All About Electric Cars: A Plug-In Primer

Learn about electric cars and plug-in hybrid cars, and get information on charging an electric vehicle, lithium-ion batteries, how EVs work and the electric cars available.
Many new electric cars are coming on the market including this one, Mistubishi’s all-electric i-MiEV, which was recently named the Greenest Vehicle by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.


After more than 100 years of internal combustion, will electric cars come as, pardon the pun, a shock? The good news is electric vehicles, sometimes called EVs, don’t require a major re-education for drivers. The first thing you need to know about electric cars is that they’re powered by battery packs, the capacity of which is measured in kilowatt-hours. In a truly all-electric car, there is no gas tank; the battery pack is the only game in town. Unlike a gas car — which generates electricity for accessories such as the radio or heater from the engine-driven alternator — the electric car is wholly dependent on batteries. That’s why turning on the radio or running the heater affects the electric car’s range.

After the initial investment, electric cars are inexpensive to own because of low maintenance costs (for instance, no oil changes!), the relatively cheap price of electricity, and the fact that electric motors are inherently more energy efficient than internal-combustion engines (read How Much Does It Cost to Power an Electric Car? from the article Why Electric Cars Are Cleaner).

Charging an Electric Vehicle

Instead of gassing up, drivers will plug their cars into a charger located at home, the office or public car charging stations. Most wall-mounted garage chargers are 240 volts and take about four to eight hours to fill an empty battery, depending on the vehicle.

Most charging will take place at home, because for-profit public charging is likely to be more expensive. A public option is 480-volt DC “fast charging,” which takes just half an hour and may soon be an option for electric car drivers at gas stations. Most people will plug in when they come home from work, but, where applicable, the cars can use built-in timers that ensure they charge during “off-peak” late-night hours when many utilities offer reduced rates. Some critics with doubts about electric cars argue that if too many people start using EVs, the electricity grid will become overwhelmed or even “crash,” but by charging during off-peak times, the electricity grid will not be negatively affected.

Still in its infancy is wireless “inductive” charging, which can automatically transfer power from a unit built into the garage floor or parking space.

With no help from a gas engine, the battery pack offers about 100 miles of range. Worry about running out of charge has created a state of mind known as “range anxiety.” Are people right to be worried? Maybe not. According to the Sierra Club and other sources, most Americans drive fewer than 35 miles a day. It may be that range anxiety will fade as public charging options increase.

The Electrifying History of Electric Cars

Electric cars aren’t new — in 1900, more than a quarter of the almost 4,200 American cars produced commercially were plug-in electrics with lead-acid batteries. The previous year, a fleet of electric taxicabs made their debut on the streets of New York. The electric car enjoyed significant market share for a decade, but the “self-starter” for gasoline cars (ironically, an electric motor) spelled the end for EVs when it was introduced on the 1912 Cadillac. Why? Because electric-start meant gas vehicles no longer needed to be hand-cranked — a dangerous practice that caused many injuries. The gas car was also getting more sophisticated and increasingly reliable, with longer range, smoother operation, and less noise and smoke. Literally, it left the range-challenged electric car behind. The peak year for electric car sales was 1912, and there was a steep decline after that.

In the 1960s, growing awareness about the pollution from gas cars led to abortive efforts to revive electric cars, but they never sold in large numbers. For instance, the “Henney Kilowatt,” a battery-powered electric Renault Dauphine, sold only about 50 units. The biggest success was the 1970s Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar with about 2,000 units sold.

The first modern electric car to make an impression on the market was the General Motors EV1, produced between 1996 and 1999. Only 1,117 were produced, but the car was wildly popular with those who got behind the wheel. GM ended the EV1 program by taking the cars back and crushing them — a choice immortalized in the popular film Who Killed the Electric Car? 

Thanks to the new reality of $4-per-gallon gasoline, the aftermath of the auto industry economic apocalypse, and the success of hybrid cars, electric cars now seem to have full industry backing. They’ve made important technological leaps forward, especially in the advanced lithium-ion batteries that offer greater energy density and range. And, for the first time, a nationwide network of charging stations is being installed.

Today, consumers can choose degrees of electrification. The hybrid car — which was introduced to most Americans via the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight about a decade ago — uses an electric motor and battery pack to assist the gas engine. The plug-in hybrid, first seen with the Chevrolet Volt in late 2010, ramps up that formula with a bigger battery pack, electric-only range and the ability to plug in to recharge. The Volt, for instance, is capable of 40 to 50 miles on its 16-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion pack, followed by another 350 or so miles with the gas engine acting as a generator to recharge the batteries.

