Electric Car FAQ

Q: How does an EV’s range compare to a gasoline car’s range?

A: My Bolt’s range is about the same as that of a 25 mpg gasoline car with a 10-gallon fuel tank – about 250 miles. The longest-range Teslas currently have around a 350-mile range, comparable to the same gasoline car if it got 35 mpg instead of 25.

Q: How long does it take to charge the battery?

A: It depends. In the worst-case scenario – plugging into a regular wall socket and charging all the way from empty to full – it would take my car a little over two days. This is the situation that electric-car detractors love to pull out, but it’s misleading. Nobody ever does that. The most common practice is to charge from what’s called a “level 2” charger; these run on the same 220-240 volt current that powers your dryer or your electric range. You can get one installed in your garage for about the same cost as any other 220-volt appliance. At home, using mine, I can charge from empty to full in about 12 hours; on the road, if I can find a DC fast charger (“level 3”) – and they’re increasingly common – I can add 80 miles of range in about 30 minutes.

But “how long does it take to charge?” is really the wrong question to ask. “How convenient is it to charge?” is more to the point, and it gives EVs a great advantage over their gasoline siblings. The actual time I normally spend charging is about 5 seconds to plug in, and another 5 seconds to unplug. You don’t have to watch the process. At home, I can drive around all day and then pull into the garage, plug the car in, and forget about it until the next morning, when I just unplug and drive away with a full “tank”. Like most people, my normal days’ driving is few enough miles that, for the first couple of weeks I had the car, I did that using a regular wall socket. On the road, it gets a little trickier: but most level 3 chargers out there are near restaurants, so we just plug in, go to lunch, and come out with 160+ extra miles of driving available. And many motels are putting in level 2 chargers, making it possible to charge while you sleep, the same way you do at home.

Q: Can you really take the car on long trips?

A: Sure. We’ve done it several times. It’s really remarkable how unremarkable it seems while you’re actually doing that. The battery is good for 2-3 hours of steady freeway driving, during which the Bolt feels like any other car, and it’s best to get off the road for a bit after a couple of hours behind the wheel, anyway. It’s 400 miles from our house to our daughter’s home in San Jose, California. When we were driving on gasoline, that 400-mile drive used to take us 8 hours, with stops. We did it in the Bolt a month or so ago, and it took 8 hours, with stops. Because there are far fewer level 3 chargers out there than there are gas stations, you do have to plan more carefully. But that’s an infrastructure problem, not a problem with the car, and it’s rapidly improving.

Q: But aren’t electric cars just glorified golf carts? Aren’t they kinda wimpy?

A: Well, if you put a Tesla Model S in what the company calls “ludicrous mode”, you can get from 0 to 60 in about two and a half seconds. My Bolt takes a little over six seconds, but that’s hardly wimpy. It packs 200 horsepower and tons of torque, all of which is available the instant you step on the “gas”. The tagline of this site is “Driving is fun again”; part of that fun derives from the ability to blow the doors off the vehicle in the next lane when the traffic light changes. It comes in really handy when two lanes squeeze down to one right past an intersection, and I’d be lying if I said that my wife and I – aging Quakers that we are – don’t get a kick out of taking advantage of it.

Q: How about maintenance and repairs?

A: All of the running gear (wheels, axles, brakes, shocks, steering); all of the body work; all of the electronics; everything, in fact, but the drive train – all of that works the same as in any other car. Repairing the drive train takes a specialist, but you aren’t likely to need one; an electric motor is far, far simpler than a gasoline engine. No oil to change, no spark plugs to change, no timing or fuel injectors to go awry, no valves or crankshaft bearings to wear out, no transmission to need a rebuild, no timing chain to break and rip the engine apart – not even the brakes need much servicing, as the car usually slows itself by putting its forward motion into generating electricity, which goes into the battery to extend your range instead of dissapating as friction at the brake pads. The Bolt rarely sees the inside of a service garage.

Q: But doesn’t the battery wear out? Isn’t that pretty expensive?

A: It’s expensive if it wears out, yes. It’s likely to wear out rapidly, no. That’s always been a fear, but in most cases it’s unfounded. Nissan Leaf batteries have been found to maintain 75% of their charge after 120,000 miles of rough usage as New York City taxicabs, and Leafs have poorly designed battery management (like the old VW bugs – which also had longevity problems – they are air-cooled, so they tend to run hotter than other electric cars). Many people with Chevrolet Volts, the Bolt’s plug-in hybrid sister, have driven them well over 100,000 miles with no noticable battery degradation; one 2012 model named “Sparky”, owned by a Detroit resident named Erick Belmer, got to well past 300,000 miles before degradation set in – although once it set in, it set in fast, and by 400,000 the battery was pretty much toast (Belmer’s advice: trade your EV in at 300,000 miles). But you don’t put that many miles on a gasoline car without serious expense, either.

Q: Are electric cars really “green”? I’ve read studies which suggest that they’re worse for the environment than gasoline cars are.

