Electric Cars Are Coming: Get Ready

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Waiting in line for a chance to breathe toxic chemicals while pumping them into your car to burn and pollute the air — all that will soon be a thing of the past. Cars powered by electricity have been around long enough that we know some facts about them. They are cheaper to operate, are more fun to drive, save lives, and can usually be charged up at home overnight, like your smartphone. Electric Vehicle owners used to be regarded as eccentrics. Now that every single major car maker either offers, or will soon offer, all-electric cars, EV owners are being seen as the vanguard of a “powerful” change that is coming to the driving scene. Many countries have pledged to ban the sale of internal combustion-powered vehicles. Major cities have banned or will ban gasoline/diesel cars from their roads. And like the smartphone, there is one (or more) for EV model every budget and every level of luxury. And yet, a lot of people still don’t know that much about electric vehicles.

Saving Money

Lower cost of operation isn’t what most people think of first, but it is a biggie. For now, EVs (Electric Vehicles) cost more up front to buy, though the price gap is thinning out due to increasing scale of production. But EVs save a lot of money in two areas, fuel and maintenance. EVs are of course fueled by electricity. So instead of having to stop, and wait in line, and pay, and breathe carcinogenic fumes while pumping, you can just go home at the end of your daily commute and plug in. Since in most places, electricity is cheaper overnight, most EVs can be programmed to charge during the cheapest hours. It’s variously estimated that powering an EV will cost somewhere around ⅕ to ⅓ what you would pay for a comparable-sized vehicle running on gasoline or diesel. That’s a lot of saving over the life of a car! And since EVs tend to last longer (because they’re simpler), you will continue to save over a longer period of time.

Maintenance is something that gasmobile owners love. Who would miss the chance to take your car in for an oil change? Or take it in again for transmission service? Take it back to get the radiator fan fixed? Are we having fun yet? BEVs have literally thousands fewer moving parts . A combustion engine runs insanely hot, so everything under the hood is badly stressed by that heat. EV motors provide torque over the complete range of speeds, so transmissions are vastly less complex. No oil changes, carburetor, transmission repairs: you might say it’s EV owners who love maintenance, because they have so little of it!

And alas, maintenance is also why many traditional car dealers will do everything they can to get you not to buy an EV! Franchised dealers from traditional car companies make very little money from selling you a car. The “deal” is that they know your gasmobile is going to break down several times, and also that you’re going to need those oil changes, those transmission services, those plug and wire services, those muffler replacements, and all the little shocks your budget can handle — that’s the dealers’ main funding model! Walk into almost any traditional dealership and try to test-drive an EV. Unless the dealership is really on the ball, the EV will conveniently have been “forgotten” to get plugged in, the sales rep will tell you bad stories about EVs, and generally try to bait-and-switch you back to a car that will keep them employed at your expense. It is their livelihood, so who could blame them for trying?

Indeed, a sudden and massive conversion to EVs would disrupt a lot of industries (not just car dealers, but all the services that depend on inefficient technology: oil changes, car parts, muffler and brake shops), and these people will have to find new lines of work. But that is not a reason to keep the old-fashioned smoke-generators on the roads forever. A more gradual conversion (which appears likely anyway) will give people time to wean themselves off gasmobile support and into new areas of work.

Having more fun

Because electric motors produce near-constant torque at any speed, the EV’s acceleration is simply legend. Just do a web search on “first ride Tesla” to see some videos of how crazily these cars accelerate. Street racing is dangerous and illegal, so please don’t. But at the track, it’s fair game. You can see plenty of videos on the web of EVs out-accelerating — “smoking” except there is no smoke — conventional cars. “Coming off the line” the EV always wins. There’s even a famous video of a Tesla beating an Alfa Romeo — while towing a similar Alfa Romeo on a trailer! Quoting from that video: “Fun fact: many high-performance cars cross the quarter mile line faster when towed by a Model X than they do on their own four wheels.”

Over the long race, the gas car may have a higher top speed, but it will take longer to get there. EVs are fast enough for legal (and then some) speeds on the highway, which is fine. And they have plenty of acceleration to get you out of the occasional “unexpected situation” more quickly.

No fumes. Less maintenance. Much less chance of breaking down. Let’s face it: these cars are just more fun to drive!

Saving lives

Most people know that gasmobiles have two pollution problems: fumes and particulates. Fumes come in two forms; the carcinogens that you breathe in while handling the fuel, and the smog-forming gases your car breathes out via the tailpipe. Both of these can kill you, or damage the health of people who breathe them. Particulates are small particles in the air that can harm humans and animals who breathe them in. Some particulates are caused by the combustion process, and some by the normal grinding process known as braking. Yup. Every time you slow or stop your conventional car, you are generating a tiny bit of particulate matter into the atmosphere. EVs rarely brake; to slow down an EV, you let the car’s momentum work against the motor (which then acts like a generator), slowing the car down without grinding the brakes and at the same time putting some electricity back into the battery. Double win!