The first full year of deployment for electric cars was 2011, and results have so far been mixed. About 3 percent of all of the vehicles sold in the United States are electric or hybrids, according to David Cole of the Center for Automotive Research. Nissan has sold more than 10,800 of its Leaf electric car in the United States, and GM has sold 9,600 units of the Volt. Neither company met its initial sales goals, but both were plagued with start-up supply problems (with the tsunami and earthquake in Japan contributing to the problems).

A Growing Electric Car Market

The Volt ($39,995) and Leaf ($37,250 for the SL trim) are now widely available (all prices here are before the $7,500 federal tax credit). And they’re not alone in the market. Fisker Automotive is selling the performance-oriented Karma plug-in hybrid ($102,000). Tesla Motors is producing an equally fast electric sedan known as the Model S ($57,400 to $77,400, depending on battery pack size). Mitsubishi is making the all-electric i-MiEV ($29,975 for the ES trim), which recently took the top spot on the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s 14th annual Greenest Vehicles list. Other electric cars that will debut in 2012 include the Ford Focus Electric (a limited-production plug-in version of the popular compact), the BMW i3 (a “city car” with a carbon fiber body) and i8 (an upscale plug-in hybrid), and an electric version of the Honda Fit.

On the less expensive end of the market, independent companies are offering such plug-in models as the $39,900 Coda sedan (based on a Chinese car, with a relatively large battery pack and 150-mile range) and the $32,995 Wheego LiFe (produced on a shoestring budget by an Atlanta-based company and also based on a Chinese car). Electric vehicles aren’t likely to get much cheaper than this until battery packs (currently between about $10,000 and $30,000) come down in price.

According to the Boston Consulting Group, electric car batteries cost approximately $1,100 per kilowatt-hour (kwh), and a cost target of $250 per kwh set by the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium will be tough to meet by 2020, even with technical breakthroughs. Electric car advocates are much more optimistic and expect prices to come down to $500 per kwh within five years.

A December 2011 report from IDC Energy Insights predicted a dramatic reduction for lithium-ion battery cells to prices as low as $400 per kwh by 2015. “It hasn’t sunk in just how far battery prices have fallen in just the last year,” says Sam Jaffe, an analyst at IDC. “We’re now closer to $500 a kilowatt-hour than $1,000.”

There is, at present, no battery technology on the horizon to replace lithium-ion. Considerable research is going into lithium-air batteries, which offer up to five times the range of conventional lithium packs. IBM says it has made breakthroughs with lithium-air and hopes to have a prototype battery by 2013. The biggest challenge with the technology is recharging. Standard lithium-ion batteries can be recharged 100,000 times or more, but some lithium-air batteries reach their limit after 50 charge cycles.

Another technology, still in early stages of research, is the solid-state battery, which offers greater energy density by replacing liquid electrolyte and electrodes with solids. General Motors awarded $3.2 million to a company named Sakti3, headed by University of Michigan professor Ann Marie Sastry. “The technology that Sakti3 is working on is innovative,” says GM’s Jon Lauckner. “It’s quite different from standard electro-chemical cells, and it’s a technology not in the marketplace today. It has the potential of being a real game changer going forward.”

Are Electric Cars Safe?

In June 2011, a Chevrolet Volt parked in a remote Wisconsin warehouse caught fire, igniting a crisis of confidence about the safety of the Volt and electric cars in general. The car actually immolated three weeks after it was heavily damaged in a federal government crash test, and only after it was stored without draining the fluids, as GM recommends. But for many who only read headlines or saw incomplete reporting on the story, the damage was done. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced it would conduct an investigation, and consumer interest in the Volt declined. CNW Research surveyed 3,800 Americans and found the percentage of general consumers “likely” to consider buying a Volt fell from 4.3 percent to 1.1 percent (from March to December).

GM announced a voluntary recall to install steel reinforcements for the battery and a sensor to detect liquid coolant leaks. In mid-January, NHTSA closed its investigation, endorsed GM’s fix, and said it had found no evidence of a safety defect. There is no evidence that electric cars aren’t as safe as gas cars, which themselves experience 287,000 vehicle fires annually. “NHTSA does not believe electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than other vehicles,” the agency said in a statement.

In most electric cars, the battery pack is under the car and isolated from the passenger compartment. The battery system is also electrically isolated from the chassis of the car, so it’s virtually impossible to get shocked by touching the vehicle. A variety of safety disconnects are in place to turn off the flow of high-voltage electricity in the event of an accident. For much more on the safety of plug-in cars, see The Truth About Electric Car Safety.