A: This canard has been disproved time and time again, but it continues to surface, so let’s deal with it. Get comfortable: this may take a few minutes.

Those who make this accusation usually base it on four points: (1) you’re just moving the pollution from your tailpipe to the generating plant’s smokestack, so you’re not really gaining anything; (2) building an electric car generates more greenhouse gases than building a gasoline car does, so you’re actually losing ground; (3) mining the lithium used in EV batteries is a heavily polluting industry, and it usually happens in third-world countries, so you’re being a racist as well as a polluter; and (4) the used-up batteries are going to be cluttering the planet with big hunks of toxic waste, forever. We’ll take those points in order.

The first objection – the tailpipe to smokestack comparison – fails in at least three ways. First, it ignores the fact that electric motors are two to four times as efficient as gasoline engines, so a given number of BTUs will propel an electric car at least twice as far as it will a gasoline car. Second, by focusing just on the burning part of the fuel cycle, it misses the energy and other environmental costs of fuel preparation, and these are much higher for gasoline than they are for coal – or for fuel oil to power generators, for that matter. Third, and most important: gasoline cars burn gasoline, period. Electric cars can obtain electricity from a variety of sources – including coal and oil, to be sure, but also including hydroelectric dams, geothermal steam, tidal flux, solar cells, and wind turbines – to name just a few. A glance at the title of this website should be enough to dispel any doubts about tailpipe-to-smokestack equivalence. “Driving on Sunlight” isn’t just a catchy phrase. On a sunny day, I can, and do, fill up the Bolt’s “fuel tank” with pure, unadulterated sunbeams.

The second objection – greenhouse gases released during the manufacturing process – is actually true, but it lacks context. Manufacturing emissions are only a small part of a vehicle’s emissions over its lifetime. My Bolt released between 50% and 70% more greenhouse gases while it was being built than a gasoline-powered car would. If I powered the car completely from grid power generated in the Midwest, I would offset that extra percentage within a year and a half. Given that I charge largely from solar, and that grid power in Oregon is much cleaner than grid power in the Midwest, anyway, I’ve probably offset it already in the four months we’ve had the car.

The third objection also needs context. Yes, lithium mining is messy. No, it’s not inherently messier than petroleum extraction – in fact, it’s a lot cleaner. Batteries use miniscule amounts of lithium, compared to the amount of petroleum in an equivalent tank of gas, and they don’t use it up – it doesn’t get turned into greenhouse emissions in order to produce power. Gallons and gallons of gasoline pour through a gasoline car’s tank every year. The lithium in EV batteries is there for the life of the batteries, and when the batteries die, the lithium can be extracted and used again.

That last point bears on objection number 4, the vision of massive amounts of toxic waste from dead electric-car batteries. This is false, for two reasons. First, when a battery is no longer able to power an electric car, it can still be used for other purposes: in Europe, for example, “used-up” EV batteries are finding new life as backup storage for solar and wind power generation. And second, the materials in EV batteries are too valuable to discard. Tesla already attempts to recapture all its spent batteries for recycling. They do this primarily through third parties now, but they are building recycling facilities into their battery plants, with the ultimate goal of zero loss – everything that goes out of the plant should eventually come back in. Other battery manufacturers are poised to follow suit. Compare this to the possibility of recycling gasoline after it has burned, and you’ll see where the problem lies.

You don’t have to take my word for any of this, by the way. The Union of Concerned Scientists has published a very thorough study of the environmental costs of electric vehicles vs. gasoline vehicles: find it at https://www.ucsusa.org/clean-vehicles/electric-vehicles/life-cycle-ev-emissions.

Q: OK, but lithium is a rare-earth metal. Is there going to be enough?

A: Definitely. Lithium may be a “rare-earth metal”, but it isn’t actually rare: it’s the 25th most abundant element on the planet, and it’s found all over, though usually in small quantities. It can be extracted from sea water, and from most clays.

Q: I’m convinced. I’d like to buy an electric car, but I can’t – they’re too expensive.

A: Well, we paid a little over $33,000 for our Bolt in December, 2018. That may sound like a lot – but the average new-car price that month, according to the Kelly Blue Book website, was $37,077. We were under that by about $4,000. So much for EVs being more expensive than average.

But I recognize that $33,000 is still a lot of money. So why don’t you look on used car lots? EVs are beginning to show up there, now. I’ve seen Nissan Leafs priced as low as $9,000. The cheapest used Bolts are still around $25,000, but the car’s only been out two years. Wait a year or two.

A final note – I have chosen not to footnote this FAQ because of the difficulty of separating personal observations from source documents. If you’d like a similar explanation, with sources – or if you’d prefer to listen to an FAQ instead of reading it – I suggest Matt Ferrell’s “Electric Cars: Myths vs Facts” on his “Undecided” website. It consists of a video of Matt talking about this topic plus a transcript of the video, complete with footnotes. It’s available at https://undecidedmf.com/episodes/2019/1/1/electric-cars-myths-vs-facts.