Most readers of this column are pretty savvy about EVs, and we sometimes forget that there are millions of drivers who have never driven one, or even sat in one. There’s definitely a need for basic, what’s-it-all-about articles, and more of these are appearing every day. Unfortunately, most are written by journalists who have no deep knowledge of e-mobility, and they often contain misleading information, even when they set out to present a positive picture of EV ownership.
A recent article from AAA, one of the world’s largest sources of information for drivers, entitled “Answers to Common Questions About Electric Vehicles,” is aimed at the electric newbie—someone who may be curious about EVs, but has no idea about what it’s like to own one. As articles of this type go, it’s a mixed bag—some of AAA’s answers will be helpful to a prospective EV buyer, but others are likely to leave them as confused as they were before.
The layperson’s first question is usually “How far can an EV go on a charge?” AAA correctly states that most of today’s EVs have ranges of around 200 miles. It also helpfully points out that, whereas this may seem short compared to the range of a gas-burner, US drivers travel an average of 31 miles per day. Prospective buyers need to consider how they’ll typically be using their vehicles (commuting, road trips, or both?).
When it comes to the relationship between temperature and range, AAA skates on thin ice, stating that “EV range is reduced by 41% when temperatures drop to 20 F and the car’s heater is used, and by 17% when they rise to 95 F and the car’s air conditioning is used.” EVs certainly do lose range in extreme temperatures, especially cold, but as EV drivers know, the amount of range loss depends on many factors, and can’t be reduced to a simple formula like this.
Of course, the second question is always, “How long does it take to charge a battery?” Yes, dear readers, I can see you rolling your eyes. Personally, I don’t know how exactly long it takes to charge my EV, nor have I ever needed to know. At home, it takes overnight. On the road, it takes a visit to the bathroom and a cup of coffee. However, every person who asks this question is a potential future EV driver, and they expect a precise answer. Here the AAA article isn't very helpful. Its answer is arguably misleading: “Recharging a depleted battery with household current can take 12 hours or more—a problem if you’re in a hurry but not if you simply charge the vehicle overnight. Many public chargers are faster, with some able to replenish half of the battery’s range in less than an hour.”
To be fair, the question about charging time is tough to answer in a paragraph, because it depends on the charging speed of the EV model in question, and several other factors. However, the EV-curious deserve a clear explanation of the three types of charging (feel free to copy and paste):
- Level 1 charging uses a 120-volt household circuit, and can take 12 hours to fully charge a battery pack, so it’s generally used only in unusual circumstances.
- Level 2 charging uses a 240-volt household circuit, and typically takes between 4 and 6 hours, depending on the vehicle. This is the flavor that’s generally used for home charging. All new EVs come with a portable charging cable that supports Level 1 or 2 charging from a household outlet, but most drivers will want to install a fixed Level 2 charging station in their garage or driveway.
- DC fast charging is available at public charging stations, and it can charge an EV in around half an hour.
Every prudent car buyer wants to know what the apple of their eye is going to cost, and every EV owner knows that an EV’s higher sticker price will be offset within a few years by the savings on fuel and maintenance. AAA says that “research from 2019 indicates that...overall cost of EV ownership is 8% more than gas-powered vehicle ownership.” Well, that’s a very unusual assertion, to say the least.
Many, many, many, many, many, many, many studies and anecdotal accounts have found that the total cost of ownership is lower for an EV than for a comparable ICE vehicle, and the gap grows wider every year. Most of the articles we're referring to concern Teslas, and some (including AAA’s writers) would probably be surprised to learn that these stylish and pricey cars can cost less on a TCO basis than vehicles with much lower sticker prices. We also recommend a visit to Carbon Counter, which lists lifetime costs (purchase price, fuel and maintenance) for most models on the US market.
When it comes to electricity and maintenance costs, AAA baldly states: “The cost of electricity to drive 15,000 miles a year averages $546; the cost of gas to drive the same distance is $1,225. Electric vehicles don’t require oil changes or engine air filter replacements. If an EV is maintained according to automaker recommendations, it costs $949 annually to maintain, $330 less than a gas-powered car.”
These figures are in the ballpark, but this is a ludicrous (almost plaid, in fact) oversimplification. Prices for electricity and fuel vary widely across the US—a more thoughtful cost comparison that recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal found that a hypothetical EV driver in Spokane, Washington could save $899 per year on fuel, whereas a New Yorker would save only around $428.
Maintenance costs also vary widely—there’s no question that they’re lower than for fossil-burners, but they aren’t going to be the same for a $30,000 Mini Cooper SE as for a $100,000 Tesla Model X. (Maintenance costs for my Nissan LEAF over the last four years, aside from tires and windshield wipers, have been zero.)
The most helpful advice AAA has to offer: ask friends and family who own EVs about their experiences. (One can also contact a local EV owners club, or consult online consumer resources such as Plug In America, Drive Electric or fueleconomy.gov.)
How do EV-driving AAA members feel about their purchases? Well, 96% of respondents to a recent survey said they would buy or lease another EV. Some 43% said they drove more now than they did with a gas-burner, and 78% reported that they had both a legacy vehicle and an EV in their households, but that they did most of their driving (87%) in their EV.