By Steven Cherry
Like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking about trading in my car. The case, morally and even financially, for an all-electric car is becoming stronger and stronger.
And yet, what about recharging?
Can I get from Pittsburgh to New York’s Hudson Valley—a trip I make a dozen times a year? What about the road trip my partner and I have in mind for next summer, to Yosemite and back? We live in a townhouse in a row of townhouses. Without a driveway and a garage, how can I set up charging at home? Will we have a universal standard for charging? What exactly is fast charging?
Basically, I’m a bundle of questions. Fortunately, one of my fellow contributing editors at the magazine is a bundle of answers.
John Voelcker has been reporting on cars and the automotive industry for almost as long as he’s been driving. He’s also a contributing editor to Car and Driver, and is the editor of Green Car Reports. His work has also been featured in Wired, Popular Science, and elsewhere. He’s an actual engineer, with a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from Stanford.
John, welcome to the podcast.
John Voelcker: Thanks for having me. Always a pleasure to be part of IEEE.
Steven Cherry: By the way, Spectrum runs on the metric system, but the show will focus on the U.S. car market. So we’re going to talk in miles, gallons and even miles per gallon.
John, I know you have a place in New York’s Catskill Mountains, just down the ridgeline from the Hudson Valley, so you’re sympathetic to my plight. From Pittsburgh to the town of Gardiner, N.Y., Is 381 miles by the shortest route and 420 miles if I take the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Right now, my Subaru Impreza, with its 14.5 gallon gas tank—I can fill up either 40 miles from home or about 40 miles from my destination. And otherwise, it’s a single shot. A lot of current and upcoming electric cars are in the 300-mile range. That means I’d have to recharge at least once. What would my experience be like finding charging stations, and then what will it be like when I get there?
John Voelcker: Great questions. The EV charging spectrum—not to coin a pun —has several components, you’re asking about road trips first. And so that’s what we call “DC fast charging.” This is not something you would do at home. It might be in your neighborhood, but it’s something that you will find along interstates or major travel routes. New DC fast-charging stations are being built at a fairly fast clip. Although there is a thought that news out of D.C., if it happens, may throw a lot of government money at building even more and faster.
But your experience would likely be you would get in your electric car. You would tell it where you want to go—and since this is a trip, you make several times a year, you would have it as a stored destination—and you would tell the car, okay, give me a route and the car will route you via DC fast chargers. And depending on which electric car it is, may even tell you, okay, I’m monitoring your charge along the way based on things like speed, temperature and elevation. And I want you to fast charge at this stop for 26 minutes and then at the next one for 11 minutes. And that will get you to your destination with something like 25 or 30 percent of battery range remaining.
Steven Cherry: My understanding is Tesla has a proprietary charging station design. If I’m not in a Tesla, I can’t charge it many of the stations that are currently out there. How does that affect my experience?
John Voelcker: Indeed, we split fast charging into Tesla and everybody else. Tesla, one of the smartest things the company did was to recognize early on that if electric cars were to be accepted as viable substitutes for cars with engines, they couldn’t be limited to low-range city-only [driving]. So Tesla knew it had to set up its own fast-charging network, which it started to do in the fall of 2012, actually. And by 2014, you could drive a Tesla cross-country and built into that car’s navigation system is what I described earlier the ability to say “Take me from where I am now to this destination. Route me via Tesla Supercharger sites and tell me how long I need to spend at each one.” And the car will do exactly that.
It is—as with a few things Tesla—it provided the model for what the rest of the industry is now trying to do. The challenge being that Tesla is like Apple, it’s a closed system. It only charges its own cars. It has its own charging station to design its own plug design. And so given the expansion of the Supercharger network, you can now cover something like 95 or 96 percent of the area of the lower 48 states in the U.S. in a Tesla.
