Should I buy an electric car?: the misconceptions

NOTE: This post is more than 12 months old, and the information contained within may no longer be accurate.

One of the points of existence in purchasing an electric car is people tend to think there is a hassle factor due to charging.

It is true that charging does lead to different behaviours, but having lived with an electric car for the best part of two years, I have never been to a petrol station to fill up with fuel and start something in the region of 98% of your journeys at home with enough charge to complete these journeys. (Note: I wrote this before this weekend’s panic buying of fuel!)

The reason for this is my battery is rated at a little under 300 miles and most of my journeys are less than this, to the point where my car automatically, to extend battery life, only charges to 80% and I have to override it if I want a full 100% charge.

My experience has been that, unlike fuel economy on internal combustion engine vehicles, which have been heavily manipulated as shown by the numerous scandals, the battery life of an electric vehicle as quoted is fairly reliable.

The two things that do shorten battery life is your top speed, and I lose about 10% of my range going from 60 miles per hour to 70 miles per hour, and when I drove across France to Barcelona, the speed limits permit me to go 80 miles per hour and I lost a further 10%.  Conversely, if I drive at 60 miles per hour, rather than 70 miles per hour, or get stuck in traffic such that my average journey is at an average of 50 miles per hour I progressively get crudely an extra 10% for each reduction in my speed.

The other thing that has a massive impact on battery life is short journeys in the winter where the battery has to work very hard to get the cabin up to temperature, there are some ways round this, for example running the cabin cooler or some cars are now equipped with a more efficient heat pump. I could just heat the seats, but this loss or range, to me, is a small inconvenience as it is really only the three or four months of winter, and particularly on short journeys.

Battery life, to me, is of no concern as there are a number of Teslas (the car I am driving) that have done in excess of 200,000 miles. I think most people will agree 200,000 miles is a reasonable lifespan for any vehicle. Indeed as there are less moving parts on an electric vehicle servicing costs are lower, typically they need only new brakes, tyres and some fluids as opposed to the complication of servicing an internal combustion engine (ICE).

As batteries age there tends to be a small reduction in capacity, which most people are aware of, but I think tend to overestimate.  There is also a reduced ability for the battery to get the electricity out as quickly which is more noticeable in the higher performance electric vehicles where there might be a degradation in the acceleration (i.e. 0-60 miles).

For those journeys that are longer than the cars c. 300 mile range, I have spent time on some trips at hotels which have allowed me to charge for little or no cost. Charging in this way to me is a benefit because my car can always be fully charged before a journey, and there is no requirement for me to go to a petrol station. If the electricity cost is subsidised by a hotel, this is arguably superior to an internal combustion engine vehicle.  Obviously longer journeys might need a top up en route for the return journey, and in these cases I have found no shortage of reasonably fast chargers (c. 20 minutes from 0-60% i.e. 150 extra miles).

It is worth thinking about what “fast charger” means, as many of the negative articles written about electric cars, and people getting stranded or taking a long time to charge, seem to be written by people that don’t understand how their electric vehicle works.

The free charging offered at supermarkets, or that which you would see on most people’s houses, is a 7 kilowatt (kw) charger. In most cases, and with a typical battery of 70 kilowatt hours you will see that 70 kilowatt hours divided by 7 kilowatts equals 10 hours – this is the time taken to charge this battery from 0-100%.  Clearly, very few people will ever charge from 0 to 100%, but this is the theoretical maximum time to charge, for those unfortunate or unprepared, it is worth knowing that a three pin plug in wall socket is doing well to even run at 3 kilowatts!

A “fast” charger is normally a minimum of 50 kilowatts, and there are chargers as high as 350 kilowatts (the Ionity network).  Hypothetically speaking, a 350 kilowatt hour charger will charge a 70 kwh battery in 12 minutes (i.e. 300 miles in that time as 70kwh divided by 350kw equals 0.2 hours).  In practice this doesn’t happen as dumping that much electricity into a battery in such a short period of time damages the battery, so what happens is the battery is progressively charged slower as it fills up.

As a rule of thumb, it is reasonable for me to charge my battery from low single digits % to 60% in about fifteen to twenty minutes.  But the next 20% might take another twenty minutes. Going from 80% from 90% might take longer still.

Simplifying all the above, I think of a 70kw battery as a 300 miles “tank” (based on a motorway driving), but after 300 miles of driving (which in the UK equates to four or five hours driving) I will need to stop for 20 minutes to get another two to three hours of range. This cycle can then be repeated indefinitely.

I think when explained in this way many people see this as a reduced convenience as to drive for four hours with a short stop, and then driving the subsequent cycles, doesn’t seem to me to be a great inconvenience, but then I am frequently driving with three children who need various breaks for food, toilet etc! Gone are the days of doing Calais to the French Alps on a full tank of diesel though.

So in conclusion, the misconceptions around electric cars mean I think many people have failed to fully appreciate how they can work for them. As I discuss in the next piece an EV can reduce costs but I do not think by as much as people would expect. Cost is not the only incentive though, and if an electric vehicle is not right for you then it makes sense to make the decision to avoid them for an informed reason.

Personally, these factors are why I see hybrid cars as the worst of both worlds: many people think they give them a sense of comfort because they have the combustion engine to fall back on when they are far from home, but the reality is with only twenty or thirty mile battery range you are lugging around a heavy battery reducing the car’s performance, and still have an internal combustion engine with moving parts, oil and all those things that can go wrong. What you lack is the ability to drive a few hundred miles without stopping in a car that can cost as little as £4 or £5 to top up at home on the right tariff.

Electric cars will continue to be problematic for people that don’t have drives and for this reason I hope that infrastructure continues to improve, but I think a lot of the misconceptions are here are hopefully addressed in this piece.

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26 Jan 2024

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