Cars

Published on July 1st, 2015 | by Stephen Grinwis

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Long-Term Electric Car Ownership: What It’s Really Like

July 1st, 2015 by  

electric smart car charging netherlands

Note that I’m not the guy in this picture — that’s CleanTechnica director Zachary Shahan in Holland.

One Year Later

About a year ago,  I wrote my first piece on CleanTechnica, about how I sold my Camaro and purchased my current automobile: a Smart Electric Drive. I thought it was about time to provide an update. We always hear about how new owners are happy with their purchases, and how you should go electric too. What I think is missing from the conversation is an honest look at long-term electric car ownership, from a real owner who’s had to deal with real life. That wasn’t really there for me, and I’d like to put that down for people who are considering going all-electric but can’t get a clear, honest look at life with an electric car. I am going to be brutally honest, and as unbiased as possible. This is what it is like to live with a first-generation electric car. Hopefully I can also convey at the same time, that I am very happy with my purchase. I want to look at three key components: cost,  range, and drivability.

Cost

Let’s take an honest look at cost. My Smart Electric Drive lists at $29,000 CDN. However, I got a series of discounts on my car: dealer rebates, government rebates, and a discount for buying a dealer demo. The net price out the door was $13,500 + tax.  That actually makes a pretty compelling package, though current buyers may not be able to reproduce the same deal. If I keep the car for 10 years, that’ll mean an amortised cost of $1,350 per year, or a little over 100/month. In the meantime, it’ll save me more than that on gas compared to an equivalent gasoline car, even assuming gas prices don’t rise over the next 10 years. That’s how the math looks when you go to purchase the car, right?

However, the energy efficiency ratings for the car don’t take into account how much heat you’ll need to pump into the car in a Canadian winter. During the winter, my energy usage is doubled, consuming 14 kWh/day this past winter, instead of the expected 6.5 kWh that my math yielded. This is because winter tires, electric cabin heating, and battery thermal management all have energy costs to pay. This meant that for nearly four months, my daily commute was costing $1.68 instead of $0.78. This was unexpected when my normally fairly low winter electric bill of around $60 suddenly turned into over $100. Now, does this actually make much of a difference? No, not really. It’s just something that I wasn’t expecting. (Note: My electrical company sent me a note asking me if everything was alright, as my usage had spiked.)

Another thing that you should really be expecting is the purchase of a higher-power charging station. The difference between a 110 volt charger and even a modest 16 amp 240 volt charger is around 250% charging rate. It’s substantial. There are definitely people who get away with just 110-volt charging, but if you want to be draining your car even occasionally, plan on having the big charger. Mine cost me $450 after a 50% rebate.

Range

Next, lets take an honest look at range. This is the biggie, right? New owners are always saying something along the lines of “I forgot all about range anxiety in a week or two.” This was my experience as well. I bought during a beautiful June day, when temperatures were moderate, and winter was a vague memory from a distant past.

This past winter, however, has left more scars than normal. My home region of southern Ontario experienced one of the coldest winters on record, with nighttime lows regularly hitting -25 C (-13 F). Under these conditions, my range was effectively half of what it normally was. Where I normally get to work on 20% charge, I was arriving at work having consumed 40% charge. And then the trip home took even more juice, because I couldn’t pre-heat and the car was cold soaked each day. I got really used to driving into my driveway with battery warning lights on. It was a little nerve-racking some days looking at the ‘range remaining’ estimation then looking at the distance left to travel home, and seeing the latter be the larger number. That being said, the car never left me down. I was never stranded. Thankfully, the range remaining in the Smart Electric Drive is very conservative, and it is a normal event to have the range remaining actually climb as you drive (editor’s note: this is the case in almost all of the EVs on the market). After going through this a few times, I knew that I could get home with 60% charge, and stopped worrying.