I’ve borrowed a few Teslas; I have many Tesla-owning friends; they simply don’t think about it. They know it will take a little bit longer than a gasoline car because your gasoline stop. If you don’t include bathrooms and buying salty snack foods and sugary sodas and lottery tickets, your stop can be as little as eight or ten minutes, whereas you may spend 30 or 40 minutes every 200, 250 miles in your Tesla. But the car will take them wherever they want to go. That is not necessarily the case with the non-Tesla cars, but they are coming up more strongly. The challenge for the makers there is that there are multiple DC fast charging networks out there run by different companies. There are multiple vehicles out there. There are multiple memberships in those networks. And so making it all work together, anything close to as seamlessly as a Tesla, is still a work in progress.
Steven Cherry: That’s a little discouraging. You referenced the infrastructure bills that are currently stalled in Congress. They may never become law, but if they do, they would build more charging stations. And do I understand that it’s likely that that would set a de facto standard for all the non-Tesla world?
John Voelcker: There is already really a de facto standard. You have the Tesla Superchargers standard and plug, which is one thing, but there are two others in the fast-charging world. The one called CCS clearly is dominant now. Nissan Leafs, which were the first battery-electric vehicle to hit the U.S. Market 10 years ago—we sold six figures of Leafs—those used a different standard called CHAdeMO. But Nissan has announced that for North America, they too are converting over to CCS. Importantly, Tesla is about to offer a converter that allows Teslas to use CCS charging sites.
So if you’re driving, let’s say, a Volkswagen ID.4, you can’t charge at that Tesla site at the moment. But if you’re driving a Tesla, you will soon be able to charge at a CCS site. And there’s some thought that Tesla will actually add a couple of CCS charging stations to their supercharger sites, which isn’t actually all that difficult. You just add a new pedestal at the end. So things are getting more integrated. But it’s a bigger challenge if you are outside of the Tesla ecosystem. In the same way that making all of your PC parts and accessories work together initially was pretty lumpy. Now it’s much simpler, but if you buy Apple stuff, it all works together.
Steven Cherry: What is a 300-mile range in real life? I mean, my understanding is that’s for a new battery and ideal driving conditions. But range decreases as batteries age; range decreases in cold weather, even in rain, as I understand it. So what are these ranges in real life?
John Voelcker: Great question. We don’t have a ton of data as yet, in part because the 250- to 300-mile range cars are just now entering the market. Like gasoline cars, the EPA range rating, which is sort of the one that everybody quotes, has two parts. It has a highway part and a city part. Unlike gasoline cars, electric cars get higher range in the city because they’re not idling and there’s less aerodynamic drag and they get lower range on the highway.
One of the answers to your question is, are you doing 300 miles of noodling around town and going to malls or whatever? Or are you getting in the car and doing 300 miles at 75 miles an hour, where aerodynamic drag consumes more energy than actually moving your two- or three-ton vehicle along the highway? So number one, if you’re doing it all at highway speeds, I would knock off maybe a fifth to a quarter. And it varies by car. An electric SUV is going to have more aerodynamic drag than an electric sedan like a Tesla Model S or Lucid Air. Temperature is another factor. Batteries tend to be like humans. They prefer to be at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. So if you’re starting out at 20 degrees Fahrenheit, you will have less range, although there are ways to pre-condition the battery.
One of the things that EV owners know is that if you’re going to take a trip, pull your phone and tell the car, 15 or 30 minutes before you start, hey, warm up your battery, pre-condition the cabin and do it on grid power so you have a full battery. You’re not using battery energy while you’re plugged in to warm your cabin or to bring your battery up to temperature.
Finally, age. Electric car batteries like cell phone batteries do degrade in energy capacity over time. The data I’ve seen for Tesla Model Ses is that after 100,000 miles, the average capacity lost seems to be 10 percent or less, which is to say a 300-mile car might have 270 nominal miles after a 100,000 mile. Nissan Leafs actually appeared to lose capacity faster because they don’t have actively cooled and heated batteries. Most electric cars now have a liquid running through their battery that takes out heat when the battery is hot, when it’s operating at full tilt—and in some cases heats up the battery, if it’s very cold out—to bring up its ability to deliver energy, at least did not have that. It was a decision made probably the better part of 15 years ago now. In the end, it turned out to be the wrong decision.
Distance is variable, based, as you said, on the age of the car, on how fast you drive, which is really a fairly major issue, and finally, what the temperature is. Electric car owners get to know those things, but also when you plug in your destination into the car’s nav system, and say, “Take take me to the Catskills from Pittsburgh,” it will compensate accordingly.