The science around climate change is not as widely accepted, because of vested interests, and established habits, and sometimes ideology. Whatever. Electric vehicles produce no CO2 during operation, and even if they take a bit more energy to manufacture, their lifespan contribution both to particulate emission and to greenhouse gases is significantly less than similar-sized combustion-powered cars. And yes, this is still true even in places where coal is burned to produce electricity (still true despite what Financial Times cherry-picked from MIT research — external link, paywalled).

See also this article on pollution deaths worldwide (although not all of that is from automobiles, it is almost all from burning fossil fuels).

Getting that Positive Charge for the Range

Charging an EV sounds easy — just plug it in, right? Well, it’s not quite that simple. North American residential electrical systems split the “normal” household voltage in half, so most of your appliances (except an electric oven, hot water heater or electric clothes dryer) run on about 120 Volts. Ovens and dryers — and almost everything in most of the rest of the world — runs on double that, around 240V. So using a standard home outlet to charge a full-sized EV will be slow. As a bare minimum, for home charging, you want to install a 240V, 30- or 40-amp outlet in the garage. For better results, install a charging connector (also called a “charging station” or “EVSE”, technically “electric vehicle supply equipment”) and higher-current wiring. This is normally a job for a professional electrician, not the do-it-yourself homeowner. Details such as power requirements and connector vary depending on your car, so check the car manufacturer’s recommendations for your model, before calling in the electrician. Note that an EVSE or Charging Station is not the actual battery charger — that’s inside your car!

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Canadian-made Level 2 EVSE from Elmec, Quebec

To be fair, one major unsolved problem for mass consumption of EVs is home charging for people who don’t have a garage or house-side driveway. Those who park on the street, and those who park in a garage in an older apartment or condo building, will need help. Which is coming, by the way. One solution for the former is to put chargers into streetlamp poles, which are already fitted with heavy-duty wiring. For the latter, they will probably have to work with the building owner or the condo committee to get wiring put in place.

EV charging solutions are listed at three charging levels. Level 1 or L1 charging is just a standard North American 120 volt outlet. L2 charging is a 240V 30 Amp EVSE charging station — all modern EVs in North America support this, using a standard “J1772” connector. Level 3 is fast charging, which you probably want when taking a road trip, because even L2 charging can take several hours to recharge your battery fully. There are L3 or “DC fast chargers” available almost everywhere, with lots more coming in the next year or so. L3 will recharge your car while you stop in for a coffee and snack and a stretch break.

Both eco-friendly governments, and commercial interests, have lead to a wide range of charging stations being available. There are several apps to help you find them — one that I like is PlugShare. Their web page and their mobile app shows a map with lots of stations at all three levels (see screenshot), but to actually use it you have to click to zoom to your location. Unfortunately there are several different “standard” L3 connector types. You can select the L3 chargers by type in the lower left of the PlugShare web map (Tesla Superchargers, CHAdeMO, and CCS) as well as by various operators. CHAdeMO and CCS (“Common Charging System”) are the two main generic L3 charging connectors used in North America, Europe and parts of Asia; Superchargers are Tesla-specific and are funded, owned and operated directly by Tesla. Your EV should have a socket for one of these 3 standards (which should also take any L2 charger), and there are adapters available to “cross over” between CHAdeMO and CCS, or to use CHAdeMO or CCS to charge a Tesla. Tesla alone operates over 1,000 Supercharger locations, most of which have from 8 to 50 connectors and parking stalls; they are aiming to have 10,000 Supercharger connectors up and running by the end of 2017. Tesla has their own map of these locations, slightly more up-to-date for Superchargers than PlugShare’s. Tesla’s map also shows their “Destination Chargers”, which are Tesla-provided, owner-operated L2 charging connectors — with a Tesla-specific plug — at hotels, restaurants, resorts and other travel destinations. Each of the various L3 systems (Superchargers, CHAdeMO, and CCS, as well as Ionity, a proposed new higher-power CCS-based standard being set up in Europe by BMW, Mercedes, Ford and Volkswagen, and a fifth standard used in China) uses a different connector, to avoid any chance of damage by plugging in the L3 wrong cable. Just use whichever one your EV supports!

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PlugShare.com home page — zoom in for details!

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A typical EV charging connector: the shape of things to come! (photo Ian Darwin)

And remember: when it comes to EVs, don’t take your friendly neighborhood gasmobile dealer’s word for anything.

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This article was originally published in Luxury Canada but they lost it in a web site implosion months ago, and it doesn’t look like they’ll have it back up anytime soon.

Photo credit for lead photo (“line-up to fill-up”): U.S. Navy, public domain via WikiMedia Commons

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