If I did need to do additional driving, it wasn’t that big of a deal to plug into a 120-volt outlet while I was at work with an extension cord and juice up over the course of the workday. For normal commuting, don’t plan on going more than half your rated range if there is a chance you could experience cold Canadian winters, or plan on plugging in at work during the really cold spells.smart fortwo electric

Drivability

Finally, let’s take an honest look at drivability. And this is something that is just hard to describe adequately. The point-and-shoot capability of an electric car is just phenomenal. You’re always sitting there in lowest gear, with 100% available power on tap as soon as you stab the pedal. Even fast automatic transmissions still take a split second while they pull power from the engine, swap cogs, and start building revs to generate power again. Not so with an electric. You’re always a split instant from maximum acceleration. It’s pure motoring bliss. Every gap in traffic becomes both an opportunity and a challenge. It actually tends to make some people a little bit on the too aggressive side. Not me, though. Of course not. Now perhaps less enthusiastic driving will be more energy efficient, it’s true, but it’s just SO much fun. And in the end, I think this is what will sell electric cars, and really drive them to the masses (editor’s note: I agree, + the convenience factor).

Yes, the environment is important, and yes, operating cost savings are there. Sure, purchasing prices are falling rapidly, year over year, as new technologies and economies of scale come to bear on the problem. But in the end, it will be because an electric car is so much better to drive that will be the driving force to the masses. When grandpa can can rip off the line next to Honda boy tuners in his Chevy Bolt, and embarrass them, he’s going to like that, and they’re going to hate it. That he can do it in with nothing but muted inverter whine and a handful of pennies is really only the icing on the cake.

Top image by Marika Shahan | CleanTechnica | EV Obsession (CC BY-SA 4.0); bottom image by Smart | Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC


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About the Author

is an EV evangelist, and general automotive enthusiast. His engineering background means he tends to nerd out a bit on the numbers. He focuses primarily on battery technology, wind power, and electric vehicles. If you can't find him running the numbers, or writing, you might find him lifting weights somewhere!



  • Joseph Kool

    My diesel car is cheaper to drive than your electric pile of shit and it doesn’t have any of the drawbacks.

    • Bob_Wallace

      FUD Out!

  • kingm60

    This is an excellent review. Ive had a Smart Electric since December of 2013 and I agree completely. My largest gripe has been the significant decrease in range over the winter months. I also notice that the Air Conditioning is a huge drain in the summer months as well. Fortunately for me I have an 18 mile roundtrip commute into NYC everyday from NJ so range isnt really an issue. I can make about 3 roundtrips before plugging in. I only use the 110 charger which has served me fine. The best part of the EV is that it saves me 120 dollars a month in tolls because of the Lincoln Tunnel and GW Bridge “Green Pass” discount for electric cars.
    While I love racing people off the lights and seeing their faces when I win I would NEVER recommend this as a persons only car. I also own a Toyota RAV4 which gives me the range and cargo capacity that the Smart could never provide. I will certainly be in the market for another 100% EV when this lease ends but I will be looking at slightly larger vehicles.

  • dogphlap dogphlap

    You glossed over the joy of getting out of an ICE vehicle at a gas station in a Canadian winter, breathing in those benzine enriched fumes (don’t worry about the brain lesions, you have to die of something, might as well be petroleum related). /s

  • trackball

    personally, I like the long term cost savings of:
    1) no engine oil changes
    2) no trans oil changes
    3) no coolant changes

    just worrying about the cost of the battery pack, but hoping 6 – 8 years down the road the battery tech will be such that:
    a) battery pack will be half the price they are now
    b) double the capacity within the same space
    c) double the lifespan
    d) any or all combination of above.

    • jstack6

      I have had the FORD Focus EV for 3 years in the HOT Phoenix area. It has liquid cooling. No battery capacity loss at all in the 3 years. The battery should last 20 years at 80% or better.

      I drive hyper mile-ing and get 80-120 miles on a charge.

  • eveee

    Stephen – Nice. I like the silence. I always feel more calm and relaxed in an EV.

    • Kyle Field

      My wife commented on this the other day. It’s surprising how much of a difference the noise (or lack thereof) makes. I really enjoy it.

      • neroden

        I am hoping that EVs will reduce road rage. They just seem like much calmer vehicles — they don’t rattle and shake, and they aren’t “pulling at the reins” trying to go faster when idling.

