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So You Want To Buy An Electric Car? It Requires Some Planning

Charging station for electric cars in Glasgow, Scotland. With new models aimed at the mass market going on sale, Americans will be hearing a lot more about electric cars.
John Guidi
Getty Images/Robert Harding Worl
Charging station for electric cars in Glasgow, Scotland. With new models aimed at the mass market going on sale, Americans will be hearing a lot more about electric cars.

Over the last few years, many of my colleagues have asked me questions about cars. Recently at NPR West in Culver City, Calif., we got two electric chargers. When my colleague Melissa Kuypers said she wanted an electric car, I thought: perfect guinea pig for a little test.

"I drive by myself 13 miles each way. I don't care about performance. I sit in a lot of traffic," says Kuypers, the mother of a toddler. Her family also has another car that can serve as primary vehicle. And since NPR recently installed an electric charging station, Melissa would have a place to charge a car.

"I thought, why not," she says.

Two electric cars meant for the masses are hitting the market this fall, the Tesla Model 3 and the Chevrolet Bolt. And with India, France and Britain planning to ban the sale of gas-powered cars, electric vehicles seem to have a bright future.

Sales of electrics have increased, but they remain a tiny fraction of overall auto sales — about 160,000 out of over 17 million new cars sold in the U.S. last year. That means that many people have never even been in an electric vehicle, let alone driven one.

Over the course of the summer Kuypers has been testing electric cars, including a Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Bolt, Volkswagen e-Golf, BMW i3, Prius Prime and an Audi e-tron. We're going to use some of her experiences in a few stories about electric cars.

Micah Muzio, who does car review for Kelley Blue Book, took us on a drive to help us understand the difference between gas-powered cars and electrics.

One of the first changes that drivers of electrics are likely to notice is the quiet in the car's cabin. "There's no firing up the engine," Muzio says. "You just kind of get in and then you quietly leave."

Electric motors operate very differently than the internal combustion engines most of us are used to.

"They basically have one moving part," Muzio says, whereas a normal gas engine has lots of moving parts. As for reliability, he says electric motors are "head and shoulders above the normal internal combustion engine" — with fewer moving parts, there are fewer things to go wrong. There are also no corroded fuel or oil lines, or need for oil changes.

As we turn out of the NPR parking lot, Muzio puts the Chevy Bolt through its paces. He puts the car into sport mode and immediately floors it. There's a little bit of tire squeal, then instantaneous acceleration.

"The power happens immediately; The torque kicks in as soon as you push the throttle," Muzio says.

In June 2016, NPR West installed its first electric chargers. The two chargers immediately drew the interest of coworkers. Before the installation, one worker had an electric car; within one year that number grew to five.

It's a Level 2 charger, with a plug and long cord attached, that puts out 220 volts. It's like the power used for your dryer or other heavy duty appliances at home, says Joel Levin of Plug In America, a nonprofit that represents plug-in vehicle drivers.

He says chargers in the workplace have encouraged people to buy electric cars. Homeowners, landlords and businesses get tax breaks for installing them. Consumers get even larger federal and state tax credits for buying the cars.

Standard chargers take eight hours for a full charge. The plug on the Level 2 chargers is universal. At supercharging stations that are popping up around the country you can get it done in about half an hour, but they differ depending upon manufacturer.

Levin says the range anxiety, a concern when electrics were introduced, has eased now that the charging infrastructure is growing. He says people thinking about getting an electric car should make sure they have consistent access to charging, whether at work or home.

There are several apps, and websites that track the availability of charging stations. Also, AAA and several insurance companies offer roadside assist for EVs.

"It's a bit like driving across the desert," Levin says. "If there's that one gas station, you want to make sure that gas station works when you get there."

Sandra Button, who chairs the Concours d' Elegance at Pebble Beach, the premiere luxury antique car show, says that like many people she was reluctant to embrace electric cars, until she began driving them.

"They're responsive, quiet, and you know what, they can be really 'torque-y.' They can be really fun," she says. Button predicts that eventually electric cars will catch on with the public, so much so that for antique collectors, "Access to gasoline will eventually become an issue."

Kuypers wonders if her local mechanic would be able to fix a new electric car.

Muzio laughs. "You're probably not going to any repairs any time soon because it's a very simple system," he says. "The bigger question is the batteries. And the batteries that you find in any electric car now have super, super long warranties."

Muzio says range becomes less of an issue because "we've got cost-effective cars that have more than enough range for people's normal activities. ... The electric car is no longer an outlier."

The Bolt we drove gets a range of 238 miles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. "For just driving around Los Angeles, this is all the range you need," Muzio says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.