Don’t worry about battery life: The biggest question I get about electric vehicles is about that great big battery pack — will I be out thousands of dollars if the most expensive component in the car gives out on me? People ask this both because they don’t want to be liable for buying a new pack and because they’re worried about the pack ending up polluting a landfill. Neither is likely to happen. The pack in the Nissan Leaf, for instance, is warranted for eight years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first, and the Chevrolet Volt’s pack (as of the 2012 model year) is good for 10 years or 150,000 miles. Long warranties are essential for getting some of these cars low-emission status in California, whose rules are followed by 13 other states. The longevity record is very good on battery packs, anyway — very few hybrids have needed to replace them. It’s also important to note that nearly all automakers have signed on to battery recycling programs, and packs are expected to also have second lives as backup for renewable energy (for instance, storing nighttime energy from wind turbines to be used during the day).
Plug-in hybrids are not range challenged: When the Toyota Prius first came out, the public was generally misinformed about how the cars worked — the belief that hybrids needed to be plugged in was fairly widespread. We’ve finally got past that one, but now we have a whole new challenge with plug-in hybrids, which are plugged in to achieve 15 miles of all-electric range (the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid), 25 to 40 miles (the Chevrolet Volt) or 50 miles (the forthcoming Fisker Karma). Many people lump them in with battery EVs as short-range vehicles. But when the electric miles are history, the car still has a long way to travel. The gas engine either drives the wheels like a standard hybrids (the plug-in Prius) or acts as a generator (the Volt and Karma) to deliver another 300 miles of travel. And the transition to gas power is seamless — your hair won’t even get mussed up. So, plenty of range in plug-in hybrids.
Don’t wait for public charging: Are you worried about owning an electric car because there won’t be anywhere to plug the car in? Calm down. Some 80 percent of EV charging will be done at home, where you’re likely to have a government-subsidized charger in the garage (or outside if you don’t have a garage), and that will always be the best (and cheapest) place to tank up on electricity. The public charger at the local Walgreen’s or in front of the bank (that's an AeroVironment example at right) may well cost more than home charging — because many of the networks are being put in by profit-making companies. Think of public charging as your backup plan when range anxiety sets in. And even if you don’t see a public infrastructure now, you probably will soon — the cars are rolling out slowly, and the charging will go in as they hit the showrooms.
Electric cars aren’t as expensive as they seem: Yes, the prices are in the $30K-range (Leaf, Mitsubishi i), $40s (the Volt) and higher ($96,850 for a Fisker Karma, $109,000 for a Tesla Roadster). But luxury cars are always expensive, and you can take whatever price quoted and deduct the $7,500 federal tax credit, as well as a 30 percent (up to $1,000) tax credit for installing a garage charger. And then there’s the very low operating costs. As one rule of thumb, a gas car that gets 20 mpg average would cost 20 cents a mile to operate, and a comparable electric just 3 cents. So you do start saving money immediately, though it may take a while before you pay back that initial investment. I think that automakers are likely to offer lower-priced electric vehicles with, say, 50-mile range instead of 100. That means a half-sized battery pack and a much lower bottom line. Those cars aren’t here yet.
It pays to be an early adopter: Consider this. If you’re a Californian and you jumped on the Nissan Leaf waiting list when they first announced it, you probably not only have your car now but also
1) A free charger, courtesy of ECOtality;
2) A huge cut in the bottom line, combining that federal tax credit with the $5,000 state rebate from a fund that's been totally exhausted since last July;
3) The catbird seat in the state high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, because standard hybrid cars like the Prius are now banned from them. All told, your $32,000 Leaf probably ended up costing $20,000. Plus you got bragging rights, a crowd that gathered whenever you parked, and coverage in the hometown paper. The Tesla Roadster is still rare enough that owners get mobbed, but that won’t last forever. If you don’t like getting surrounded and being asked a million questions, perhaps this is not an asset.
Here's how the tragic loss of access to HOV lanes looked to Californian hybrid owners last summer. Many panicked Angelenos, including my own cousin, are looking at buying a battery car to get back to the HOV garden: