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Electric Vehicles

Lessons from a First Time EV Owner

You want to charge early and often.

Car range anxiety.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

For the first time in my life I now own a car, and it’s electric.

It took me a few weeks to narrow down my choices to a Hyundai Kona or a Ford Mustang Mach E. After much agonizing comparison, I went with the Kona. While I liked the Mach E’s sporty performance, longer range, and sizable front trunk, ultimately the Kona’s cheaper price, lighter materials, heat pump, and numerous mechanical buttons clinched the deal. After trading in a clapped out 2011 Subaru Impreza, the out-the-door sticker price for the Kona was a bit over $31,000 (though we opted to lease).

Owning and driving an EV has been an instructive experience. I’ve long been a vocal proponent of going electric, but I was honestly surprised by the learning curve. As the automotive journalist Edward Neidermeyer continually points out, an EV simply is not a perfect drop-in replacement for an internal combustion car. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make it work, even for long trips, even in fairly bedraggled parts of the country like northeastern Pennsylvania, where I live, and even with a modest battery and range.

First, the buying experience. The nearest Kona for sale I could find was a 70-mile drive away from Wilkes-Barre to Easton, and the dealership let me take it home so my wife could check it out. This led to the first of several comical lessons. The car had only about a 60 percent charge when I left the dealership, and drained down to 33 percent when I got back home. So before going back to sign the lease papers, it would need a top-up.

I searched on Google Maps for chargers and blithely set out to fill up. It turns out Rust Belt cities like the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area are not exactly bursting with EV charging infrastructure. The first one I found was a free employee charger at a charter school. Out of curiosity I plugged it in. It did in fact work — and if I had been willing to sit there stealing 6 kilowatts of power for 10 hours, I could have gotten up to 100 percent. This seemed less than ideal. I then tried another charger around the corner at a used dealership. This one had a credit card reader but it did not work.

Scrolling through Google some more, I discovered that if you poke around in the menus it actually tells you the supposed speed of each charger (rated as slow, fast, very fast, or ultra fast). A 10-minute drive across the river was a non-Tesla fast charger at a Chevy dealership, though irritatingly I had to download an app and connect my Apple pay to make it work instead of just tapping my credit card.

Then I learned that the temperature of the battery matters a great deal. When I first plugged in, the charger delivered a measly 28 kilowatts. But then as the battery warmed up, that nearly doubled to 49 kilowatts (as compared to the Kona’s claimed maximum rate of 100 kilowatts). That isn’t particularly fast — but it also demonstrated another lesson, which is that there are advantages to a smaller battery, at just 65 kilowatt-hours. That fairly pitiful charging speed, topping out at less than a seventh of the maximum at modern stations, was still enough to get me from 28 percent to 75 percent in about 35 minutes. If I had been driving a Hummer EV, it would have been more like two hours.

That lesson was underlined charging at home. My house was built in the 1940s and has no outdoor outlets whatsoever, but in the pinch, I could string an extension cord out the window to use the included level 1 charger … to deliver a pathetic 600 watts, or less than the power supply on my gaming PC. Yet this was still enough to add 10-12 percent of charge per day, or about 30 miles, which is more than we drive on average. If I’d gone with the Mach E, it would be more like 20 miles, thanks to its bigger battery.

I learned a more serious lesson the next day going down to sign the paperwork. My wife had to come with me to the dealership, since she owned the Subaru, and therefore my 2-month-old son had to come along as well. With a 75 percent charge, I figured we’d be fine to make it there and back. When we got to the dealership, the car still had 48 percent — surely more than enough to make it back given my prior trip, right?

But then we had to sit at the dealership for three hours thanks to some incomprehensible financing dispute going on in a back room. By the time we finished, moved the car around several times, and grabbed some food on the way out, it was only about 42 percent by the time we got going. As we headed up Route 33, the Kona’s computer informed us we’d arrive with about 35 miles of range to spare. Since it was already well past the boy’s bedtime and I really, really didn’t want to hunt around in the cold for a charger that might or might not work, I decided to risk it.

But by this point it was well past dark, and the temperature was dropping into the low 40s. Meanwhile, what with wife and baby in the back seat, I had to run the heater much more than I had the first time, when I had left the cabin heater low and just used the seat warmer.

It turns out heating and driving uphill sucks battery power. As the temperature fell further into the low 30s, and the Kona zipped up the long grades at Wind Gap and Tannersville, I watched with increasing alarm as the buffer mileage dropped to 30, then 25, then 20. I told myself I would stop to charge if it got below 10 miles of buffer, but it finally stabilized around 15 miles in the Poconos.

It was a genuine case of range anxiety, no question about it, and my wife was ready to strangle me. But there was one last surprise as we crested the ridge and headed down into the Wyoming Valley. On that long downslope, I alternated between coasting and turning up the regenerative braking around corners, which got back another 14 miles of range. We pulled up with 15 percent battery and 29 miles to spare — not so far off the original estimate after all!

This need for planning is the major difference between electric and gas, at least given the current state of America’s charging infrastructure. With a gas car you can assume that range will not change much depending on the weather, that you can run your tank nearly empty with the sole penalty being another few seconds of standing at the pump, and that even the tiniest settlement is virtually guaranteed to have a gas station.

But on an EV trip of any distance you want to charge early and often, and that means some careful route planning. A theoretical 270 mile range means you have more like 160-220 miles you can realistically use, depending significantly on the temperature, wind, number of passengers, and so on. But unless you are in an exceptionally cold and/or depopulated area, it’s not that big of a deal. Just find some charging stations on the route, ideally with good reviews, and stop every hour or two for 20-30 minutes of charging, or less if your car can take mega voltage like the Ioniq 5. (There are several chargers in East Stroudsburg I could have used, for instance.)

You can’t cannonball to cut the trip time down to the absolute minimum, but you also get a chance to stretch out regularly and cut your risk of deep vein thrombosis. Meanwhile, if you can charge at home, your cost of fuel goes down dramatically. I now spend maybe $3 on a week’s worth of driving electricity.

So yes, there are some tradeoffs that come with the EV lifestyle. But even for an EV with a modest battery, driving in the cold mountains of impoverished Appalachia, they are not remotely insurmountable — and everything will only get easier from here on out. More chargers are being built all the time, and soon Tesla’s network will open up to all. You don’t need a 500-mile range battery, or to carry a backup generator around. It just takes a change in mindset.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is the managing editor at The American Prospect, and author of the book "How Are You Going to Pay for That?: Smart Answers to the Dumbest Question in Politics."

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