Electric Cars 101: What you should know before you buy an EV

A Tesla electric car charging. Credit: Bridie Schmidt
A Tesla electric car charging. Credit: Bridie Schmidt

Buying an electric vehicle after owning a petrol or diesel car is a bit like going from a landline to a smartphone, but a little more complicated: After all, an EV has wheels and can cause some serious damage in a crash, whereas dropping a smartphone will at worst result in a cracked screen.

Another analogy is running out of juice. Flat smartphone? Find a powerpoint!

Actually, with an electric car that is basically the same. But you get the gist: one does not simply buy an electric car.

mordor electric car
One does not simply buy an electric car.

And with electric cars now back on the government discussion menu (albeit without any real incentives to buy or motivations for carmakers to bring them here), as well as $3,000 rebates in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, now it’s a better time than ever to go electric – if you can actually find one.

As with any new technology, there are no doubt many questions for the uninitiated. So, for the newbies, we’ve compiled a list of good things to know before buying an electric car:

How charging works, where you can charge and how long it takes

Charging an electric car is as easy as charging a smartphone – almost. Instead of simply charging at the powerpoint next to your bedside table or office desk, an electric car can also be charged on on a wall charger which you can have installed in your garage, or at an AC destination charger that you might find at the shopping centre or workplace, or at a DC fast-charger.

Charging at home overnight is pretty standard for anyone with off-street parking, and depending on the size of your battery can take overnight or longer if it is pretty flat. Plugging in at the shops you can top up the driving range of your EV at a rate of between 30-120km an hour depending on the internal maximum charging rate of the model you buy. Check out this handy guide for more info.

If you’re in need of a quick charge head to a DC fast-charging station, which can add between 250km an hour with a 50kW charger up to more than 1,000km an hour for the very fastest 350-450kW chargers (again, this depends on your EV’s internal top charge rate).

Find chargers you can use when out and about with the plugshare.com website or smartphone app.

A destination charger at Cunningham Pier, Geelong. Source: Plugshare
A destination charger at Cunningham Pier, Geelong. Source: Plugshare

How far an EV can drive and what the range on the sticker means

As we covered in this article here, there are three different “lab test” ratings (NEDC, WLTP and EPA) for driving range on an EV (actually these are carried out for petrol and diesel cars but we rarely talk about them because there are service stations everywhere).

Then, there is also “real-world” range, which is what you will get from an electric car depending on your driving style and local terrain.

The real world range is always less than the stated range (as shown on your windscreen sticker) but never fear! Most people really only drive around 40km a day anyway, and there will be more and more places to charge them on a road trip – which as noted above you can find using the right apps.

For a technical explanation of the various driving range ratings, read this article. For an indication of real-world range see our Models pages.

How much it costs to own an EV and to charge its battery compared to owning and filling the tank of a petrol car

One brilliant thing about electric cars is that they need very little maintenance compared to a combustion engine car. Gone will be the days of oil changes, and with about 10% the number of parts there are less things to wear out (also thanks to less vibration from pistons). Additionally, with regenerative braking enabled there is much less wear and tear on the brakes – read this article about one Tesla owner who still has the same set of brake pads after driving 400,000km!

If you’re wondering about a comparison between ownership costs there are a number of studies out there that suggest owning an electric car can cost less than owning a combustion engine car, even though the EV costs more to buy.

See also: The top ten electric vehicle myths that need to be debunked

In the US, Consumer Reports found that a Tesla Model 3 would cost less to own than a BMW 330i. And in this comparison between a Toyota Camry hybrid and a Tesla Model 3 we found the latter could be cheaper to own, assuming it holds its value (this is the contentious part.

That’s because as EV prices are dropping so to will resale value, even though they generally hold that better than combustion vehicles. That said, the Model 3 has dropped $6,000 in price new since we did that comparison, while the Camry has not).

The cost to charge an EV depends on where you charge it. Generally, the faster the charger the more expensive it will be, and if you charge at home off solar it is free.

Let’s make some assumptions: a 50kW charger such as ones installed by NRMA in NSW cost 40c per kWh of energy. That adds up to $20 to charge a 50kWh battery which would get you 300-400km of driving range depending on the EV model.

