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With so many new consumers curious about the electric vehicle marketplace, questions abound. An EV expert from the Union of Concerned Scientists offers some guidance to make the EV buying decision more personally meaningful.
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More and more of us are increasing our emphasis on being environmentally conscious consumers. We’re going beyond just an understanding of how to live sustainably and now making lifestyle changes that reduce our fossil fuel reliance. As part of those efforts, a shift is happening in personal transportation — lots more folks are joining the electric vehicle world.
Yet not everybody who is thinking about joining the electric vehicle world has a mentor to guide them. Does this sound like you?
As you start to think about scanning the marketplace for an electric vehicle (EV), you may feel overwhelmed. What is the best option for your needs? What should you know about EVs in order to make the best decision for you and for your family?
An EV expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) may have some answers.

David Reichmuth, a senior engineer at UCS, has some input to help you blend your your lifestyle requirements, your personal curiosity about sustainable transportation, and the questions you might have about driving an EV. (His remarks were part of a podcast and were edited below for brevity.)
Do you need your own car? The first question should be whether you actually need your own individual car or whether a bike or walking or public transit or a mix could suffice. Relinquishing your car saves emissions and helps out your wallet, too.
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 need to figure the right-size your vehicle choice for your mobility needs.
How will you charge an EV? Do you have a place to plug it in? The easiest solution to charging is to plug it in as needed when you’re at home. If you have off street parking where you can plug in at least a standard three-prong outlet, that can work, too. If those options don’t exist for you — perhaps you live in an apartment complex — learn about charging stations around you and the access to those.
What are the options are for charging your EV? Every EV out there comes with a charger that will plug into a three-prong outlet, so, if you have a garage, and you have a basic outlet, you’re going to be able to get some charge. If you have a battery electric vehicle and you’re gonna be driving longer distances, you need a higher powered circuit. So this is the kind of circuit you would have for an electric clothes dryer. And if your electric panel is near your garage or even in your garage, it might be fairly straightforward to add a circuit that goes to an electric car charger.
How do you charge when you’re not at home? There are some medium speed stations that add 20-miles or 30-miles per hour. DC fast charging stations add much more range per minute. You can 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 a navigation system to direct you to the nearest fast charger that supports your vehicle. So it does take a little more planning, though, than to sort of, say, be driving around and looking for a gas station. Once you get the hang of it, especially if you’re taking the same long trip over and over, you get to figure out where the stations are, and it’s not that confusing.
What would you say to people who are still apprehensive about finding a charging station? 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. 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.
Why are there so few choices, specifically in the less expensive models? Supply constraints on computer chips and other materials are affecting automakers of all types, not just EVs. Many EVs include cutting edge features, technology that’s not necessarily related to being an EV, like big display screens or the highest levels of automation for the vehicle. Those increase the cost of the car.
Are there ways to reduce the cost of purchasing an EV? A federal tax credit can reduce 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. 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.
What is the most important measurement to look at when you’re comparing one EV to another EV? Higher MPGe is more efficient and better. A more efficient EV is going to use less electricity. So it’s going to be cheaper to run and 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. A lot of the EVs have very similar efficiency.
What is regenerative braking? There are 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. So you press on the accelerator, it goes. If you let off the accelerator, it slows down. And you can drive without even touching the brake.
How does an EV handle in cold weather? EVs can be driven in cold climates. There’s some negatives, in that the range does go down. There’s some positives, such as 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. It’s interesting right now that the country that’s gone the farthest in switching from gasoline vehicles to electric vehicles is the cold country of Norway.
What can you tell us about global warming emissions across the entire lifespan of the EV? At UCS we’ve looked at that now for a number of years. 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. 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. If we can make manufacturing the batteries cleaner, that’ll also help reduce the total lifetime emissions. 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.
Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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