Tips for Buying an Electric Car

Published Mar 1, 2022

Engineer and electric vehicles expert Dr. David Reichmuth answers burning questions for first-time EV buyers.

In this episode

Colleen and Dave talk about:

  • what you need to consider when thinking about buying an electric car
  • how EV technology differs from gas-powered cars
  • what your charging options are and how to get over range anxiety
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:30)
Intro (0:30-1:40)
Interview p1 (1:40-12:58)
Break (12:58-13:41)
Interview p2 (13:41-22:40)
Throw (22:40-23:40)
Segment (23:40-27:33)
Outro (27:33-29:00)


Tyson Foods segment: Karen Perry Stillerman
Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth and Cana Tagawa
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

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Full transcript

Colleen: If you’re like me, something as simple as shopping at the grocery store can be difficult. As I peruse the aisles, I try my best to be an environmentally conscious consumer, but the best options are not always so clear. Are organic apples better than conventional? What about if they’re flown in from New Zealand? So, when I was in the market for an electric vehicle, I was overwhelmed with questions and curiosities. The technology is certainly cool,—but I want to understand it, so that I can choose the best option for my needs.

In an effort to become a more savvy and educated buyer, I began jotting down all of my questions and reached out to my friend and colleague, EV expert David Reichmuth, a senior engineer here at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He helped me talk through everything you might like to know about electric vehicles, which you’ll hear us call EVs so we don’t have to keep saying the full phrase 100 times. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about EVs, keep listening, as we discuss how the technology works, and how to be a more environmentally conscious consumer and driver.

Colleen: David, welcome back to the podcast.

David: Hey, Colleen. It's great to be back.

Colleen: So, you know, I didn't imagine you'd be back so soon after our conversation about the Ford F-150 Lightning EV pickup truck, but I just purchased an electric vehicle and you really helped me out by answering a lot of questions. So I thought, wouldn't it be great to share that info with our listeners? So I want to start with the basic questions you posed to me when I was thinking about an EV. So, what do you like people to consider when they’re thinking about buying an EV?

David: Yeah. So there's a few questions that would be great for people to think about when they're looking at buying an EV. You know, the first question is sort of this threshold question of, "Well, do you really need a car?" Or, "Do you need to replace that car with another car?" Or, "Can you replace it with a bike or walking, or public transit, or a mix," because that's going to be a lot less emissions, it's also going to be a lot cheaper to do that. But you know, for a lot of us, there are things we need a car for. And if you do need a car, then I think another question is, how much car do you need? How big does that car have to be? What capabilities does it need to have? If it's just going to be you going back and forth to work by yourself, you probably don't need a full-size pickup truck or SUV. You know, some of us do need a seven-passenger minivan or SUV, but that's not the case for everyone, and if you right-size your vehicle choice to your mobility needs, that's going to be, again, fewer missions, and also will likely save you money both on fuel and the purchase of the vehicle.

And I guess the last thing to think about is that if you're looking at an EV, well, so do you have a place to plug it in? And if you have off street parking where you can plug in at least a standard three-prong outlet or somewhere where you can bring in more power, that's also something to consider if you're going to an EV. And if you don't have those things, where are charging stations around you and what's the access to those? So I think those are a few of the threshold questions when you're considering getting a new vehicle or replacing a vehicle with an EV. So now that those are the questions I think that I posed to you, did you take my advice? Did you look at those factors? And what did you decide?

Colleen: Why, yes, David, I did. I did take your advice. I'll give you a quick recap. So we had two hybrid cars, an old...I had a 2007 Prius and we also have a newer RAV4. So our plan was to go to one car when the Prius died. But we just installed solar panels and decided that it made sense to get an EV now. So our plan is to use the EV for all of the main driving, going to a supermarket, doctor's appointments, etc. And, well, let me also mention that we don't live near public transit or within walking distance to stores. So we really have to have a car. So our plan now is to use the electric vehicle for the bulk of all of our daily driving that we need to do, and then use the RAV4 if, you know, we're driving to Vermont for a weekend or something like that. So yeah, I think you'll be happy to know that I did forego the Ford Lightning because I am not hauling timber. I just need to do my local stuff. But, you know, one thing that struck me was I had very little choice in what EV to buy. There was exactly one car available in my price range, in eastern Massachusetts, and it was actually more than I wanted to pay. So my next question to you, is not a technical question, but why are there so few choices, specifically in the less expensive models?

