Electric car realities and gas car biases

I’m on my third electric car now: I’ve owned a Nissan Leaf, a Tesla Model 3, and a Tesla Model Y. People are curious, but anxious, about what it’s like to own one. So I’ll share what I can in hopes that if you’re buying a car, you can benefit from my experience as you make your choice.

A few caveats. If you’re interested in comparing the fine points of one model vs. another, this is not the post for you. If you think Elon Musk is an ass — well, I do too, but this is not the place to debate that, I’m only talking about cars, not politics. And I’m not going to talk about whether electric cars are better for the planet. The only question I’m trying to help you answer is “Is this kind of car better for me?”

The hidden assumptions we have about vehicles

You’ve likely been driving or riding around in gas- or diesel-fueled vehicles for decades. Your parents have, too. As a result, we all have unconscious assumptions that we carry around about how cars work. These are a few:

  • No matter where you are, there is a gas station nearby.
  • Gas prices are volatile, they go up and down.
  • Car prices depend on the deal you negotiate with the dealer.
  • All vehicles need regular maintenance, and maintenance costs money. You have to take the car to the dealer for some of that regular maintenance.
  • Cars wear out; they become less efficient and less enjoyable to drive over time.

Many of these assumptions don’t really apply in the same way to electric vehicles, and that matters.

Charging at home makes the electric car experience different

If you own or rent a house or condo and you have control over where you garage your car, you can likely install an electric car charger. That makes all the difference in how and where you fuel your vehicle.

An electric car charger (like this one at Home Depot) costs $200 to $300. It will probably cost you another $500 or so for an electrician to install it. It runs on a 240-volt circuit, just like an electric dryer.

Once that charger is in place, you can charge the car up overnight. You just grab the charger cable and plug it into the charger port — it’s no harder than charging your mobile phone. Depending on your car’s range, charging from empty to full will take four to eight hours.

(You can also charge from a normal three-prong outlet, but because of the lower voltage that can take a full day or more, so it’s not a practical option for most drivers.)

The fuel cost per mile for an electric car is about 4 cents. Gas costs around twice that, or even more if gas prices are spiking. So take whatever you’re paying for gas and cut it in half, and that’s a good estimate of what you’ll pay for electricity to fuel your electric car.

Because no one has a gas pump in their house, this is a very different mindset from what it is like to own a gas car. It means your weekly stops at the gas station are no longer necessary. On most days, you control when and how you fuel up, and you never need to wait.

Some people can’t put in a charger — for example, if they live in an apartment and the landlord won’t allow it. They have to charge at public chargers. I’ll get into what that’s like below.

Range is not an issue, even on on long trips

The Nissan LEAF I bought about a decade ago had an effective range of about 100 miles. When we were considering it, I asked my wife, “What percentage of the trips you take on a normal day could you do with this car?” She replied “All of them.” And that’s when we bought the LEAF.

We only charged the LEAF at home. Most people don’t travel 100 miles in a normal day, which means most days you go where you need to go and then come home and charge up overnight.

These days, most electric vehicles have a range of 200 miles or more, so it’s even less of an issue.

But what happens if you need to take a trip of more than 100 miles? Well, then you’ll have to stop at a public charger. But while public chargers are not as common as gas stations, they are everywhere.

For example, here is a map of Tesla “Superchargers” in and near eastern Massachusetts.

Tesla supercharger map

And here is a map of public chargers that fit any electric car in the same region.


There are parts of the country where you will not find chargers nearby. I can’t drive my Tesla to the untamed forests of northern Maine. And there are hardly any chargers in northern Montana. But these are areas with very few roads and people. If you live in an urban, suburban, or even exurban area, there are public chargers near you.

This means that if you go on a long trip, you’ll want to see what chargers are on your trip and plan to stop at one on the way. If you drive 500 miles in a day — a very long drive — you’ll probably have to charge twice.

My wife and I recently took a trip from our home in Portland, Maine to Stowe, Vermont: a trip through mountains and rural areas of 175 miles. There were three chargers right on the way. (And it was a beautiful drive.) I’ve also driven from suburban Boston to suburban Philadelphia, about 350 miles. There were dozens of public chargers along that route.

By the way, if range anxiety is making you consider a “plug-in hybrid,” you may want to reconsider. Plug-in hybrids have lower range since they are carrying around a heavy gas-fueled engine along with the electric equipment. It’s a lot more efficient to go full electric, charge at home, and then charge at public chargers on long trips.

