Published on July 1st, 2015 | by Stephen Grinwis50
Long-Term Electric Car Ownership: What It’s Really Like
July 1st, 2015 by Stephen Grinwis
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.
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.
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.
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.
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