The Future of Electric Cars

People may expect sluggish performance, but the electric motor offers 100 percent torque at zero revolutions per minute (rpm), so electric cars are quick from a standing start, and they’re great fun to drive. Electric drives are scalable, like internal-combustion engines. The more batteries and the bigger the motor, the more range and horsepower the vehicle will have.

Tesla Motors’ cars are on the same level with Ferraris and Lamborghinis for driving fun. The Roadster Sport, for instance, reaches 60 mph in just 3.7 seconds. The company’s Model S sedan takes only 5.6 seconds. Fisker’s Karma can reach 60 in six seconds when in “sport” mode.

Electric cars face obstacles in the marketplace, because of price, range and unfamiliarity. The biggest factor in determining how quickly they’ll be adopted over the next five to 10 years is gas prices. In early 2011, when gas prices hit $3.50 a gallon on average, four of five consumers said in a Kelley Blue Book poll that gas prices influenced the cars they bought — an opinion that was up 11 points from January to February. From November 2010 to January 2011, higher gas prices were also a factor as the number of consumers researching hybrid vehicles nearly doubled.

And because it’s difficult to predict gas prices five to 10 years from now, it’s difficult to accurately forecast the percentage of new cars that will be electric, plug-in hybrid or hybrid. But other factors besides pump economics will determine the auto mix, including the federal requirement that auto fleets achieve 54.5 mpg by 2025.

“I think green cars will be in the 20 to 25 percent range [of cars sold], merely for reasons of government regulations,” says former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. “No one knows how to meet these regulations without massive hybridization and electrification.”

The Boston Consulting Group says both types of hybrid and plug-in electrics together will constitute between 11 and 42 percent of the global market by 2020, “with a likely overall penetration of 26 percent.”

Richard Steinberg, manager of electric vehicle operations at BMW, says roads filled with only electric cars may be some time coming. “But I do imagine we will soon see a greater degree of electrification throughout the entire automotive sector,” he says. “I think we will have a plug on nearly everything over the long haul, even if it’s only to add 10 miles of electric-only range.”

BMW is hedging its bets. It will introduce its electric carbon fiber-bodied i3 as a city car in late 2013, but it will also offer it with a “range extender” gas engine acting as a generator. The system will nearly double the i3’s range from 100 to 190 miles.

Government incentives are also important for public adoption. The $7,500 federal income tax credit for electric cars is a motivator for consumers, who can also benefit from some state subsidies. Hawaii, for instance, offers a cash rebate of up to $4,500, Pennsylvania up to $3,500 and California up to $2,500. But legislation has been proposed in Congress to zero out the federal tax credit, and some state programs have run out of money. To find information on green vehicle tax incentives in your area, visit The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels & Advanced Vehicles Data Center online.

In late January, California enacted a huge ramp-up of its zero- and near-zero-emissions cars program in an effort to put 1.4 million battery electrics, fuel-cell cars and plug-in hybrids on its roads by 2025. But the state program only ensures the cars’ availability; incentive programs and rebates, while helpful, don’t ensure consumers will pay the extra cost of entry for electric cars.

“We are already building these clean cars, and we hope they sell in large numbers,” says Gloria Bergquist, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 carmakers. “This is a production mandate on automakers requiring us to build a certain number of these cars. This is not a mandate on consumers to buy them. There’s always a certain Field of Dreams thinking with regulations like this: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ We do not want to see these cars sitting unsold on dealers’ lots.”

But Phil Gott, an analyst with IHS Automotive, is optimistic that consumers will buy the cars in increasing numbers — especially because they have more choices. “The market will grow because there will be more product out there,” he says. “I compare it to the early days of hybrid cars — if you didn’t like the Toyota Prius then, you didn’t buy a hybrid. But in the future there will be many different ones available. Demand from commercial fleets will also lead to higher sales.” Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s chief, says he expects U.S. Leaf sales to double in 2012 — to 20,000 cars — and projects electric vehicles will total 10 percent of the market by 2020.

Rapid battery development would lead to less expensive electric cars with longer ranges, which would in turn spur faster electrification of the auto industry. For all these reasons, it’s difficult to predict the market. But automakers are firmly committed to plugging in their cars, and they’re expanding their offerings. GM will spread the technology in the Volt to a Cadillac model and likely to a small SUV. The Leaf will be joined by three other Nissan plug-in cars by 2015. And in Toyota’s new “family” of Prius models is a plug-in version of the groundbreaking hybrid, with about 15 miles of all-electric range.

Despite a start-stop history, it now seems the electric car is here to stay and will revolutionize not only what we drive, but also how much we spend to drive.

Vehicle expert, author and New York Times writer Jim Motavalli has driven nearly all of the electric cars on the market, and had a lot of fun doing it!