Charging is faster than you think

The public chargers are not like home chargers. They are twice the voltage, which means they charge much faster.

Even so, you may have heard that it takes 45 minutes or more to fully charge an electric car at a public charger. But this is misleading.

When you fill up a gas tank from a gas pump, the gas flows at a steady rate. This is not what happens with an electric charger.

Because the electrons in a car battery “push back,” electric cars charge quickly at first, but more slowly when the batteries are nearly full. You might charge at the rate of 250 miles per hour at first, dropping to 120 miles per hour for the last few percent of charge.

This means that you can fill up the batteries 80% of the way in 15 minutes. If you’re in a hurry, this is the way to go.

This is a good place to point out the slick way that the Tesla Superchargers work. You pull up and plug yourself in. The charger recognizes your car. And it puts the charge on the credit card associated with your account. That’s it. You don’t need to deal with humans at all. At other chargers, you’ll have to insert your credit card or some sort of membership card, but it’s still faster and easier than pumping gas. The cost is higher than electricity at home, but still far less per mile than gasoline.

True, the 15 minutes to charge 80% is probably more time than you typically spend at a gas station. That is currently (no pun intended) an inescapable fact about electric cars. (They’re working on technology improvements that will speed charging in future vehicles). But all Tesla superchargers are colocated with fast service restaurants like Panera or Dunkin’, or in malls, or near mega convenience stores like Wawa. Other public chargers often are, too.

Will you wait for a charger? Probably not. In 10 years of electric car ownership, I’ve only had to wait twice, for about five minutes each time. Have you ever had to wait for a gas pump? I bet I’ve spent less time waiting to fuel in that time than you have. (When you drive by a Tesla Supercharger, the screen on your Tesla actually shows how many charger stations are currently available.)

So for electric car owners, it’s typical to plan your long trip so that you can get a meal and use the rest room while the car is charging.

This is a different way to think from “I’ll figure out where we eat and where we’ll refuel when we’re on the road.” But a bit of pre-trip planning is not really a big deal. And even if you don’t plan ahead, you’ll only be stopped an extra 20 minutes or so, and you may as well take that time to go the bathroom, get a drink, and rest.

Electric cars have very low maintenance costs

An electric motor has far fewer parts than an internal combustion engine.

Here are some parts that your gas car has that the electric motor doesn’t:

  • Fuel pump.
  • Muffler. (Electric cars have no exhaust.)
  • Catalytic converter.
  • Oil pan, oil, oil filter.
  • Fuel injectors.
  • Pistons.
  • Transmission. (Electric cars have transmissions, of course, but no “gears” to change and no fluids to maintain.)
  • Alternator.

As a result, there is simply far less to go wrong with an electric car. You still have to worry about tires, brakes, and windshield wipers. But you typically don’t have to go to the dealer for regular service, and there are no oil changes and no mufflers wearing out every few years.

People who open up the hood of an electric car are often shocked. There’s hardly anything to see. In a Tesla, the only fluid you can replenish is windshield washing fluid. Where you would normally see the engine is a “frunk,” a storage compartment big enough to hold a suitcase.

Tesla Model S. Photo by Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz.

In five years of owning my Tesla Model 3, the only car-related parts I paid for were new tires and windshield wipers. The car required two warranty repairs — one for a bad wheel sensor that disabled the power steering and one for a squeaky front suspension spring. Each repair was done in a single morning.

Think about your gas car. How much did you pay for maintenance in the first five years? How much of your time was spent going to dealers or service stations for service?

Electric car maintenance costs are way lower. There’s just less to maintain and less to go wrong.

Are electric cars fast?

You know that hesitation when you step on the accelerator and the car takes a second or two to surge forward?

That never happens in an electric car.

You get full acceleration instantly.

Even in my little Nissan LEAF, I could beat a Porsche off the line at a red light. Sure, it would pass me in a few seconds, but I could still beat it off the line.

When I lived in Massachusetts, I had to go up a steep hill on a major highway to get to my house. The LEAF would go from a standing start to 80 mph in seconds, going up that hill.

And a Tesla is a lot more zippy than a LEAF.

Given two cars of the same approximate size and shape, the electric will probably accelerate faster and be more responsive. It has a low center of gravity because of the big battery on the bottom.

So test-drive one, but you likely will decide that the performance is superior.

Don’t electric cars catch on fire?

Very rarely, electric cars do catch on fire.

Of course, you are driving around in a car with a tank full of flammable liquid on the bottom, and you never even think about it.

