5 Common Electric-Car Questions Answered

Electric cars are becoming more popular, but many car buyers still have major questions.

Aug 24, 2014 at 8:02PM

As more automakers begin selling electric cars, a lot of consumers are still curious about how these new vehicles work, and whether an electric car would be suitable for them. Here are the answers to some of the most common questions about electric car to give potential car buyers a better picture of whether one of these cars is right for them.

Can it be plugged into a regular outlet?
All mass-produced electric cars today come with a charging unit that can be plugged into a standard 110-volt outlet, so it's possible to charge from ordinary household outlets. However, a 110v outlet will mean that charging will take longer.

Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) notes that using a 110v outlet will charge a Tesla Model S at approximately three miles of range per hour. The Chevrolet Volt, produced by General Motors (NYSE:GM), has a charge rate using a 110v outlet that allows the car to charge fully in 10-16 hours. As a result of having a larger battery than the Volt, the Nissan Leaf takes slightly longer to charge with a 110v outlet.

Model S Photo Gallery

Tesla Model S with Wall Connector Charger source: Tesla Motors

Due to the size of the Tesla Model S battery, Tesla Motors recommends that owners install a 240v outlet for faster charging. The company estimates that this would allow the Model S to charge at 29 miles of range per hour, drastically cutting charging time compared to the 110v outlet. Both the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf also see their charge times cut by more than 50% when using a 240v outlet.

An electric car can be plugged into a typical household outlet, but a higher-voltage outlet will significantly reduce charging time. However, if you're like me and drive a Volt on a fairly short commute and can charge overnight, a 110v outlet will make sure you have a full, or nearly full, battery in the morning. If you have a longer commute or do more daily driving, installing a 240v outlet could make owning an EV much easier.

Where else can I plug it in?
Although electric-car charging stations are not as common as gas stations, they are growing in number, and are likely to continue doing so as more electric cars populate the roads. Take a look at Plugshare.com to find a nationwide map of charging stations.

Additionally, your employer may allow you to plug in at work, but it's always best to ask first. Owners of the Tesla Model S can plug in at Tesla's Superchargers, which are springing up across the country. They provide rapid charging and are free to use.

How far can an electric car go?
There are several factors that determine this including battery size, environmental conditions, and driving style. The table below provides the EPA estimates on how much range drivers can expect.

  Miles of Range per Charge
Nissan Leaf 84
Chevrolet Spark EV 82
Toyota Rav4 EV 103
Honda Fit EV 82
Ford Focus Electric 76
Chevrolet Volt 38*
Tesla Model S-60 kWh 208
Tesla Model S-85 kWh 265

*The Volt is a plug-in electric hybrid and has a backup gas engine to extend its driving range beyond 38 miles. Source: Fueleconomy.gov.

However, these figures are just estimates, similar to fuel economy estimates on gas-powered cars. Things that decrease range include:

  • Cold weather and extreme hot weather
  • Use of heat and air conditioning
  • Rain and snow
  • Aggressive driving

When choosing an electric car, make sure that the stated range can easily cover your commute to avoid range anxiety in winter months -- unless it has a gas backup like the Volt.

How does it drive?
From both my experience and reviews by car-testing groups, the electric cars available today can easily keep pace with traffic, and have enough power for everyday driving. Among the things that differ from gas cars are the reduced noise level, the feel of regenerative braking, and smoother acceleration.

Obviously, some electric cars are more performance-oriented than others. Cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt can keep pace with gas-powered midsize cars, while the higher-end Tesla Model S holds its own against larger sports sedans.

How much does it cost to charge?
This depends on your electric rate, but with the nationwide average at $0.12 per kWh, almost all electric-car owners can charge their cars for less than the cost of gasoline. Based on EPA estimates, today's electric vehicles consume between 0.28 kWh per mile and 0.44 kWh per mile, with smaller EVs consuming less, and larger EVs consuming more.

Using these numbers, electric vehicles cost between $0.034 and $0.053 per mile to fuel. Meanwhile, the average gas-powered vehicle gets approximately 24 miles per gallon and, using the latest report on average gas prices from AAA, the average gas-powered vehicle would cost $0.144 per mile to fuel.

There are a lot of variables here, so these are approximate calculations. Before buying an electric car, find out what your electric rate is, and whether your utility offers cheaper charging during off-peak hours.

Charging forward
The past few years have seen electric cars move from small limited production projects to the beginnings of mass production at major automakers. With these vehicles increasingly becoming an option for ordinary car buyers, it's important to know the basics before deciding whether this type of technology is for you.

Warren Buffett's worst automotive nightmare (Hint: It's not Tesla)
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Alexander MacLennan owns shares of Tesla Motors, General Motors Class B warrants, and General Motors Class C warrants, and has the following options: long January 2015 $40 calls on General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends General Motors and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

4 in 5 Americans Are Ignoring Buffett's Warning

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Jun 12, 2015 at 5:01PM

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David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Google, and Coca-Cola.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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