Start Your (Electric) Engines

Have you looked at electric cars lately? Whether it’s a Tesla, a Chevy, a Hyundai or an Audi, the reasons for going electric are compelling.

Five Figures to Consider

28% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are from the transportation sector
$1,875 - $7,500 federal income tax credit for buying an electric car
$485 to operate an electric car for one year vs. $1,117 for a gas-powered one
258 mile driving range on one charge with Hyundai Kona Electric
$1,200 - $2,000 cost of installing a level 2 charging system in your home

So you didn’t get on the list for the Tesla Model 3? Too much hype? Too long a wait? Too worried about range, charging, price, maintenance, performance or manufacturing snafus? Don’t worry. Your options for buying an electric car are multiplying. Here’s what you need to know.

Electric vehicles are to U.S. automobile sales as a windshield wiper is to an SUV. They are a sliver of the total, yet critical. A transition to electric vehicles (EVs) and carbon-free, renewable electricity is necessary in order to avoid the climate catastrophes outlined by scientists in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. (Transportation and electricity each account for 28% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.) Yet electric vehicles – both all-electric and electric hybrids – accounted for just 1.8% of U.S. vehicle sales in the first nine months of 2018. While the U.S. has encouraged the EV market with tax credits ($1,875 – $7,500) for buyers and grants and funding assistance for cities and states, EV sales are growing faster outside the U.S. than inside. In 2017 worldwide EV sales, which are dominated by China, climbed 58%, while U.S. sales grew at less than half that pace. Chinese electric car production is already five times that of the U.S. and is doubling year-over-year. Unsurprisingly, China is expected to continue to be the epicenter of the electric car market. It’s the leader in battery technology, and future sales potential in China dwarfs that of the U.S. In 2014 China had just 105 vehicles per 1,000 people compared with 816 per 1,000 people in the U.S. As China becomes wealthier, car ownership is increasing rapidly. General Motors, Ford and Tesla are all investing in electric vehicle production in China.

So what about the U.S.? Are we destined to be EV laggards? Last Friday, the final commenting day for the EPA’s proposal to roll back Obama-era Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards, Mary Barra, the chairman of General Motors, submitted a proposal for a National Zero Emissions Vehicle Program. While this isn’t an alternative to CAFE standards, which force automakers to improve overall fleet fuel efficiency, Barra’s EV proposal would require automakers to offer an increasing number of EV models for sale. The program is based on California’s Zero Emission Vehicle Program, which has been adopted by nine additional states. Together, those ten states represent nearly 30% of new car sales in the U.S. Barra’s plan, which calls for a national Zero Emissions Task Force, could take EV leadership away from California’s Air Resources Board and put it in Washington, D.C. While automakers would benefit from a more consistent U.S. marketplace, it’s unclear whether Washington would drive the EV market as vigorously as California has. The current administration, which has proposed freezing CAFE standards at 2020 levels, shows little appetite for challenging the U.S. oil industry, which is heavily invested in maintaining the status quo. Transportation accounts for 70% of U.S. oil consumption.

In spite of Washington’s lack of leadership, the number of EV models available to U.S. consumers is growing. (Though sometimes availability is limited to the 10 states in the Zero Emission Vehicle Program.) This year the big news is the Tesla Model 3, a mid-priced ($28,700 after the 2018 tax credit) plug-in electric car that came to market with a backlog of orders. (Next year the tax credit for Teslas drops from $7,500 to $3,750 and then to $1,875.) In the third quarter, the Tesla 3 outsold the BMW 3 and 4 Series, Audi 4 and 5, the Mercedes C-Class and Acura TLX. It’s unclear whether the Model 3 will maintain its sales pace once its backlog is filled. Meanwhile Jaguar, Porsche and Audi are all launching luxury EVs to compete with Tesla. Another exciting new entry to the all-electric market is Hyundai’s Kona Electric. The SUV, which has a battery range of 258 miles, has earned enthusiastic reviews. In the hybrid category, Subaru will introduce the Crosstek Hybrid next year. No word on its price tag yet. All told, there are more than 50 plug-in electric vehicle models (all-electric and hybrid) available in the U.S., and more SUVs to come. Meanwhile, the all-electric Chevy Bolt (238 mile range), Volkswagen e-Golf (125 mile range) and Nissan LEAF (151 mile range) all sell at less than $30,000 after tax credits.

Are EVs really “green”? Only as green as the electricity that powers them, and that varies from utility to utility and state to state. Driving a Chevy Bolt in Kansas City, Missouri, for example, will produce 2.4 times more CO2 per mile than driving the same car in Yountville, California. Though in both places EVs are cleaner than gasoline-only cars. (You can check out the carbon pollution emitted by a particular EV in your zip code with this tool.) EVs also cost less to fuel than gasoline-powered cars. According to a recent University of Michigan study, the average annual fuel cost to drive a battery electric vehicle is $485 compared with $1,117 for a typical gasoline vehicle. (To compare fuel costs for your particular commute, use this tool.) With extended battery range, EV owners can be less concerned about running out of energy on a dark road in the middle of nowhere. Still, it makes sense to check your fueling options on your frequent routes here. The Tesla route planner can map out charging locations and times based on your trip’s start and end points. A 1,213 mile trip from New York City to Kansas City, Missouri, in a Tesla Long Range Model 3 would require eight charging stops ranging in fueling time from 10 to 40 minutes. Fuel cost savings is estimated at $28. (Savings is $158, but fueling more lengthy, with other Tesla models.) Buyers of all-electric and plug-in hybrid cars will also need to invest in a home charging station. According to HomeAdvisor, the average price for a level 2 charger including installation runs from $1,200 to $2,000.

The economics and infrastructure for electric cars are improving at a fast pace thanks to worldwide incentives to reduce carbon emissions. In the U.S., a carbon tax could hurry the transition from gas to electric. Other incentives include public charging stations, HOV lane access and favored parking. A reduction in federal subsidies to the oil and gas industry would help, too. Even without those inducements, electric cars are cheaper to operate than gasoline models. Is it time for you to take an EV for a test drive?


California Air Resources Board, Department of Energy, Electrification Coalition, Environmental Protection Agency,, General Motors, Inside EVs, Marklines, Tesla, Union of Concerned Scientists