According to the NTSB, electric cars have 25 fires per 100,000 sold, so you have a 1 in 4000 chance of a car fire. But gas cars have 1,530 fires per 100,000, or a one in 65 chance. And the risk for hybrids is twice that.

In my lifetime, I’ve probably seen 3 gas cars on fire by the side of the road. I’ve never seen an electric car on fire.

Ignore self-driving and the other crap

Elon Musk says his cars have a “full self-driving” option. That’s bullshit. They have lots of sensors that can keep you in your lane and help you to avoid crashes. But so do lots of other cars. (I never use the Tesla’s self-driving features, but I do take advantage of the sensors and they have alerted me when the car in front of me has stopped suddenly.)

Some electric cars, including Teslas, have a big console on the dashboard and fewer buttons. That has advantages and disadvantages.

Electric cars are more expensive to buy. That is because they have been more expensive to engineer, requiring a completely new drivetrain system. That will change as they become more common. But for now, yes, you have to pay more. As of this writing, if you are buying an electric car from a maker other than Tesla or GM, you can also get a tax credit from the US government.

But when you make your decision, keep in mind the lower costs of gas and maintenance. And don’t worry about range problems. Sweep your biases away — start without assumptions about fueling at gas stations and availability of chargers.

Good luck. If you buy electric, leave me a comment and tell me about it.

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    1. Because the Leaf was totalled in an accident – other driver went through a red light and smashed into it.

      The Tesla actually replaced a Toyota Highlander hybrid that was damaged in accident as well.

  1. Nice to hear real world experiences. I’m on my second standard Prius (300,000miles total) and love them. More traditional related to maintenance and repairs, yet I’ve had zero non-maintenance repairs. I generally change my own oil and enjoy taking care of my car(s). I’m retired and do not have regular commute, which I think is where an E-car really shines; Basic E-car range is an issue for me, I can run about 500miles (and often do) before I need to stop for gas (a 45-55 MPG average). The standard Prius is a great fit for my lifestyle – I expect when/if I do jump to an electric vehicle, it will be a motorcycle which is an industry that has really blossomed. Cheers!

  2. Unlike Bob Dylan, I haven’t yet gone electric – but I have been giving it a ton of thought and want to add on to this discussion:
    First, though there are a lot of non-Tesla charging stations out there, from what I’ve been reading there may be two universal chargers to Tesla’s eight (and there’s even on in LA now that has 60 stations!), and the infrastructure hasn’t been terribly reliable. There are often long waits because of everyone else who needs to charge—if they even work at all. I had read at some point that Tesla would open its proprietary chargers to other vehicle owners, but I don’t believe that’s happened thus far, if it will at all. The US and Canadian governments both need to get on top of expanding the charging network for it to be truly functional and for electric to really take off.
    Second, I’ve considered going the plug-in hybrid route but as Josh mentioned the combustion engine has a ton more parts that can break. And you’re adding an extra electrical system on top of that. So rather than reduce simplicity, as you would do with fully electric, you’re actually adding complexity and cost of maintenance. They are still cheaper up front, but probably not over the life of the vehicle.
    Third, weather is a factor. I live in a very cold climate. That means my range on an electric would be much shorter in the winter. If you live in Arizona or southern California or some other place with extreme heat, that shortens the lifespan of the batteries. Keep that in mind.
    Finally, I own a 10-year-old Prius and a five-year-old Subaru. I also have an 18 year old in the house who uses those cars. I was thinking about getting rid of the Prius because the electrical system was acting funny. I replaced the auxiliary battery ($400) and it has run like a dream ever since. If I’m thinking sensibly and environmentally, the best car to own is the one that doesn’t take new resources like all the materials of a new car. Every time I see the damage along the doors of the Subaru where the kid sideswiped the garage, I remind myself that perhaps now is not the time for a new car anyway…

    1. A lot of your comments sounds like my thinking. Range is my biggest concern—it’s 120 miles between chargers out here in Arizona, where as you note, batteries are eaten by the sun for fun.

      Any thoughts on why the government needs to help with charging? I wonder if they helped with gas back when we switched FROM electric.

      I hate the dings and arrows of driving.

    2. I live in Arizona and so heat damage was a big concern for me. However my Tesla has not diminished dramatically in over five years of use. It has a temperature control system that maintains battery temperature at optimal levels. So, the major factor in high heat or cold is the mileage per charge because that battery is being used to maintain temperature. Charging in extreme cold on trips used to be much longer but a software update fixed that by pre-conditioning the battery when the destination is a charger.

