After a year of driving an electric car, I wrote about it in my first Medium article. Now, two years later, I drive the same Chevy Bolt EV. Since writing that article, I retired from being a lawyer. My wife and I no longer needed two cars, so we gave our Toyota Camry to a deserving grandchild. We are one hundred percent electric.
After two additional years driving electric, including driving without a gas fallback option, my opinions have both changed and remained the same. In a nutshell, today I think electric cars beat gas cars hands down for ninety-five percent of driving and are a pain in the ass for the other five percent.
Let’s start with the good.
I charge my car in my driveway every night. Ninety-five percent of my driving consists of going to places within a hundred miles of my house. I can go to these places and come home on a single charge, plug in the car in my driveway, and be ready to go the next day. For these trips, my electric car is easier and more fun to drive than any gas car that isn’t an exotic or collector car.
I drive with one pedal. I seldom brake, letting the regenerative function of the car slow me to a stop. My EV is quick, silent, and smooth. It goes up hills like it is being pulled by a cable, and accelerates from sixty to eighty as quickly as it does from zero to twenty.
My EV doesn’t need gas, or oil, or spark plugs, or starters, or timing belts, or alternators, or radiators, or catalytic converters. My owner’s manual recommends the first maintenance on the drive train when I reach 150,000 miles. Visits to gas stations, Jiffy Lubes, and car mechanics are a thing of the past. I hop in. It goes.
When I had the Toyota and had to drive it because my wife was driving our electric one, the vehicle felt slow and unresponsive.
I don’t love everything about the Chevy Bolt, but my complaints are about the details of the car, not the method of propulsion. If I dump the Bolt, I am not going back to gas.
And then the bad
Charging on long trips is a pain in the ass.
If I am going somewhere that is 150 miles away from my driveway and I want to get back home, I need to plan on charging during the trip. In my gas car, I wouldn’t worry about it. I’d watch that little falling pointer on the gas gauge and when it got toward the bottom I’d pull over at one of the many gas stations in our country and fill up. With my EV, I have to have a plan.
Charging stations are not hard to find. Apps like Plugshare and A Better Route Planner let me find charging stations and calculate the best ones to use for a successful trip. The planning is sort of fun. Execution of the plan seldom is.
Charging an EV away from home takes more time and causes me more worry than filling up with gas ever did. Gas stations are everywhere and are marked by tall signs that can be seen from a distance. Pull in, gas up, buy a properly aged hot dog and you are on your way. Fueling an EV on a long trip is a vastly different experience.
The Economics of EV Charging
When I drove a gas car I bought ninety-five percent of my fuel at the gas station near my house. It was owned and operated by the Sanchez family and doubled as the local source for cigarettes and malt liquor. When I was away from home, I bought gas at a station that served some other community. The owners of the gas stations I used — whether close to my home or while traveling — had an entrepreneurial interest in serving their local community. Every morning they made sure the gas pumps were working and the hot dogs were on the rollers. As a traveler, I got the benefit of the owner’s dedication to his local customers.
Electric vehicle charging stations are different. I never charge my EV at the charging stations near my home. They do not serve my community like the Sanchez family does. They serve only travelers. That means the economics are different. Gas stations are providing one hundred percent of the fuel to the gas cars on the road, serving both the community in which the stations are located and travelers. If all EV drivers charge at home like I do, public charging stations provide no more than five percent of the fuel to the EV’s on the road and serve only people who are away from home.
The difference is stark. Public EV charging stations are called “destination chargers.” This is a shorthand way of saying they serve only people from outside the community in which the charger is located. There is no Sanchez family getting up every morning to make sure these chargers are serviced and ready to go. This means trouble when it comes to refueling your electric vehicle.
Location, location, location.
Currently, public charging stations are found in two kinds of places. Some EV charging stations were built to advance a public good. (Or in the case of Electrify America stations, built as penance for Volkswagen’s diesel fuel fraud.) These chargers tend to be found on government-owned facilities such as municipal parking lots or transit stations. I once charged in a small Oregon town in the parking lot of the Public Utility Commission. Proximity to a hot dog when charging at one of these public-service stations is not guaranteed.
The second place I find chargers while traveling is at businesses that want to lure me in so I will spend money there on more than just charging my car. The most common of these businesses are hotels and shopping centers.