  • jessica Feinleib

    I just hit the 1y mark with my Volt today. I am a 40 something, doctor, mother of 2 and when it is safe, I enjoy blowing the doors off of the petrol head kids.

    When we are on the highway on ramp my 7y old cries “mommy punch it!!” That moment of mommy coolness is “priceless.”

    We traded in our Mini van (16MPG) for the Volt, saving 1,200$ in gas cost this year alone. (That takes into account the cost of the electricity.) We just put a roof box on our Prius for big family vacations. Drives great, saves money and the future for our kids, how can you beat that??

    Now I am looking forward to trading in the Prius for the Outlander PHEV in the spring….then in 2017 swap the Volt for the Bolt….. the future is here!!

    • Kyle Field

      My kids ask me to “boost” on a safe straight stretch on the way to school when we’re in my wife’s EV 🙂 Too much fun…though I can’t do the same in my Prius 🙁

    • hahaha, that is awesome 😀

      The Outlander PHEV has just topped another market (article coming soon). Looks good. I admired a bunch of them while in Amsterdam. Hope it really arrives in the spring in the US.

      In the meantime, enjoy your Volt! 😀

  • Philip W

    Thanks for the update! Glad you’re still happy 🙂 (not that I expected anything different)

  • TedKidd

    Yep. This review nails it.

    I leased mine. $150 a month. No capital uncertainty – no depreciation worries. Maybe Smart will give out a Leaf like bonus and I’ll buy it at the end, maybe I’ll simply jump to a Model 3 or Bolt (assuming Bolt has Supercharger option).

    After 3 months it became my only car. I realized my TDI Sportwagen was depreciating at $200+ a month and not moving. So I sucked it up and went pure EV. It is great, but it can be limiting.

    “But in the end, it will be because an electric car is so much better to drive that will be the driving force to the masses.”

    Yep again. I’m OK being inconvenienced because the car is so much fun, and the current market doesn’t offer much more. But once Bolt and Model 3 are here I’ll want a real car. A car I can go to Ohio or NY or Washington DC in. A car I can drive to Jackson WY with my Mountain Bike. I want NO LIMITS. I think this is what the masses want too.

    Basically an affordable, smaller, taller model S. A mini model X.

    • Bob_Wallace

      $200 a month covers a lot of ICEV rentals when one wants to do a long trip.

      EV + renting an efficient ICEV = “the other PHEV”.

      • TedKidd

        One problem is I simply don’t want to drive and ICE car, much less pay to do it AND pay for gas.

        The other problem is when you are travelling 4500 miles over 6 weeks (my typical Jackson trip), I suspect the rental cost will be substantial.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Not that many people make a 6 week trip every year by car.

          Just for fun I went to Kayak and put in 6 weeks rental out of San Francisco. There are rentals starting under $800 and several options under $1,000.

          • TedKidd

            If I had a Tesla I’d take 3!
            🙂

        • Kyle Field

          Rent a Tesla model S 🙂

        • neroden

          That’s the problem right there. I thought I would rent an ICE car for long trips, but *I don’t want to drive ICE cars any more* because driving electric is so much nicer.

    • No way

      Model Y seems to be what you’re waiting for. It will be here around 2020/2021.

      • TedKidd

        Hopefully they’ll come out with the 3 crossover before the 3 sedan. (Model S, even on high suspension setting, is lower than I like.)

        The Bolt seems a fairly tall car, if it has Supercharging I’d be very interested in that.

        • It will likely have CCS, while we only have CHAdeMO in Texas thus far (but a good number of those in Houston, Austin, and DFW). Hoping that changes before the Bolt arrives, especially adding a few dual stations along I-20, I-30, I-35, and I-45 for long distance driving. Despite the rather odd socket, having a single connector for level 2 and level 3 charging just looks… better.

          I’ve toyed with the idea of linking the east coast EVSE network with the New Orleans and east Texas EVSE networks along I-10, I-20, and I-30. My layout only requires 13 fast charger sites to comfortably reach anywhere in the deep south (except the southern tip of Florida) in an EV with Bolt-like range. I can’t find good historical data for installation cost online, but it could probably be installed for less than the cost of a single hydrogen station given willing businesses to physically host them. I retire in 6 months, making it a tempting challenge. But could I bring in enough revenue in the first three years to support operations and maintenance while clearing a fair profit on the capital investment? Hmmm.