Compared to a standard passenger car using 10 litres/100km petrol at $1.90 (!!!!) a litres – that’s a whopping $76 for 400km. Just, wow.

What it is like driving in the city and on the highway

The funny thing about EVs is that driving in the city and driving on the highway has the opposite effect on energy consumption compared to a combustion car. While driving in the city in a combustion car can result in more fuel-guzzling due to all the stopping and starting (and no energy recovered when braking), driving an EV will use less because it is recuperating energy more often than on an open straight.

Also, while a combustion car continues using fuel while idling (excluding mild hybrids), an EV uses no energy when it rolls to a stop. Add to that zero fumes while idling and EVs are quite simply so much better for cities and after-school pickups.

See also: Range anxiety? Nine electric car hacks you need to know

On the open road, combustion cars are more efficient than around town, because of a combination of factors including the fact that engines work more efficiently once they are warmed up. At typical highway speeds, carmakers generally configure combustion cars to work most efficiently in top gear, whereas in the city engines run at various rates, which are not necessarily the most efficient.

An EV on the other hand has fewer chances to recuperate energy on the highway, and because the ability to regenerate power has such a huge impact on reducing energy use in town, on the highway the comparative reduction in range is considerably more noticeable.

How long an electric car battery lasts

Many people worry about how long the battery on an electric car will last, and given the fact that the battery accounts for up to 50% of the cost of making an EV, fair enough!

Battery degradation (the process of energy capacity reducing over time) occurs in batteries due to a variety of factors, but typically EV makers will include an 8-year battery warranty in case a battery’s state of health (SoH) degrades more than expected.

A 2019 survey of 6,000 EVs showed that the age of the battery was a more significant indicator of battery degradation rather than kilometres driven. Other factors include how often a battery is fast-charged, how often an EV is operated in hot temperatures, and how often the battery is completely depleted of energy.

The study, which included a range of makes and models, found that on average a battery will lose 2.3% of its capacity per years. So, if your average driving range is 400km, after 4 years it might be 360km – still plenty of range for day-to-day needs.

The unknown all-electric Porsche testing ultra fast charging architecture in 2018. Source: Porsche
The unknown all-electric Porsche testing ultra-fast charging architecture in 2018. Source: Porsche

The fast-charging factor is why batteries charge much, much more slowly once the state of charge (SoC) exceeds 80%. Most EV makers recommend an EV is operated most of the time with a battery SoC of between 20% and 80%, with the exception of the Shanghai-made Tesla Model 3, which has an LFP battery that should be charged to 100% at least once a week.

Good to remember is the fact that battery technology is improving all the time. Researchers are working on how to decrease battery degradation, and also how to make them more cheaply.

What the environmental impacts and benefits of an electric car are

There is a lot of misinformation out there that suggests electric cars are worse for the environment, by using out-of-date data on emissions from making batteries and downplaying the emissions from refining and distributing petrol and diesel.

This study by Dutch EV expert Auke Hoekstra of Netherlands’ Eindhoven University of Technology rebuts one such inaccurate study, showing that EVs are actually better for the environment because grids are moving towards more renewables.

Source: Auke Hoekstra/Twitter
Source: Auke Hoekstra/Twitter

Also, using electricity to power a vehicle is much more efficient than burning petrol and diesel, because a lot of energy is lost when fuel is combusted in the engine, while vibration and other energy losses such as heat also add to a much less energy-efficient vehicle.

Another good point to remember is that while an EV’s power source will become increasingly less emissions-intense as more renewable energy sources contribute to the grid mix, a combustion engine car will always rely on fossil fuels to run, and will use more of it as they age.

Want to know more about electric cars? Check our FAQs here.

bridie schmidt

Bridie Schmidt

Bridie Schmidt is lead reporter for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She has been writing about electric vehicles since 2018, and has a keen interest in the role that zero-emissions transport has to play in sustainability. She has participated in podcasts such as Download This Show with Marc Fennell and Shirtloads of Science with Karl Kruszelnicki and is co-organiser of the Northern Rivers Electric Vehicle Forum. Bridie also owns a Tesla Model 3 and has it available for hire on evee.com.au.

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