You may have two cars in your household and may choose to use your EV only around town. In any case, you do you! Some fantastic new EVs are launching over the next 12 months!
If you drive an EV, please share your experiences in the comments! If you don’t, please share your questions!