          • Kyle Field

            That’s the big challenge – fast chargers are large capital investments (relative to average purchase of a few bucks) that may or may not payout in a field with fast evolving tech. Big opportunity though if you can get it right. NRG units here in cali have J1772, chademo and combo chargers (no Tesla love). The faster we can align on a single fast charging standard, the better off we’ll all be.

          • James

            You would never be able to make any money from charging fees. Any reasonably acceptable fee from a consumer perspective would not turn over enough to justify the capital costs.

            The way you can make money is by selling other stuff such as food while people wait.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Cost of a supercharger bay – $35k?

            8 charges per day x 365 days x $2 fee = $5,840/year. Six year payoff. 12% return on investment.

            Along highways people driving a longer range EV that did not have free (pre-paid) Supercharger access probably wouldn’t be put off by a $2 per charge fee.

          • James

            I actually think that the installation costs down is probably lower by about $10k ($18k equipment & $7 installation), but I also think that the number of charges per day would be lower as well. Without sufficient bays, many people wouldn’t risk the road trip. At 8 charges per day you likely have angry people waiting to charge. I think 6 is closer and still optimistic for the foreseeable future.

            You also need to factor in the cost of the electricity and land lease. Maybe you get land and electricity for free in exchange for the merchant getting captive customers. But as soon as you charge a fee I am sure that they will want a cut.

            I am not sure how you got to a 12% return. By your numbers I get a $40 surplus in year 6 and a 4.2% annualized return on investment in year 8.

            6 charges per day x 365 days x $2 fee = $4,380/year. This are slightly better with a $1,280 surplus in year six and a 5% annualized return on investment in year 8.

            But the big question is how do we factor in risk? Will we meet our charge per day goals? Maybe we will exceed our charge per day goals. Will we place each charge station optimally? Or will some go unused and have to be redeployed (sunk lost costs)? We the establishment agreements be stable long term agreements with minimal administrative cost overhead? How much will we have to factor in for maintenance? Will whatever charge standard we deploy be used in 8 years?

            Tesla is able to make this work because they can realize value in the fact that a charge station exists; it contributes to their vehicle sales.

            Maybe have a charge value card that people can use at participating stores while they charge and get a percentage of the sale. Maybe reserve the right to sell advertisements on the charge stations to generate some additional revenue. Maybe perform some analytics on the charge and travel information and find a way to generate revenue with the data. Maybe you get a government grant to defer the costs or take on some of the risks.

            Don’t get me wrong. I have spent many hours trying to figure out how I can take my Leaf on road trips. Or if there is a business opportunity somewhere in the mix. As of now, I stand by my comment that there is no money to be made selling electricity without some additional source of revenue.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Rule of 72. Six year payoff. 72 / 6 = 12.

            Hard to predict number of charges per day. But if one assumes half an hour per charge eight charges would take 4 hours out of a 24 hour day. We should move to a system where people’s cars would guide them to available chargers and maybe to a system where people could reserve charging time.

            A well thought out charging system would take a few cars in early for a partial charge, say someone needing an extra 50 to 75 miles to get to destination. Other people might choose to leave early/charge early in order to get a better charging rate or some sort of a “rebate”. There are a number of ways to spread charging over a day/evening during high travel times (Thanksgiving).

            ” Will we meet our charge per day goals? Maybe we will exceed our charge per day goals. Will we place each charge station optimally? Or will some go unused and have to be redeployed (sunk lost costs)?”

            The answer to all those questions is yes. And no. There’s no way to accurately predict the exact number of charge stations needed (or desired) at any one place. Some places we’ll install too rapidly, in other places too slowly. As long as expansion plans are in place, permits/etc. are ready, then shortages can be met quickly. Look how quickly Tesla is installing their units.

            Scroll down the page to the map. Click on 2015 and 2016.

            http://www.teslamotors.com/supercharger

            Annual return post capital recovery…

            $5,840 / $35,000 = 16.7%.

            $4,830 / $35,000 = 13.8%.