Steven Cherry: Let’s talk about the home situation. We can charge most electric cars overnight on household current. But what’s involved in setting yourself up for these two-hour charges?
John Voelcker: I need to preface this by saying that one of the things that the people who haven’t owned an EV yet don’t really appreciate is that the bulk of the miles you already will cover come from overnight at-home charging and you, Steven, are actually a little bit of an exception to the rule. There’s a Carnegie Mellon study that looks at how many people today could charge an electric car at home. And there’s a widely quoted figure that says that less than half of Americans have an EV-ready parking space, which is to say a dedicated street space with electricity right there.
Now, electricity is not that expensive to run. So some of that is a fixable problem if you have a dedicated off-street space that may be more than 12 feet from an electric outlet. But the difference is that only a minority of Americans today can afford to buy a new car. A lot of people haven’t appreciated how expensive new vehicles have gotten. But as of this spring, the average new vehicle sold in America—across everything from large pickup trucks to small economy hatchbacks—the average transaction price was $42,000. Most Americans do not have that saved and do not have the credit to do that. So if you look at the smaller pool of people who can actually afford to buy new cars, which is what most of the electric cars on our roads will be in the next 10 years (they haven’t been sold yet), given the sales curves, over 80 percent of the people who can afford to buy new cars—and it roughly corresponds to household income—do in fact have dedicated off-street parking.
So it’s much easier for new car buyers to charge at home overnight than the average American at large, and we’ll sort of defer the question about used cars and people who live as you do in multiple dwellings. But you asked initially about charging overnight on household current versus putting in a charging station. Depending on how many miles you do a day, 12 hours of overnight charging—you know, come home at 6:00 p.m., park the car, plug it in, and leave at 6:00 a.m. the next morning—may give you 30 or 40 miles. And that’s more than the majority of American vehicles cover every day. I actually have a friend who has had a Tesla Model Y for a year and a half, used by his family, and he’s never bothered to put in a charging station. They do somewhere between 20 and 40 miles a day. They just plug it in overnight on 120 current, and that’s it.
Putting in a charging station will cost you some money; it depends on a few things. Number one, how much electrical service is there to your house? Older houses that haven’t been upgraded sometimes only have 100-amp service, and to put in a 240-volt electric car charger, you really need to have 200 amp service. Luckily, I had that at my house, even though it was built in the 80s. The circuit that you put in for a dedicated what we call Level Two charging station, working at 240 volts, which gives you that 3 to 6 hour complete battery recharge—the circuit you want it probably at 50 amps.
That circuit cost me about 400 bucks to have put in; it’s in a garage, so they didn’t need to go behind sheetrock. But then the stations run from about $350 to about $800. There are also, incidentally, income tax credits at the federal and state levels for installation of EV charging equipment. It doesn’t cover the whole thing, but you do get a chunk of it back as a tax credit. So that’s what it takes. I will say not every EV owner puts in a Level Two charging station, a lot of them, especially with longer range cars, if you’ve a 300-mile range car, all right, so you run it down to 180 and then you just sort of keep it in that one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty range by charging overnight. So it is doable. The multiple dwelling problem is a bigger challenge.
Steven Cherry: We’re speaking with automotive reporter John Voelcker. When we come back, we’ll talk about the future of electric cars, car batteries, charging, and range.
Fixing the Future is supported by COMSOL, the makers of COMSOL Multiphysics simulation software. Companies like the Manufacturing Technology Centre are revolutionizing the designs of additive manufactured parts by first building simulation apps from COMSOL models, allowing them to share their analyses with different teams and explore new manufacturing opportunities with their own customers. Learn more about simulation apps and find this and other case studies at comsol.com/blog/apps.
We’re back with my guest freelance journalist John Voelcker, who writes about cars and the car industry for a number of publications, including Car and Driver and, I’m happy to say, IEEE Spectrum.John, how badly is the future of EVs being held back by charging anxiety?
John Voelcker: I would phrase it as, not so much as charging anxiety but charging awareness.