David: That's a great question. Right now, there's a lot of hopefully short-term disruptions in the automotive industry. So we are seeing the effects of the supply constraints on computer chips and other materials, and just across the board whether it's EVs or gasoline vehicles, we're seeing automakers focus some of the scarce resources into the higher priced models and luxury models. And so that's part of it. I think we're also seeing on the EV space with this new technology that automakers are tending to bundle a lot of cutting edge features, a lot of technology that's not necessarily related to being an EV, you know, so big display screens or the highest levels of automation for the vehicle. And all of these options increase the cost of the car, and it's not really related to that being an EV but they're tending to bundle those higher cost packages together with the EV technology. So on the plus side is that there is a federal tax credit that reduces the cost up to $7,500 depending on the vehicle that is available for most vehicles. It's not available for the Tesla and the General Motors vehicles because they've hit their cap. And this may change if the Build Back Better legislation passes. And there also are state and local incentives also available depending on where in the country you are that help bring the cost down to something that's similar to the gasoline vehicles.

Colleen: So when we were shopping around, I found the fuel economy sticker confusing and wasn't sure how relevant that was to electric vehicles. So I'm wondering, what is the most important measurement to look at when you're comparing an EV to an EV?

David: Yeah. So you can look has a MPGe rating. And in that case, you know, higher MPGe is more efficient and better. Some auto manufacturers also talk about miles per kilowatt hour, that's also more miles is more efficient, that's better. You know, I just want to emphasize though is that you should factor that in that a more efficient EV is going to use less electricity. So it's going to be cheaper to run. It's going to have lower carbon emissions because it's using less electricity. But the gains you get in terms of cost savings and emission savings, it's a wide gap between gasoline vehicles and electric vehicles. So just making that switch, you're going to get a lot of benefits. And then within the electric vehicles, yes, if you can pick a more efficient one and it's within your budget and it meets your needs, that's great. But you don't want to stress out about that too much especially because a lot of the EVs have very similar efficiency.

Colleen: Let's talk about charging because there are several questions that will help our listeners when they're thinking about an EV and shopping for an EV. And also, for those who are worried about finding a charging station or running out of power, can you just run through what the options are for charging your EV?

David: Yeah. There's a lot of charging options out there, it can get kind of confusing, but let's just try to break it down to the basics. And, you know, this will depend a bit on the specific vehicles. And so I can't really talk to every different EV out there but let's just talk big picture.

So first, every EV out there comes with a charger that will plug into a three-prong outlet. So as long as that three-prong outlet has the capability to, say, run something like an electric space heater, it's also going to be able to charge the car. So if you have a garage and you have a basic outlet, you're going to be able to get some charge. Now the downside of that basic outlet is that you're going to get, well, about 4 miles per hour of range added. So, say, 40 miles in a 10-hour charging session. And for a plug-in hybrid, which might only have a range of 35 or 40 miles, that's great. You're done. That's all you really need is a basic outlet in a garage or an outdoor outlet near a driveway.

If you have a battery electric vehicle and you're gonna be driving longer distances, you probably want to have a bit more power. And so there you need a higher powered circuit. So this is the kind of circuit you would have for an electric clothes dryer. And some people might have that in or near their garage already, which would be great. And then if your electric panel is near your garage or even in your garage, you know, it might be fairly straightforward to add a circuit that goes to an electric car charger. And the home charger is going to...that home charger that runs off the 220, 240 volt circuit is going to get you somewhere in the neighborhood of, say, 20 miles per hour added. So now you're talking maybe 200 miles in a 10-hour charging session. So those are the home options. And that's not maybe going to work for everyone but a lot of people would probably have electricity in their garage or could get electricity to their driveway. So the next question is sort of like, well, how do you charge when you're not at home? And there are some medium speed stations that are sort of like that 20-mile, 30-mile per hour added speed. And then there are some DC fast charging stations that you can get much more range per minute from those stations. But that's really highly dependent on the car and the station. I use a great app called PlugShare.

Colleen: Yeah, I have that one too. I just downloaded it.