            $4,830 / $25,000 (your numbers) = 19.3%.

          • TedKidd

            Bob, I’m with James. I think as we move to greater range the charger business opportunity reduces because the average electric car suddenly NEVER needs an away from home charge.

            —————–

            Charge point is a nice system, it tells you how many stations are in use. Also tells if they’re operational/on line. I don’t think there is an opportunity here, the barriers to entry are high, and others have already strong presence.

            Besides, i dont think it holds long term opportunity.

            Even though there are 20 free charge points within 3 miles of my house, and they charge 3x faster than my 110 outlet, I very rarely use them. I certainly wouldn’t PAY to use them.

            There is one 12 miles south that is between me and some areas I like to go. I will use that one periodically, and would pay there if I had to. But it just might cause me to change my behavior, relying less on that as a backup plan.

          • Bob_Wallace

            “the average electric car suddenly NEVER needs an away from home charge”

            That would mean a battery with multiple times the capacity of what Tesla uses. You’d need to get 500, 600 miles per charge. With no more weight than the current Tesla pack, and probably lighter.

            And that pack would have to cost well under $50/kWh.

            If we ever get there then people probably wouldn’t need to charge during the day. But there would need to be some high output chargers at motels/hotels so that people could charge up for the next day’s drive.

          • TedKidd

            Since most people don’t drive 30 miles a day, and many including myself survive with 50-70 mile cars, why would 200 suddenly be 1/3 the range necessary to do without a multitude of charging locations?

            5-600 mile cars don’t work at all given current infrastructure or technology, and claiming that herring don’t fly. There is ample evidence that 250 miles is the sweet spot. Packs that size charge super fast to 170 miles without taper, and that is the critical sweet spot.

            If I had a 200 mile car the current charging infrastructure is more than I’d need, and you can’t make money on it. By 2016 Superchargers will be located everywhere I want to go.

            Even if you could charge me for it, I, and most drivers are too infrequent for it to be profitable. It a chicken/egg problem.

            I don’t think you understand what I’m trying to share, do you have an electric vehicle? If not, I may not have the skills to convey what you aren’t seeing.

            If you feel alternate charging is a good investment, go for it. Maybe my crystal ball is wrong.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Ted, some people drive more than 200 miles a day a few times a year.

            Perhaps you don’t. But do try to understand that you are not “everyone”.
            The option is rapid charging with a moderate range EV or a very long range EV.

            BTW, the average driving day is over 30 miles. Apparently people drive more on a daily basis than you realize.

          • TedKidd

            Yes Bob, I understand I’m not everyone. I understand people drive more than 200 miles a few times a year.

            You are going to build a profitable charging service on something people do a few times a year?

            Good luck with that.

            Bob, do you have any experience with EV’s, or is this pure hypothesis on your part?

          • Bob_Wallace

            Yes. It almost certainly will be cheaper to build and operate a system of rapid chargers than for everyone to purchase a 500/600 mile range EV for their few >200 mile driving days a year.

            Consider: I just picked $2/use out of the blue. Let’s make it $5/use. Let’s make some righteous profit for the charger owners.

            Let’s guess the typical driver accumulates 6 days a year on which they drive more than 200 miles. If they use a fee-charger twice each day that’s 12 x $5 = $60. It would make far more sense to spend $60 on charger access per year than to purchase an extra 400 miles of range and haul those batteries around all the time.

            0.3 kWh/mile. 400 miles would need 120 kWh. At $100/kWh that would cost $12,000.

          • TedKidd

            I agree with that premise. I would certainly pay $5 for 150 miles of charge when travelling.

            The part I can’t get my head around, I have trouble wanting to invest in a nationwide charging model based upon $60 annual gross per car.

            Maybe there is a way to back into the calculations. Using Tesla as the model, you’d need 200 locations.

            How many chargers per location?
            How much does each locations cost?
            How many cars needed at $60 to make it work?
            When will the cars exist in the wild?
            How will the network be funded and built?
            Since the charging needs to be built before significant car sales can be expected, as the infrastructure is what will spur sales, how will the inactivity period be funded?

