Electric Vehicles 101: Everything You Need to Know
If you think electric cars are a new concept, you’re not alone. Until recently, EV’s drew interest mainly from a niche group of enthusiasts.
Gasoline-powered cars and trucks are usually considered to be the ‘traditional’ types of those vehicles, but electric vehicles were being developed right around the same time, according to a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) post. Although Karl Benz is credited with inventing the first gasoline-powered automobile in Germany in the mid-1880s, the first crude electric vehicle — an electric carriage — was invented in Scotland around 1832. Other early forms of electric vehicles popped up in the ensuing decades.
Within 50 years, the first “successful electric car” was developed in Iowa, although the vehicles were still a far cry from modern-day electric vehicle technology, according to the DOE.
“By 1900, electric cars were at their heyday, accounting for around a third of all vehicles on the road,” explained the DOE, noting that “strong sales” continued for the next decade. But technological advancements and an American desire to travel outside of electrified cities played a part in propelling the popularity of gasoline-powered vehicles past electric vehicles, a preference that stuck for decades.
What Are the Types of Electric Vehicles?
Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs)
Hybrid electric vehicles utilize both internal combustion engines and vehicle batteries that power electric motors. Drivers can fill up their gas tank and go, but benefit from a ‘regenerative braking’ system that charges the internal battery, storing the energy created otherwise lost by braking the vehicle. An HEV’s battery can’t be charged with a plug like other kinds of electric vehicles.
“In an HEV, the extra power provided by the electric motor may allow for a smaller combustion engine,” according to the DOE’s Alternative Fuels Data Center. “The battery can also power auxiliary loads and reduce engine idling when the vehicle is stopped.”
“Together, these features result in better fuel economy without sacrificing performance,” the center continued in a post.
Although such vehicles have electric batteries, some don’t consider them to be full electric vehicles.
“Generally, since hybrids don’t have a plug, we don’t consider them to be electric vehicles,” explained Amalia Siegel, a program manager at Efficiency Maine, a quasi-state energy efficiency agency. “Although hybrids are a great choice [and] they have great fuel economy, those are sort of in a separate category.”
Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs)
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), similar to their non-plug-in cousins, use both conventional internal combustion engines and batteries for their power sources. The primary difference, however, is that while PHEVs also can charge their batteries with regenerative braking, they can also power up through the electrical grid with a plug.
Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs)
Like PHEVs, battery electric vehicles (BEVs), also known as all-electric vehicles, are able to connect to the grid with a plug and charge up with the same electricity running through our homes and businesses. BEVs can also top up their batteries through regenerative braking.
However, BEVs don’t have any combustion engines that require gasoline, a design feature that means there are no direct fossil fuel-related emissions from the vehicle while driving.
Are Electric Vehicles Better for the Environment?
While some potential electric vehicle drivers may not care too much about whether their car is better or worse for the environment, many people first hear about the vehicles in the context of environmental protection and climate crisis mitigation.
Some critics of electric vehicles note that the “greenness” of an electric vehicle’s charge is dependent on how clean the power is in the grid it’s plugged into. In New England, for example, the regional grid operator primarily generates electricity through natural gas, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration database. And Texas, which has its own electricity grid, natural gas and coal are the first- and second-most utilized energy source for power production.
Nevertheless, “the thing about electric vehicles is that they’re just more efficient than gasoline vehicles, regardless of where the energy is coming from,” explained Siegel. “So there are some places in the country that have a very strong renewable energy mix, and where the electricity is very green to begin with, but even in states… that have more coal in the mix or some other fossil fuels, it still ends up being that the greenhouse gas emissions are still lower” stemming from the use of an electric vehicle.
However, there are other environmental considerations beyond transportation efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions, even if the emissions-heavy transportation sector is still a large concern.
Critics and event supporters of electric vehicle development point to the necessity and procurement of certain metals, such as lithium and cobalt, that are integral to the production of electric vehicle batteries. Mining for these materials is controversial because while the substances are essential to the transportation electrification evolution, environmental damage and human labor exploitation persist.