David: Yeah. And on there, you can sort of look at where the public stations are or how fast they can charge and which ones are compatible with your car. And also a lot of the newer EVs have, as part of, say, their navigation system, ways to navigate to the nearest fast charger that supports your vehicle. So it does take a little more planning, though, than to sort of, say, driving around and looking for a gas station. But, you know, I think once you get the hang of it, especially if you're taking the same long trip over and over, you to get to figure out where the stations are and it's not that confusing.

Colleen: Yeah. For us charging, we got a 220 plug set up and we charge it at night. Our basic routine is we come home, we plug it in, much like we plug in our phones and other devices. And it will be set up on a timer to charge during the nighttime hours. So that has very easily fit right in with our lifestyle of plugging in the car like any of our other devices. What would you say to our listeners that are still apprehensive about finding a charging station ?

David: Yeah, that's a good question. I think right now it's not perfect. But there's a lot of investment that's going in right now into public charging infrastructure so that we know it's going to get better over the next few years. You do have to do a little bit more work than with refueling a gasoline car. I think there are things that are changing over time that's going to make that easier over time. So the cars that are smart enough to route you to the charging stations and that match your car, that's certainly a big help. Some of the newer cars you can just plug in and it'll automatically know your payment information and that all is sorted out. And obviously, you know, we're investing a lot of money in charging stations. That's money that's coming from private industry, that's coming from the federal government, it's coming from state and local governments. And that's going to also expand the number of stations, which would be helpful because there's more options, more places that you can charge.

David: So, Colleen, what did you find most surprising about getting a new EV? What stood out about switching from a gasoline car to an electric vehicle?

Colleen: Well, I have to say, hands down, I don't have all my car terminology right, but what surprised me was the pickup. You know, when I stepped on the gas, it just started to go. And there wasn't any of that feeling of ramping up when you step on a gas pedal. So I don't know what the technical term for that is but it felt really peppy. And, I mean, the other thing that's amazing is that it's so quiet. But, I mean, my hybrid was quiet so I was already used to that but it's a very quiet car. And the other thing that I thought was really cool, were the different driving modes. I thought maybe you could get us up to speed on those because I'm not sure exactly yet what they do, but there's a regular drive mode. And then something maybe, like, a regenerative braking and an eco-mode. So maybe you can run through those.

David: Most EVs do have different drive modes. I think almost all of them have some mode that replicates driving a gasoline car. So, and what I mean by that is that, you know, you press the accelerator, it goes. If you let off the accelerator, it coasts. And if you want to slow down, you press the brake. That's the way we all learned how to drive. But a lot of them do have modes where you can increase the amount of regenerative braking. And that's something that helps make sure that the car is most efficient as possible because there's two types of brakes on the EV. There's regenerative braking, which takes your momentum and converts it back into electricity, and so recharges your battery. And then there's conventional friction braking, just like in a regular non-hybrid gasoline car where you're just taking that momentum and turning it into heat through friction. And when you turn on those other modes, in some of the vehicles, you can even turn them up to a one pedal driving mode. So you press on the accelerator, it goes. If you let off the accelerator, it slows down. And, you know, you can drive without even touching the brake. For my EV, that's actually the mode I like to drive it in. I've gotten really used to it. And I think it's just easier to drive in that mode. I can say my wife, she hates that and just wants it to drive like a regular car. And that's cool. You can put it in different modes for different drivers.

Colleen: Yeah. I mean, in my car, I think they call it E-pedal. But it's that same thing, you step on the gas, you go. As soon as you take your foot off the gas, it slows down pretty quickly. There's another, the Eco Mode, you take your foot off the gas and it slows down. But the E-pedal really like you don't ever have to really touch the brake, it will come to a full stop. I think it's cool.

David: Yeah, I think it is too. But, you know, I think it's a little bit of a personal preference and I'm also teaching my 16-year-old daughter to drive and I think we're starting in the basic gasoline car replica mode just to make it less confusing and so that she knows how to drive, other cars.

Colleen: So I have another question that I know, like for those of us that live in areas where winters are cold, snowy and icy, you know, how does an EV handle in cold weather?