            I believe Tesla has spent about $250k per location. What’s that, $50m? What would be a reasonable net on such an investment, 10-15m a year? What would the net be, 10-15% of revenue? So say $100m revenue needed?

            That’s about 1.5 million cars. Anybody have any different math?

            This might work if you were first to build such a network, and it was superior to all followers. I just don’t see how this works as number two, particularly when number two is significantly slower than the first. Oh, and not free.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I’ve done the math and I’m satisfied. You are free to do your own math. A $2 per charge fee looks to provide a decent return on investment. If the market will bear more then someone may charge more. If someone charges too much then competition will show up for a piece of the pie.

            Clearly it won’t work to sell 200 mile range EVs and expect people to buy them without a way to drive longer distances.

            Clearly (I think) it would make the most sense if any EV could charge at every outlet and Tesla has offered that option to other manufacturers. To date we don’t know if other car companies are going to take Tesla up on their option, set up their own private charging system, or join together into an “everyone but Tesla” system.

            GM claims to be bringing a 200 mile range EV to market next year. So far there is no system for rapid charging their EV if one wants to drive long. Tesla has a system and that will give them an enormous market advantage.
            Tesla, as I understand it, “overcharged” for use of their system. It’s costing them less than $2k per car to set up their Superchargers. (With a probably small exception of not building in enough capacity for some people to charge everyday – taxi drivers?)

          • James

            The assumption you are implicitly making is that the charge stations will be long lived with little ongoing cost overhead. The assumption that I am making is that the risks are high and will eat all the revenue and so capital will have to be recovered quickly.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Yeah. I think they’ll be long lived and need little maintenance.

    • Kyle Field

      I’m going this route for our long range car (EV Lease). I’m tired of waiting and don’t see the need to keep a gas car in the stable any longer (our prius). I’m back and forth between the eGolf ($211/mo after rebate) and the Chevy Spark ($114/mo after rebate). I’m thinking the fast charging will allow us to get around if we need to get into the city (or rather, get back from the city) and because it’s short term, we won’t feel stuck when the next gen EVs come out.

      • TedKidd

        2016 Volt?

        • Kyle Field

          No, no…trading in my long range car for a crippled long range car…an EV with fast charging 😀 I figure we’ll make do with that for 3 years or just rent an ICE when we need longer range…then get a model 3 / bolt volt gen 3 etc…

      • Have you test driven both of them?

        • Kyle Field

          Yes 😀 They are both very fun to drive with lots of pep in the pedal. The main difference is that the eGolf is much nicer and a bit larger / more practical. I feel like the Golf is a bargain whereas the Spark is just what I’d be paying for – a cheap budget car. The eGolf feels safer with extra metal in front and behind when compared to the Spark. The eGolf is quieter as well.

          Both manufacturers seem to be equally committed to EVs though Chevy does have a few more cars on the market and in the pipes that VW (as far as I know). I like how VW appears to have already made the decision to go all EV…and is just waiting for battery tech to get to a tipping point after which they’ll be all in.

          • That was my impression from a long distance. Happy to hear it’s right. Hope you get an eGolf 😀

          • Kyle Field

            It’s looking that way. I saved the receipt from my last gas fill up which I’m hoping is “the” monumental last gas I buy for a car we own 🙂 I also did what is almost certainly our last oil change ever on the Prius on Tuesday. I’m really excited to be able to show people that it’s possible to get off gas and to even produce your own electricity. The 5 panels I just added and brought online last week offset our house and first EV…unfortunately this purchase means I need to start lobbying to install the other 10 panels that we picked up back in January. Progress…one step at a time 🙂

          • Haha, that is AWESOME. 😀 You are an inspiration. 😀 So happy to hear about it.

    • I was expecting you to chime in with agreement. 😀 But very interesting comments that I didn’t know as well. Interesting story. 😀

      And man, if GM/the Bolt doesn’t get Supercharger access, GM just may stick to its 30,000/year target 😛 (Though, I actually think that’s based on lack of battery supply.)

    • Joseph Kool

      Why would you want to use a supercharger and degrade your batteries capacity? Superchargers destroy batteries I don’t care what Elon Musk says.

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