Commentary

Here Is All You Need To Know About Buying An Electric Car

Carl Duivenvoorden's Chevrolet Volt. Image: submitted.

According to futurists, car buffs and industry watchers, electric vehicles are the way of the future. But most of us aren’t very familiar with what’s out there, and not everyone is convinced of their performance, efficiency and economics.

So here’s Part One of all you need to know about electric vehicles. I’m feeling a bit empowered on the subject lately because one of them arrived in our driveway last summer.

Range anxiety

When most people think electric vehicles, two words come to mind: range anxiety, the (legitimate) fear of running out of battery power before reaching a destination.

According to Natural Resources Canada, nearly 20 battery powered vehicles (BEVs) are now available in Canada. With the exception of the new Chevy Bolt and numerous Tesla models, most offer ranges of between 100 and 200 kilometres on a full charge – great for commuting, but not quite up to long-haul travel.

On the other hand, range anxiety is definitely not a concern with plug-in hybrids, vehicles that have both a plug-in battery and a small conventional engine. All but four of the 25 models available in Canada have ranges of over 500 kilometres on a full charge and a full tank; several can go over 800 kilometres.

My new vehicle? A plug-in hybrid that 1) runs exclusively on battery until the battery is empty, and only then switches to gas; and 2) has a sufficiently large battery to handle my everyday needs. In other words, it’s fully electric for local driving, with a gas engine available for long trips.

Cost and availability

BEVs and plug-in hybrids are available in N.B. – but because we’re not a large market and no provincial subsidies are available to help offset their cost, they remain fairly rare. They are, however, common in Quebec and Ontario, thanks in part to significant provincial incentives that have been in place for several years.

And I can attest that used or off-lease BEVs and plug-in hybrids are fairly easy to find via the internet, at prices below typical SUVs and trucks.

A quantum leap in efficiency

My faithful, now-departed 2003 Toyota Echo was rated at 6.2 litres per 100 kilometres – one of the more fuel-efficient gas vehicles on the road.

My new plug-in is rated at about 5.5 litres per 100 kilometres when running on gas – already an improvement. But running on the battery is where it shines: equal to about 2 litres per 100 kilometres, or three times the efficiency of my previous vehicle. Three times!

And since my car’s battery can easily handle my regular commute, the vehicle’s engine sometimes goes weeks without starting. The regenerative braking system – which recharges the battery as it slows the vehicle – means the brakes will last a very long time.  The car is also bigger, more comfortable, more luxurious and much peppier than the one it replaced.

(It’s true that electric vehicles are only as clean as the power source they rely upon; let’s call that a work in progress as NB and the world transition to renewable sources of electricity.)

Gaming for better fuel economy

If my experience so far is any indication, plug-in hybrids have another huge benefit: they educate their drivers.

The instrumentation panel on my previous vehicle was bare-bones: speed, fuel and temperature gauges, plus some warning lights.  Now I’m finding myself looking at panels that give me all of that, plus:

  • Real-time feedback about where power is coming from, whether battery, gas engine or (when braking or going downhill) wheels and where it’s going
  • Real-time feedback about how much energy I’m using at any given time.  If I tramp on the accelerator, a little symbol immediately shows my fuel economy plummeting; if I go lightly, the fuel economy soars.  It’s a compelling, game-like way to help me discover how I can improve my driving habits and get better mileage (and it’s working – I’m actually starting to exceed the vehicle’s rated fuel economy).
  • Total fuel economy since last charging the battery – great for comparison purposes.

So what about the charging part? That’s coming in Part Two next Wednesday.

Carl Duivenvoorden (www.changeyourcorner.com; @CDuivenv) is a speaker, writer and sustainability consultant living in Upper Kingsclear, New Brunswick.