There are a lot of EV charging stations out there. There are tens of thousands of them split between level to the slower charging and DC fast charging. But in many cases, they don’t have the 200-foot sign with a gas station logo over them. You know, if I ran the world, every EV charging point would have a 200-foot sign with a big red neon lightning bolt over it so that people would see that there are actually a whole lot of EV charging stations. And in some cases, even when they’re there—on the New York State Thruway, our interstate, most of the travel plazas have charging stations, but the directions tended to be things like drive past the McDonald’s drive-thru, turn right at the snow fence and look on the left of the blue dumpster. That’s where the charging station is. It’s small. It’s a metal box on a wall in some cases works fine, but people just aren’t aware that they are out there. And all of that contributes to what I would consider to be a lack of awareness.
Steven Cherry: You know, if you look in Google Maps, for example, you can get nearby restaurants, you can get nearby regular gas stations, you can’t get charging stations when you put. When you put that in, very few charging stations show up. And the few that do often are like in car dealerships, and you’re not sure that you can use that charging station. There’s a remarkable dearth of information out there.
John Voelcker: Well, EV drivers have a lot of workarounds. As I mentioned before, the first one is most EVs now will route you through charging stations that work with that particular vehicle, so your vehicle’s navigation system in a new EV is probably your first go-to. But if you’re sitting at your computer or thinking about planning trips and so forth, in the end, I expect Google to own that just like they’re going to own the entire rest of everything. And by the way, it will go so much better for your lovely family if you do what they say.
Pending Google actually getting EV charging stations right and up to date, the first go-to is an app called Plug Share, which has been out there for a decade or more. It got its name originally, from people saying to very early EV drivers, “Hey, come by and charge of my garage if you want. I’m into EVs too.” That part has largely gone away. Now it’s all of the commercial charging stations, and it’s valuable because users can add photos of where the charging station actually is, comments on whether it may have been broken yesterday or oh, now it’s been repaired. And so you get real user feedback in Plug Share. Every EV charging network also has its own app. But they do tend to prioritize their own stations for obvious reasons. So Plug Share historically has been the sort of neutral ground.
Steven Cherry: This next car is going to last me 10 years, and it might even be the last car I buy before the cars drive themselves and I go on some kind of service model. It makes no sense to me to own a gas-only car in 2030 or even just a plain hybrid. But what about plug-in hybrids? The two I’m looking at for my needs are the Subaru Crosstrek, which gets 14 miles on the electric, and the Toyota RAV4, which gets 42 miles on the electric. Fourteen seems very low. Is it worth the extra almost 50 percent added to the cost of the car?
John Voelcker: I think you will find that in the case of the RAV4 Prime, the plug-in hybrid version, it’s nowhere near 50 percent. It might be 50 percent if you compare it to the absolute base stripped-down RAV4 that no dealer actually has. But if you compare trim levels because the RAV4 Prime has a lot of luxury features, if you compare the gasoline version, a hybrid version, and the plug-in hybrid version, they’re nowhere near 50 percent.
The plug in hybrid question is a great one, and it is one that I still think is open. Regrettably, a lot of plug-in hybrids today have been what we call compliance cars, which is to say they qualify under various regions or nations or state programs for zero-emission vehicles or partial zero-emission and tick the box. The main problem with plug-in hybrids from a regulatory point of view is that there is not a lot of consistent data from all makers showing that they actually ever get plugged in. And the issue here is that you get a federal income tax credit. You may get a state rebate depending on what state you’re in, if you buy a plug-in hybrid, even if you never once plug the damn thing in. We do know that by and large plug-in hybrids with longer ranges (and I would put that as 30 or 40 miles and above) do get plugged in more. The last Chevrolet Volt had 53 miles of range. And the estimate was that about 80 percent of all the miles covered by Volt came from grid power, not from gasoline. They will be a solution if people actually plug them in.
A friend of mine once said he views plug-in hybrids as an engineer’s answer to a regulator’s question that no car buyer has ever asked, which is How can I do the majority of my miles on electric without having range anxiety? My take on plug-in hybrids is that their future is very much open. I think 20 years from now, they will have been seen to be a transitional technology because if battery costs continue to come down, even in the same order of magnitude that they have over the last 10 years, at that point, 300- to 500-mile battery cars will be the de facto standard, which is certainly what the regulators are hoping for.