Interest has grown in seafloor mining as developers seek more sources of cobalt and nickel, but there is limited collective knowledge on what the long-term impact of excavating the ocean floors and disrupting the ecosystem and its aquatic life may be.
Back onshore, mining for critical battery materials is no less contentious. Over half of the world’s known deposits of cobalt, for example, can be found in the ground beneath the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose cobalt mining industry is rife with corruption and human rights concerns, according to a recent New York Times investigation.
How Long Does It Take to Charge an Electric Vehicle?
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Depending on the type of charging equipment you’re using, powering up your electric vehicle can take anywhere from half an hour to longer than overnight. Older electric vehicle models may not have plugs for more-advanced rapid chargers.
According to an Efficiency Maine post, level 1 chargers are the slowest type, taking sometimes up to 15 hours to fully charge a battery. These cords are typically included with the vehicle at purchase or lease. Level 2 chargers, which Efficiency Maine noted are the most common type to be installed in homes, usually add around 14 to 35 miles of range in an hour of plug-in time. Subject to the size of the battery, a full charge can take as little as three hours to as long as 10 hours, the agency explained.
Level 3 chargers provide the most-rapid power-ups for electric vehicles and are usually found at public locations like rest stops. According to South Korean car manufacturer Kia, “it tends to take longer to charge at a lower temperature, particularly when using a rapid charger,” in addition to other charging speed limitations like battery size and charging equipment speed.
Of course, not everyone has their own garage at home to plug into. Many people live in apartment or condo buildings where their utility bills aren’t tied to the power being used in the garages. In those cases, Siegel said, electric vehicle drivers looking to power their cars up at home should be proactive with their landlords or building managers.
“I think the important thing is to give them a sense of roughly how much electricity you’ll be using, because maybe some landlords don’t really have a sense of that,” Siegel explained. “It’s going to be different in different situations,” she added, noting that some buildings might actually be able to directly charge your apartment or condo for the electricity used. But either way, striking up a deal ahead of time about when you will charge and how much you will compensate your property manager will save you a headache later on.
Of course, there are publicly available chargers that anyone can tap into. Two resources for locating publicly available chargers include the DOE Alternative Fuels Data Center’s filterable map and Plugshare, a free website and phone app that bills itself as “the most accurate and complete public charging map worldwide, with stations from every major network in North America and Europe.”
How Much Does It Cost to Charge an Electric Vehicle?
Even when gasoline prices aren’t high, many drivers dream of a cheaper way to fuel up. Siegel said the best way to see the cost difference between a combustion engine and an electric vehicle is not to compare the cost to fill a gas tank with the cost of charging up a vehicle battery. Instead, she said it’s better to compare the cost of traveling 100 miles in either vehicle to gauge savings.
“If you’re just using electricity from your home, you could expect to pay about half as much to drive an EV than to drive a gasoline car,” said Siegel, noting that she recently calculated that it would cost between $4.80 – $5.00 for a resident of Maine to charge their electric vehicle for a 100-mile drive, compared to around $9.00 – $10.00 to drive 100 miles in a gasoline-powered vehicle.
For her calculation, she assumed an electric vehicle with an efficiency of 30 kWh per 100 miles, like the Nissan LEAF, and a gasoline-powered car with an efficiency of 30 miles per gallon. Siegel also assumed gasoline cost $3.00 per gallon.
Outside of the home, public charging stations aren’t likely to be more expensive than charging at home but may require you to make a free account, Siegel said. However, “it’s no different than signing up for a frequent shopper card at your local grocery store,” she added.
What Are Electric Vehicle Tax Credits?
There are two primary ways that governments are looking to incentivize electric vehicle purchases: rebates and tax credits.
According to the Alternative Fuels Data Center, federal electric vehicle tax credits can apply to eligible vehicles acquired after December 31, 2009. Federal credits range from $2,500 to $7,500. You still need the money to pay for the sticker price at the lot, but you’ll get a certain amount back on your next tax filing, depending on how heavy the vehicle is and its battery capacity.