Hotels are naturals for charging stations. They don’t provide beds for the people in the local community. They cater to travelers. When I travel in my EV, hotels with chargers get my business and my gratitude. I check into the hotel, plug in my car for as long as needed, and the next day I am ready to go. It is just like home, something hotels strive to be. Unfortunately, hotel chargers are only a comfortable option if you are staying at the hotel. If you are passing through without staying, you don’t get a bed to wait in and they may not even let you charge.
Shopping centers are a mixed bag. They have EV charging stations to lure in the traveler and entice him or her to patronize the local chain restaurants or, even better, go shopping. I’m good with that. My minor complaint is that some shopping centers put the chargers so far from the shopping that I would rather wait in my car than undertake the hike to the stores. Other shopping centers put chargers by the front door — the most sought-after spaces in the whole center — where impatient drivers of gas cars will sometimes block the chargers. When this happens, there is no representative of the Sanchez family to fix the problem.
Charging Takes Time
There are three levels of charging for my EV. Using an ordinary wall socket, my car will charge about four miles per hour. Using a “level 2” charger like the one I have at home, it will charge about twenty-five miles per hour. Using a “level 3 fast charger,” I can charge to 80% capacity in about half an hour. (Because of the way batteries work, fast charging doesn’t work beyond 80%). At its fastest, my EV is ridiculously slow compared to filling a tank with gasoline.
This means that if I am charging on my way to my destination, rather than at my destination, I am faced with filling a bunch of time in a place where there is nothing I want to do. It is a challenge to explain to my ever-patient wife that due to my love of new technology, we are now stuck for ninety-minutes in the parking lot of an industrial park. I am generally able to avoid this marriage-crushing scenario, but the thought of it haunts me whenever my EV is far from home.
Charging Stations are Unreliable.
There are three different types of plugs for electric cars and you have to match your car to the plug on the charger. The EV world may be inching toward uniformity, but it is still a long way off. Once you have made sure the charging station you found on Google maps has the plug you need, then you pray that it will work when you get there.
The charging stations have no Sanchez family making sure they are ready to go when you arrive. They are controlled remotely and you buy electricity using either a plastic card or a phone app. I currently have six different phone apps from six different EV charging companies. I keep four different cards in the car in case the phone apps fail. Being guided to an unfamiliar EV charging station by Google maps is a stressful event. All sorts of things can prevent a charge: poor cell phone service, sunlight on the charger screen so strong that it cannot be read, vandalism, being blocked by gas cars or other electric cars, and the ubiquitous “technical issues.” Standing in front of an EV charger talking to customer service on your phone trying to get the damn charger to work is nobody’s idea of a good time.
These failures happen even where they shouldn’t. I have checked into a hotel that I selected specifically for having an EV charger only to find that someone had stolen the entire charging cord. Hotel staff had no idea that the theft had occurred (in a dark back corner of the parking lot) until I told them. If this can happen at a hotel that is using its charging station to attract guests, imagine how little attention the charging station gets when it is in the outer parking lot of the local community college.
A Maudlin Conclusion
After a hundred years of constant tinkering, the internal combustion engine is a marvel of human engineering. It explodes gasoline to create transportation in a manner that is reasonably clean, fairly quiet, and generally reliable. The engine has hundreds of parts, yet is inexpensive to produce. Cars using the internal combustion engine are often fun to drive and occasionally works of art. If I needed to drive from my home in Oregon to Jasper, Wyoming, I would rent a nice internal combustion car and enjoy every minute of the trip. The fueling problems of taking my EV on that trip are just too much for me to justify in the name of adventure.
Around my neighborhood, however, that marvel of human engineering was a hole I threw money into. I not only had to financially support the car, but also the local gas station, the local oil change place, a car repair shop, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. All that so I could drive something that is sluggish and temperamental.
At one point in my life, I sold books for a living. I loved books and I still do. I just don’t read them anymore. I’m old. My Kindle e-reader lets me change font size to fit how well my eyes are doing on any particular day. I might still buy a book if I wanted to study art, but for the day-to-day mystery novels, the days of paper books on my shelf are long gone. My Kindle can annoy me by rebooting for no apparent reason or running out of juice just when I begin a final chapter, but that ship has sailed. I miss books, but I am not going back to paper. Ever.
I feel the same about gas cars. I am far away enough from them to miss them. Driving my EV has problems, but for me, the days of keeping an internal combustion engine in my driveway are over. When I first got my EV, I felt liberated from gasoline and the infrastructure that provided it. After three years, I have a sense of loss. I had a lot of good times in gas cars, but know in my heart I am not going back. Ever.
What I can do, however, is stop by the old gas station for a hot dog and see how the Sanchez family is doing.