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Electric Vehicles

The Hidden Cost of EV Ownership: Your Time

It’s already getting better, I promise.

An EV on a clock.
Heatmap Illustration/Hyundai, Getty Images

My wife used to speedrun to San Francisco. A full tank of gas powered the little truck from Los Angeles to the halfway-point pit stop near Coalinga, California, where the L.A. radio stations have faded into static and the “Mr. Brightside” broadcasts from the Bay Area have yet to reach over the horizon. With just that single stop, the trip could be completed in under six hours.

It’s not that way these days in the EV. We stop twice for half-hour recharging sessions — maybe three times if we leave home with a less-than-full battery, and climbing over the Grapevine mountain pass punishes the range. Altogether, it makes the journey seven hours or longer.

I don’t mind too much. Frankly, I’d rather take the occasional break from holding my place in an endless line of cars all headed to the same destination and all trying to pass the same tomato truck than make slightly better time. If the day is already dedicated to a road trip, then it doesn’t really change my life to arrive in six hours rather than seven. Still, every time I undertake the I-5 marathon, the experience makes it clear: the true cost of owning an electric vehicle is your time.

Posts on platforms like Reddit about the hidden costs of EV ownership make me think I’m not alone in this notion.

In strictly monetary costs, one can make a straightforward case that EV life is better. Government rebates and tax credits bring down the upfront front cost to be closer to or nearly competitive with combustion cars. Some recurring routine maintenance costs, like oil changes, are absent. And depending on where you live and the current state of the ever-changing calculus of gas vs. electricity costs, going electric could save you a lot when prices soar at the pump. A New York Times graphic from 2021 illustrates that EV owners really can have it all: lower emissions and lower lifetime cost of ownership at the same time.

There are hidden EV costs in terms of dollars and cents, yes. States have begun to institute extra fees to register an electric car, which is nominally to offset the fact that EVs don’t pay the highway tax built into the price of gasoline yet smacks of political theater. Serious repairs can be expensive. EVs, because they’re powerful and heavy, seem to burn through tires at a faster rate. While the cost of a gallon of gas varies relatively little across town, the price of a kilowatt-hour of electricity can vary wildly from overnight residential electricity to the surge pricing one pays at a Los Angeles Supercharger in the middle of day. If you don’t have home charging, you’re stuck paying the higher rate — or going to get cheap electricity at odd hours, which is another tax on your time.

A lot of those extra financial costs can be strategically mitigated. The time penalty, not so much. While it mostly doesn’t matter, at least for those who can plug in at home and keep their batteries always full enough for their local driving, stopping on a long trip still takes far longer than simply topping up a gas tank. Fast-charging has seen technological leaps forward; whereas a lot of Tesla’s early Superchargers built in the 2010s maxed out at 72 kilowatts, many DC fast-chargers can now provide 250 or 350 kilowatts. But it still takes 15 to 20 minutes to refill the battery from nearly empty back to the 80% or 90% you’ll want for the next leg of a road trip.

Then there’s the not-insignificant time you spend thinking about charging. Some people who haven’t driven an EV seem to think range anxiety is an all-consuming cloud of negative energy, that every mile is driven in a panic about where the next plug will be. Yes, I’ve had my share of worried drives, mostly because I pushed my older standard-range Tesla Model 3 to its limit by trying to jump between distant chargers in the boonies of Arizona or Utah. In truth, worrying about the battery is more of a low-level mental white noise — something you must always be slightly aware of, as opposed to the old days of just noticing the needle is a little close to E and pulling off the freeway. (Again, the penalty here is higher on renters and those without home charging.)

Some of this, I’m afraid, may be unavoidable. To break free from burning fossil fuels in your car is to give up the deal with the devil that gave us the freedom to rarely think about energy.

The good news: As time goes on, these time penalties are fading. My Model 3 that started life with (an over-promised) 240 miles of range requires a lot of extra stops on a very long trip. As the range of a decent EV creeps up to 300 miles or more, we’re approaching a world where you’re not stopping much more than you would in a gas-burning car, unless you’re one of those drivers who refuses to take bathroom breaks to make good time. With range and the number of fast-chargers on the road both ticking upward, the anxiety of not making it to the next plug is dissipating, too, giving you back some of your brain time to think about something else.

EVs may never reach the two minutes it takes to fill a gas tank. They may always ask just a little more of you than a hybrid or plug-in hybrid that conserves the gas engine to keep the range worries at bay. But they might get close enough to gas-pump speed that, by the time you stretch your legs, relieve yourself, and buy another colossal can of Monster Energy, the car says it’s ready for you to resume your trip.

Besides, if those few extra minutes make you feel a little saner while also reducing the emissions of your road trip, then that’s time well spent.

Green
Andrew Moseman profile image

Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles.

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