David: I am probably not the best person to ask about that. I live here in the Bay Area in California and, you know, so winter weather is when I switch from shorts to jeans. And pretty much the only ice my electric car encounters is in the cup holder. So, I'm not sure. But all kidding aside, I mean, we do know that EVs can be driven in cold climates. There's some negatives that the range does go down. There's some positives that you have a lower center of gravity with the EVs, and there are all-wheel drive EVs out there that are mechanically much simpler than a gasoline all-wheel drive system because it's usually two motors, one on the front and one on the back axle. So, there are some advantages to the EV system in the cold weather. And I think it's interesting right now the country that's gone the farthest in switching from gasoline vehicles to electric vehicles is Norway. Never visited but think they do get cold weather occasionally.

Colleen: No, they do. I have been there, and it does get cold. I'll tell you my personal experience, we've had, you know, a big snowstorm here and driving it, I felt really secure on the road. That's just my personal experience driving. And it also seemed to heat up very quickly to, you know, get rid of the ice and snow on the outside of the car. The other car, you have to wait for the engine to heat up and for everything to warm up. And it seemed to be much quicker with the EV.

David: Yeah. So the advantage of the EV is that there' know, it's an electric heater, so it'll be pretty instantaneous. It's also one of the...I hesitate to call it disadvantage or an advantage, is one thing that the gasoline car has is that with a gasoline car, a lot of the energy of the gasoline goes into heat that we're trying to get rid of. And that's how inefficient that gasoline engine is but for cold weather, you know, that waste heat is something we can use to heat the cabinet and in the electric car it needs to come from the batteries.

Colleen: I was thinking about why we want EVs, and of course I wanted one for two reasons. It's a really smart technology. It's an exciting technology. And of course, I want to reduce my carbon footprint. So how do you know you're reducing your carbon footprint when we look at the energy used to manufacture the car and the mining and processing of the metals for the battery, and where our electricity is coming from when we charge. And then how do we dispose off the battery at the end of its lifecycle? So what can you tell us about global warming emissions like across the entire lifespan of the EV?

David: Well, that's a question I've had and it's a question that a lot of people have had. And so, at UCS we've looked at that now for a number of years. And what we found is that there's savings in driving an electric vehicle versus driving a gasoline vehicle in terms of carbon emissions everywhere in the U.S. When you look at manufacturing, there is higher carbon emissions from making an electric vehicle compared to a gasoline vehicle. And that's really due to making the battery. But what we found is that, you know, on average, you pay back that initial deficit of emissions in about 6 months to 18 months, depending on where you live and how clean your electricity is. So there is this increase in emissions due to manufacturing, but it's quickly offset by the savings that happen when you look at driving. Now, all those numbers are from a 2015 report we did, and I can't say that right now. We're working on updating that. So pretty soon I'll be able to tell you what the most up to date numbers are for comparing the emissions of electric vehicles and gasoline vehicles.

Colleen: Well, that's really good news, when you consider that you're gonna have your car for probably, what, 10 years or more. So that's actually, you're definitely on the plus side in terms of not contributing to your carbon footprint.

David: Right. Either you'll have the car for that period of time or somebody else will. And so, you know, it's not going to come off the road probably for...on average cars are on the road for about 12 years right now. And so, you know, the net savings over the lifetime, you know, if you look gasoline and EVs, the EVs are a clear winner for reducing emissions. And then it's important to remember that that's what we're looking at right now. And there's a lot we can do to clean up the manufacturing of vehicles, manufacturing of batteries. And so if we can make manufacturing the batteries cleaner, that'll also help reduce the total lifetime emissions.

And so, you know, once we start getting a lot of these electric vehicles on the road, they'll used EVs and eventually those EVs will come off the road and we can look at remanufacturing the batteries or recycling the materials from those batteries to reduce the amount of new material that's needed to make the batteries and that should also reduce the emissions. But, you know, the stage we're at right now, there's not going to be enough. As the number of EVs grows, you know, we won't be able to recycle, make batteries just with recycled material. And as the technology rolls out and we get more and more EVs out there, we should be able to get more and more of the materials from recycled materials.

Colleen: Well, David, thanks so much for coming on the podcast and answering some of these burning questions. I hope we've encouraged some folks to get out and test drive an EV, and I look forward to talking to you when your updated analysis comes out.

David: Well, thanks for having me on the podcast. It's always great to talk to you, Colleen.

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