      1. Thank you, Kevin. So, if I understand you correctly, a huge difference between the traditional battery in a gas/diesel vehicle and the Tesla (other e-vehicles too?!) is that the vehicle cools/heats it’s batteries (using battery energy)? That’s interesting.
        As you know living in AZ, batteries suffer from the heat (I get the bonus of cold temperatures too in Northern AZ). Others folks likely are not as familiar with the effects of temperature upon battery power and life.

  3. If we could figure out the local transportation in a way that did not involve privately owned motor vehicles of any fuel type, then we would be on the path of progress. We are looking to settle into a community where everything we need is near enough to walk, bike, or transit. That still leaves the inter-city and rural romps to figure out.

    1. We’re a family of 6 and currently there aren’t electric vehicles big enough for our family. Also, if I want I one for myself, I’ll wait for China or Korea to produce one that is fully-loaded for less than 40k.

      1. I thought there were bigger vehicles available, but I have no experience with that. Our teenage kids love our (gas) minivan due to its size. Crazy.
        I am not sure if any will get prices down enough to make the money make sense.
        My original point is we ought to be concentrating upon changing our travel environment to make it possible to not need a personal vehicle for much of anything in our daily lives—similar to Josh’s Leaf decision process.

  4. This matches my experience owning a Tesla Model S. One thing I’d add to the maintenance cost savings are brakes. Because of regenerative breaking – and I use the more aggressive setting on my car – the brakes aren’t needed as often or as soon. Essentially I only have to use them in the final control of the timing if they stop; so I’ve barely had any wear in my brakes in nearly 80k miles.

    1. Kevin, could you explain that more—how is the vehicle stopping without the use of brake pads/drums/rotors? Is it similar to downshifting and allowing the gears to slow it and also gathering the kinetic energy to convert into electricity? Thank you.

      1. Regenerative brakes use electrical current to create resistance that slows down the car. It is exactly how an electric motor turns electricity into rotary motion, but in reverse — rotary motion creates electrical power that recharges the battery.

  5. I am curious if anyone knows how renting of e-vehicles work.
    Traditional rental requires returning the vehicle with the same fuel level. This is accomplished by stopping near the rental return location and filling the fuel tank. Or the rental company can do that for you for a charge. There are nuances, but that covers the options. Both take money, but very little time.
    E-vehicles on the other hand take very little money, but hours, several, to get near “full.” That seems a fatal flaw. Options to beat the time do not seem to be available or reasonable.

    1. While I am not privy to how electric car rental works at a company like Hertz, I can tell you what makes the most sense. If this is a Tesla (Hertz has bought thousands of Teslas) and you take it to any Tesla charging station, the station would automatically charge the car’s owner (the rental agency), which would likely then charge it back to you the consumer, on your rental bill. (If you charged anywhere else, you would pay for it.)

      Your statement that it takes “hours” to fully charge the car is inaccurate. At a high capacity charger, it takes 45 minutes, or 20 minutes to get to 80% (as I stated in the article). If a consumer returns the car to the rental agency nearly empty, and the rental agency has invested in a high-capacity charger (which they no doubt have), they can fully charge the car in less than an hour. And it is easy enough to have a dozen of those chargers in one location, just as Tesla does in its supercharger locations.

      1. Source for the quick full charge? Tesla is vague on their website. Google says 8.5-14 hrs; one result says 4-8 days.

        Google says typical electric car is “just under 8 hrs from empty-to-full.”

        Tesla says 15 mins for 200 miles via supercharger. Does this lower the lifespan of the batteries?

        Even one hour is at least four times as long as gas.

        1. The source is . . . every electric car owner ever. You going to believe me and my personal experience or Google? It is confusing. But to make it simple, going from empty to full:

          Level 1 charger (that is, normal house current): A full day.
          Level 2 charger (equal to a dryer circuit, easy to get installed in your house, Tesla sells these chargers and I have one): typically 5-8 hours.
          Level 3 charger (commercial public chargers, including Tesla Supercharger network): typically 45 minutes to 1 hour.

          And if you charge to 80% full, the Supercharger is more like 15-20 minutes. It’s that last 20% that takes longer, because of the resistance from the full batteries.

          Superchargers do not lower the lifespan on the batteries, they are designed to charge efficiently with respect to the battery capacity. Charging to 100% capacity regularly may lower the lifespan.