However, the major infrastructure bill currently making its way through the U.S. Congress may increase the upper limit of the tax credit. According to CNET, some electric vehicle models may be eligible for up to $12,500 in federal tax credits, if the bill becomes law.
An important consideration for those looking to take advantage of the federal tax credit (as currently codified) is that if you don’t owe more than $7,500 on your taxes, you can’t receive the maximum $7,500 in tax credits, Siegel explained.
“You can only claim that up to the amount of taxes you have,” she said. “So if you only have $5,000 worth of tax liability, you’re not going to be able to get the full amount of the tax credit.”
Of course, states can implement their own rebate or tax credit programs that can provide additional savings for potential electric vehicle drivers.
“In Maine and a lot of other states that I know about, you can absolutely stack them because [the federal tax credit and state-specific rebate or tax programs are] completely different,” said Siegel.
To learn whether your state has additional credits, it may be best to reach out to environmental, efficiency or energy organizations, nonprofits or utilities in your state to ask for the latest information on rebate or tax credit programs for which you qualify.
Some Pros and Cons of Electric Vehicles
In addition to the already stated positives and negatives of electric vehicles, potential electric vehicle purchasers may wonder about other practical driving and maintenance concerns.
Lower Maintenance Costs
No engine? No problem. While you still need to go to the mechanic, “What the research shows is, generally speaking, electric vehicles result in lower operating and maintenance costs over a given year,” said Nicholas Ucci, commissioner of the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources. “You don’t have a lot of the same ‘moving pieces’ that you do in a gasoline engine, like oil changes, for example, so that can reduce… the total cost to a consumer and operating a vehicle like this.”
Ucci added that, of course, there are some components that will still need to be replaced, like windshield wipers and tires, just as frequently as a gasoline-powered vehicle would require.
However, not all mechanics may be trained up on servicing an electric vehicle. Certain parts require specific training, according to a recent SF Weekly article. That has led to efforts to attract new mechanics to the field who can specialize in electric vehicles or service both electric and gasoline vehicles.
In general, Ucci said, “When you go to a mechanic, you always want to know what their qualifications are, so if you do have an electric vehicle, I think it’s important to ask the mechanic if they’re certified to work on the type of vehicle you own, if there are additional certifications that are needed [in your area].”
Some potential electric vehicle drivers and owners worry that they’ll be driving and get stuck without a charge, unable to get to their actual destination. That range anxiety used to be more common with older models that couldn’t take you as far on a single charge.
“For most modern electric vehicles, [you can drive] about 250 miles or more before needing another charge,” explained Siegel, adding that most people only drive up to 30 miles in a day. “So if you know how far you drive on a typical day, you can get a sense of what your needs are going to be” in terms of selecting the type of electric vehicle for you.
If you’re regularly taking rides over 200 miles in a single day, you’ll likely want a hybrid electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle to minimize any anxiety. But “for most people, the range of an average, new electric vehicle is going to be plenty for their driving needs,” Siegel said.
What’s the Future for Electric Vehicles?
As concern for the environment and climate has grown, so too has the desire to return to the electric vehicle. By the end of 2020, around 11 million electric vehicles were registered with governments around the globe.
That may not sound like many — and it’s not, considering that the planet surpassed 1 billion cars alone back in 2010 — electric cars, buses, vans and trucks are expected to account for 7% of road transportation by the end of this decade, assuming government policies as of May 2021 are followed. For example, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order in August 2021 setting a goal to have half of all new vehicles sold in the country be zero-emission models by 2030. Some estimates even suggest that by 2035, every single new car or truck sold in the U.S. could be an electric vehicle.
Some areas of the U.S. seem more keen than others to adopt the personal transportation technology. For example, a recent poll commissioned by two clean energy companies found that a majority of registered Massachusetts voters said they were likely to buy an electric vehicle within five years.
Bridget is a freelance reporter and newsletter writer based in the Washington, DC, area. She primarily writes about energy, conservation and the environment. Originally from Philadelphia, she graduated from Emerson College in 2016 with a degree in journalism and a minor in environmental studies. When she isn’t working on a story, she’s normally on a northern Maine lake or traveling abroad to practice speaking Spanish.