Consumerization

The state of electric cars: 10 things you should know

Electric vehicles are quickly gaining ground, but where does the industry stand, and what's the infrastructure surrounding the industry like? Here are 10 things to know.

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The Tesla Model S
Image: David van der Mark

Oh, Tesla. People love to gobble up news about the world's flag bearer for electric vehicles. Some view it as the next great automaker and the savior of the much-loved but much-maligned electric car.

But, scaling electric vehicles will take more than Tesla's innovations. There are a lot more factors that must come into play.

Here are 10 things you should know about the state of electric vehicles in the auto industry.

1. EVs are growing steadily

About 3.8% of all sales of automobiles in 2013 were electrified products, which includes hybrids. To put that in perspective, said Mike Tinskey, the global director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure for Ford, we were at 0.8% three years ago. Of course, electric vehicles weren't widely available then, but is still significant growth. We've seen a plateau in the last eight months, he added, but that's expected as people are waiting for electric vehicles become cheaper.

"We are expecting it to go up — what's happening here is a lot of people are buying electrified products and manufacturers are adjusting their pricing to see what the market wants," Tinskey said.

SEE: Ford's Mike Tinskey: Engineer. Electric Vehicle Champion. Industry Unifier.

2. There are two types of EVs

The two primary types of electric vehicles are:

  • Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) run entirely on electricity stored in a battery and are recharged at stations at home, work, or on the road. They have an operating range of 60+ miles and take about six to eight hours to recharge at 220 volts.
  • Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) run on both electricity and gasoline and can be plugged in for a charge. The ranges of these cars vary, but usually run between 10 to 40 miles before the vehicle operates like a hybrid.

3. Companies are working together to make standards

Making the charging process seamless will be a huge enabler of electrification. That means the plugs, the charging stations, and the networks need to all work together, which is why the players in the auto industry — especially their clean technology teams — have to communicate. As Tinskey put it: "Having four different plugs, that's a bad thing. Or let's put it this way — it's a really good thing when we agree."

There are a few types of chargers out there:

  • Level 2 (240V) can charge models like the Nissan Leaf, takes about eight hours. You can have one installed in your garage and they are relatively easy to purchase.
  • Level 3 or DC Power (480V) can charge faster, but few homes can support it.
  • Tesla's Supercharger provides adapters so users can plug-in to Level 2 plugs as well. But the company also has special charging stations that only work with their models. Earlier this month, Elon Musk announced all of Tesla's patents will be available to the public, in order to encourage innovation and allow for more rapid adoption of EV technology.

4. Efficiency of electric motors

According to Tesla, converting chemical energy is up to (or sometimes even more than) 90% efficient. The Tesla Roadster is 88% efficient, which is almost three times more efficient than a gasoline engine. Those run at about 35% efficiency because most of the energy stored is lost through the heating process.

EVs emit no pollutants from the tailpipe, although they do take some energy from the grid if you are plugging in, so the pollutants from those resources are there. However, the batteries can also take power from solar, wind, or hydro plants, which would give you a net zero usage. The batteries typically take four to eight hours to charge fully.

5. Electric cars can offer a better driving experience

Ads for electric vehicles often focus on the good environmental and social benefits they have, or even the terrific gas mileage you get compared to gas vehicles. But, there's one more important aspect: they're much nicer to drive. Electric motors reach their peak torque (or "turning force") from 0 rpm, meaning they have strong acceleration from a stop. They're also quiet, almost silent, and offer a smooth, vibration-free ride.

6. The distance EVs can travel

Most battery electric vehicles can go 60 to 120 miles before they need a charge, which is a good range for day-to-day driving. However, PHEV hybrids can travel around 40 miles before using their regular gasoline engine, with which they can travel up to 400 miles. The Plug-in Electric Vehicle Collaborative of California recommends a PHEV if you're traveling more than 80 miles a day.

7. There are more than 20,000 charging stations in the US

That doesn't sound like a lot, but the number has been quickly growing. In 2012, it was just over 6,000, and in 2011, it was just under 2,000. So the charging infrastructure in the US is accelerating quickly. The easiest way to find a station is with Plugshare, a map of charging stations around the US. The map shows where the stations are, what they offer, and whether or not they are in use in real time.

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Plugshare shows the public electric charging stations available in the US.
Image: Plugshare

8. But, infrastructure is still holding EVs back

It takes a long time to charge an electric car right now, and a lot of volts to speed up the process. Currently, most chargers are Level 2 and can be found with Plugshare. Some are free, some cost money for the electricity used, and others cost per hour. Many are run by a charging system network such as ChargePoint or SemaConnect.

There's a movement to get an Open Charge Point Protocol for communication between EV charging stations and a central management network, much like our mobile phone networks. Though the concept began in the Netherlands and is widely adopted in Europe and Asia, it is not in the US because the market here came into being through the Department of Energy. The network providers in the US manufactured the charging stations, so there wasn't a huge incentive to be a part of OCPP. The open standard could increase innovation and be more economically beneficial in the long-term.

9. Prices are decreasing, slowly

Prices are deflating as the technology for electrification becomes cheaper, but EVs are no small investment. Currently, you can purchase a Mitsubishi, SmartCar, Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet EV for under $30,000. Ford and Honda models run upwards of $30,000, and the Tesla Model S, which is more than $60,000 — but if you're looking for a luxury car, it's a good choice. BMW and Mercedes also have EV models.

10. There are tax credits and other incentives

The Department of Energy site lists the various credits and incentives for purchasing electric vehicles. The Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008, and later the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES) granted tax credits for qualified plug-in EVs, and the federal government granted $2.4 billion to support the development of EVs and batteries. Particular states also have their own tax credits and other incentives (like free HOV lane rides or solar panel discounts). In 2011, President Obama stated the goal of getting one million EVs on the road by 2015, which is unfortunately probably unattainable at the current rate of sales.

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About

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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