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.

| GUIDE TO GREEN CARS, Summer 2012

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.

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