Steven Cherry: There’s an advantage to pure electrics when it comes to maintenance, you know, removing many of the components that need upkeep and replacement. How big a deal is that when we consider this high initial cost of electric vehicles?
John Voelcker: Great question. It’s very important for fleet buyers and people who look at the what we call total cost of ownership or TCO when buying a car, if you are buying a fleet of twelve hundred sedans for salespeople all over America to drive that are provided by the company. You will look not just at an initial cost, but at how much they cost to maintain. And so fleet buyers essentially spreadsheet out what does it cost? What do we predict? The cost of electricity, the cost of gasoline, how many miles, how much maintenance, etc.
Unfortunately, most retail car buyers don’t take anything like that approach. Engineers sometimes do, but not your average retail car buyer. The main concern is purchase price or more likely, monthly payment. Can I get it for under 300 bucks a month? How much do I have to put down? And they really don’t think about total cost of ownership, which includes gasoline and repairs.
And it may be that a less efficient vehicle that may require more repairs actually costs less on a monthly payment. And many of them will go for that because monthly payments are immediate. Whereas total gasoline cost and certainly repairs are down the road for battery electric vehicles, the maintenance needs there are often reduced to essentially replace the wiper blades, replace the tires, replace the cabin air filter. Ideally, that’s it. Some early EVs, because they are the first of their kind for carmakers, have required more. And we’re certainly in the middle of a very expensive recall for Chevrolet Bolt EVs, where many of them are having their entire battery packs replaced. But that’s the exception rather than the rule. And I know Tesla owners who put tires on my cars every however many thousands of miles, and really other than that, there isn’t any maintenance. So it is definitely a factor across all the time you own a car. It’s just not how people buy cars.
Steven Cherry: It’s impossible to predict gas prices 10 years from now or even two years, nor the cost of electricity for that matter. But assuming they rise in tandem, so let’s pretend they stay the same as they are now. What are the savings of electrical charging versus buying gas at the pump? And let’s assume a sort of U.S. norm of, I don’t know, 12,000 miles per driving year.
John Voelcker: Miles per gallon in this case is deceptive. There is a wonderful study out of Duke that shows that when you ask Americans what saves more gasoline going from 30 to 50 miles a gallon or going from 12 to 20 miles a gallon, two-thirds of them pick the former, which is completely wrong. Making a very low-efficiency vehicle more efficient saves more gallons of gasoline than making a high-efficiency vehicle even higher efficiency. So instead of miles per gallon, I like to look at the cost per 100 miles. So here’s how the math works. Let’s take a 25-mile-a-gallon car to make the math easy, and let’s say that the cost of gasoline is $3 a gallon. OK. That means you’re using 4 gallons or $12 of gasoline to go 100 miles. If you take the average American cost of electricity, which is between 12 and 13 cents a kilowatt-hour residential. And you have an electric vehicle that goes, let’s be conservative and say, three miles per kilowatt-hour. It takes thirty-three kilowatt-hours to run that same hundred miles, times 12 cents apiece, which takes you about four bucks. So the electric car costs $4 for every 100 miles, and the gasoline car costs $12 for every 100 miles. The challenge there perceptually is that you have to put it on your credit card every time you buy gas, but you don’t necessarily think about the cost of charging when you plug something in.
Steven Cherry: John, one of our fellow contributing editors, Václav Smil, is a real genius when it comes to looking at the long sweep of technological change. He says that the transition from gas to electric vehicles will take many decades to complete. I’m going to play a snippet from that interview. It’s a bit of a long snippet, but Smil is always worth listening to.
Steven Cherry:You note that the 100-year gap in the history of electric cars, that is to say, at the turn of the 20th century, electric look like the way to go. Edison certainly believed it. It was one of the few transitions he misjudged. You say that the transition from gas to electric vehicles, which we’re only now starting, will take many decades to complete. Many observers think it will come now very quickly and certainly if we’re to stay anywhere near the Paris Accords, 1.5 degrees, it had better come quickly.
