Climate-Friendly Drivers: 10 Things to Know About Electric Cars

Climate-Friendly Drivers: 10 Things to Know About Electric Cars
Photo (cc) by The National Roads and Motorists' Association

This post comes from Mark Chalon Smith at partner site CarInsurance.com.

We’re all familiar with the basic premise of electric vehicles — that they are much better for our environment. But here are a few facts about electric vehicles (EVs) that you likely don’t know:

1. Aging EV batteries perform better than we thought

“Range anxiety,” the concern that you might not have enough driving range to reach your destination or next charging station, is felt by many eco-friendly drivers, but on top of that, there’s the fear that you will have to replace your battery after a few years.

With today’s EV batteries, “end of life” is commonly defined as when the storage capacity drops to 70 to 80 percent of the original capacity. This can happen after a few years of daily driving. As capacity fades, the vehicle’s range decreases. At that point, typically once its down 20 percent, common wisdom goes, the battery should be replaced. So when scientists last week issued a report refuting that notion, it came as a pleasant surprise.

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory decided to investigate the extent to which vehicles still meet the needs of drivers beyond this common battery retirement threshold.

Samveg Saxena, who leads a vehicle power-train research program at Berkeley Lab, analyzed real-world driving patterns and found that “range anxiety may be an overstated concern” because EVs can meet the daily travel needs of more than 85 percent of U.S. drivers even after losing 20 percent of their originally rated battery capacity. The report also says that EV batteries can “satisfy daily mobility requirements for the full lifetime of an electric vehicle.”

Even at 50 percent of the EV battery’s original storage capacity, about 80 percent of daily driving needs could still be met, according to the report. At 30 percent of the original capacity, 55 percent would still get where they need to go on a daily basis.

“There are two main reasons people are hesitant to buy an EV: first, they’re unsure it will satisfy their mobility needs, and second, they’re afraid the battery won’t last the whole life of the car and they’ll have to replace it for a lot of money,” said Saxena, who has a PhD in mechanical engineering. “We show that, even after substantial battery degradation, the daily travel needs of most people are still going to be met.”

2. EV sales sluggish; researchers suggest swapping tax credits for charging station building funds

A new National Science Foundation report, which draws on statistics from the U.S. Department of Energy and automotive sources, points out that a little more than 250,000 electric cars have been sold since 2010, the first year they became available.

About 97,000 electric cars were bought in 2013 and 119,000 in 2014. Paltry figures, the science foundation says, when compared with the 13 million gas-powered vehicles (passenger cars, light trucks, SUVs and vans) sold in 2013 and the more than 14 million in 2014.

Why has adoption been slow? The main reasons, according to the foundation and Energy Department, have been in place since the beginning: Electric cars are expensive, and most people don’t fully understand the technology. Further, there just aren’t enough charging stations to satisfy the needs of motorists hoping to pollute less but still drive great distances.

As for the price of most EVs, which the foundation says ranges from $15,000 to more than $70,000, the researchers do point out that a $7,500 tax credit can ease buyers’ pain. But they wonder if that’s the best way to spend the $1.05 billion they say subsidies have cost the federal government.

They suggest the money could instead be used to build more than 60,000 charging outlets across the country, which might lead to a five-fold jump in EV sales. “That number of potential charging stations is significant,” the report states, “it represents about half the total number of gasoline stations in the United States.”

3. Electric vehicle insurance may involve your homeowner policy

Depending on where you live, you may be required to include liability coverage in your homeowners insurance policy for fires or any other potential mishaps tied to the car’s charging system.

“The American Association of Insurance Services reports that laws in at least two states — Oregon and California — require some homeowners and condo-owners to have liability coverage that protects the charging equipment,” Allstate says on its website. “Even if your state doesn’t require coverage in this circumstance, it may be a good idea to talk to your insurance agent about any homeowners insurance implications.”

4. Electric vehicles typically cost more to insure

Repair and replacement costs for EVs are higher than for gas-powered cars, so EVs are usually more expensive to insure. The higher cost is result, in part, of the pricier parts EVs use.

5. Some car insurance companies offer a car insurance discount for electric vehicles

Though you may pay a bit more for insurance, some of that may be offset by a discount. Some insurance companies, such as Travelers, Farmers and Geico, offer car insurance discounts on hybrids and EVs in certain states. The discounts can reach 5 to 10 percent off major coverages of collision, comprehensive and liability.

6. Electric vehicles are quiet; proposals to add sounds are on the table

Federal safety agencies are concerned that EVs pose a danger to pedestrians and cyclists — the cars are so quiet that people walking and riding bikes don’t hear them approaching. There hasn’t been much buzz recently about this, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does have some proposals on the table to pitch to lawmakers and auto manufacturers. Some of these ideas include requiring EVs (and hybrids) to emit a sound similar to a regular engine when the car is operating at low speeds.

7. Why so expensive? Start with the battery

The DOE says that before 2009, a 100-mile range electric battery cost $33,000. The price is about half that today, and the department expects it to drop to at least $10,000 by the end of 2015. Still expensive, but getting better.

Energy officials add that as much as 80 percent of the energy in the battery is transferred directly to power the car, compared with only 14 to 26 percent of the energy from gasoline-powered vehicles.

8. Getting from here to there — a gas to electric comparison

The DOE says it costs about $1 for today’s EVs to travel the same distance as a similar-sized gasoline car using a gallon of fuel. “This adds up to a savings of more than $2 a gallon or $1,000 a year in refueling costs, and the next generation of electric vehicles will bring even bigger savings,” according to Energy.gov, the DOE’s website.

9. State and local monies may be available

Beyond the $7,500 tax credit provided by the feds, electric vehicle buyers may also qualify for similar state and even local government incentives. California, for instance, offers up to a $2,500 rebate. On the more local side in the Golden State, the San Joaquin Valley Pollution Control District in central California offers a $1,000 to $3,000 rebate.

10. The first electric vehicle is very, very old

Robert Anderson invented the first primitive electric car, way back in 1832. It was a “crude electric carriage” that, nonetheless, was able to move through “non-rechargeable primary cells,” according to PBS’s “Now” program. The vehicle made technological strides over the next few decades, and the first electric taxis began operating in New York City in early 1897.

At the time, there were more EVs on New York streets than gas cars. But lacking the speed and power of gas models, they eventually became less popular. The rise of the combustion machines was at hand — Henry Ford introduced the Model T, mass-produced and affordable for many Americans, in 1908.

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