Václav Smil:But it is not coming quickly. If you look at this, they are coming, they are coming quicker than ever, that’s for sure. And this will not be the abortive case like it was in the first decade of the 20th century. So they are coming. They’ll keep coming. But if you look back, what is really instructive to look back at the forecast, because you see people are forecasting constantly all the time. Everybody is forecasting.
So you go back to 2013 or 2012 and the waves started and people said by 2020, how many electric cars we will have. You can see that every forecast issued for the number or penetration rate of electric cars, it should be in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017—all of these forecasts have been wrong by up to an order of magnitude. By this time we should have now twenty percent or seven percent, whatever, while in some countries it’s zero point seven percent or half a percent or one percent.
Look, globally, I think best is the global figure, because you mentioned to the climate; if you want really to help the climate, you have to do it on a global scale. If you totally decarbonize in Switzerland or in Canada (37 million people) and China keeps blowing ahead, it makes no difference. You have to do it on a global scale. Globally, we have now 1.4 billion vehicles on the road—cars and trucks and busses and things that go. 1.4 billion. We have 10 million electric cars at the end of 2013. That is globally 0.7 percent. So, so fast it has gone. So if something has gone from basically 0.0 in 2000 to 0.7 percent in 2020, it’s not going to go to 50 percent in 2030. That’s a kindergarten algebra.
Steven Cherry: John, it’s a very dangerous game to disagree with Václav Smil when it comes to technology timelines, but I sure hope he’s wrong about this one. What do you think?
John Voelcker: Lots to unpack there. I agree with some of the things, he said. Clearly turning over the global car park of 1.4 billion vehicles give or take 100 million will take decades. It is simply not going to be the case that in 15 years, every vehicle on the planet will be run electrically. Can’t happen. It will take decades globally. However, just because forecasts have been overly optimistic in the past does not necessarily mean that they will continue to be overly optimistic in the future. And my parallel there was the Internet bubble of 1994 to 2000, which I lived through, where a lot of people made predictions about the effects of the internet, almost none of which took place by 2000. Fast forward to 2015, and we have largely blown through all of those predictions. There are lots of popular books about tipping points and so forth. But there’s a couple of points that are specific to vehicles. Number one, the vehicles of 10 years ago clearly were overpromised, in part because for North Americans, a small, compact hatchback is not a vehicle that they would buy, period, even if it runs on baby seal tears. And number two, a car with 74 miles of range is not something they would ever buy. So the initial round of EVs, which were almost all compact hatchbacks, simply were not hitting the majority of the market to start with, they would never even be considered.
Fast forward 10 years. We now have a 300-mile electric pickup truck hitting the market. GM has plans—for an electric Hummer of all things. You won’t sell very many, but it certainly gets rid of the nerdy hatchback problem. And there will be cars in the mainstream of the U.S. market, which is to say compact crossover utilities and mid-sized crossover utilities, as well as pickup trucks that will run all electrically and have ranges of 300 miles. All of a sudden, an electric car becomes a much more acceptable alternative because if you’re a pickup truck buyer, you are never going to convert to a hatchback. But if there is an electric pickup truck, especially if it has cool features and the Ford F-150 Lightning is being marketed as ordered a top-line model and with some home wiring adaptations, you order electric truck and power your home for three days. That’s a selling point that has zero to do with climate change because all the data shows that basically environmental causes and climate change are about forty-eighth on the list of reasons people buy cars, they have to be good cars. And while the cars 10 years ago were electric, they weren’t particularly good in the eyes of most buyers. We are now getting to the point where segment for segment electric cars are becoming more appealing because they are better vehicles, which is the other thing.
Steven Cherry: Well, John, the shift to electric cars is a necessary condition for having a fighting chance of coping with climate change, and ubiquitous charging stations are a necessary condition for the cars to get bought in significant numbers. So the future of the planet does depend on them. Thanks for being such a clarion of information about them and for sharing it here today.
John Voelcker: My pleasure. No one has ever called me a clarion of information. So grateful.
Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with IEEE Spectrum contributing editor John Voelcker about the shift to electric cars and their all-important charging stations.