At this point, cars that plug in to the wall and have large batteries are clearly going to play an ever-growing part in our transportation future. While the first generation of them may not yet fit all lifestyles and needs due to high prices and relatively short driving ranges, in several years' time plug-in cars should be within reach of most of the car buying population.
In some ways these new vehicles can't come fast enough as rising gas prices and increasing concern over the environment begin to take center stage. Given that operating an electric car can be as much as five times less expensive than operating a gas car, more and more people are starting to wonder if a plug-in car is in their future–and what kinds of changes it might require.
Does it work for my lifestyle and needs?
Weighing the options of whether a battery powered car will work for your lifestyle or not starts with understanding a couple of basic differences in the vehicles themselves. There are essentially two types of cars with plugs.
The first kind–all-electric vehicles–have very large batteries and when the batteries are empty, the car can't go any further. The second kind – plug-in hybrid electric vehicles – mate a gas or diesel engine and fuel tank with an electric motor and batteries to get you a certain distance on electricity alone before switching into hybrid mode which can take you the rest of the way on gas. The Nissan Leaf is an example of an all-electric car and the Chevrolet Volt is an example of a plug-in hybrid.
For many people, an all-electric car with a range of about 100 miles on a full battery could satisfy almost all their daily driving needs. But what can you do if you need to go farther a few days or more a month? If there's only one car in your household, then an all-electric car may not be the right choice. If you have two or more cars then on those days you need to drive farther, you could use your gas car. Alternatively, you could rent a car for those long road trips. The money you save on gas will likely make rental a few times a year an affordable option.
If that sounds like too much trouble, then perhaps a plug-in hybrid is the right type of plug-in car for you. These cars can take you anywhere from 10-50 miles (depending on the vehicle) on a fully charged battery each and every day.
Where can I charge it?
Charging up the batteries of plug-in cars is a bit more complex than simply having access to a regular wall outlet. While all vehicles with plugs come with a cord that will allow you to do just that, the amount of electricity coming out of a standard three-prong household outlet is simply too little to make it practical as a daily charging solution – only adding about 5 miles of driving range for every hour of charging.
A better solution for charging plug-in cars uses what's called a "Level 2" station – a standardized 240 Volt hook-up that all modern electric cars in the U.S. have. Level 2 stations add between 15 and 30 miles of driving range for every hour of charging, depending on the vehicle. Most people will want to have one of these stations installed where they park their cars overnight.
Installing a residential Level 2 charging station can cost between $1,500 and $3,000, with most of the expense dependent on what kind of service you already have and how far away from the circuit breaker your car will be parked. The U.S. government just extended a tax credit worth 30% – up to $1,000 – towards the purchase and installation of residential Level 2 stations.
What about public charging stations?
If you live in an apartment, installing a charging station is likely impossible unless you can get your landlord to agree to it. Even if you don't live in an apartment, maybe you want to be able to take your all-electric car more than the 100 or so miles it has on a full battery each day, or you want to extend the electric range of your plug-in hybrid.
Public and workplace charging promises to make plug-in cars more accessible to apartment dwellers and give electric cars a daily range more on parity with gas cars. Right now the largest deployments of charging stations are happening under the joint federally and privately-funded EV Project – which seeks to install more than 10,000 public charging stations in select U.S. regions by the end of 2011.
In addition to that large deployment project, many other local municipalities and utilities are getting ready to install their own networks of charging stations. If you don't live in one of these areas it may take a while before you have good access to public chargers, but if you do you will have relatively robust public charging within a year.
In addition to the Level 2 stations that are being installed in public locations, there are plans to install as many as 400 industrial, gas-pump sized DC Fast Charging stations at strategic commercial locations by the end of 2011 to facilitate long-distance travel for all-electric cars. These DC Fast Charging stations can add about 80 miles of driving range in a half hour of charging – but only on properly equipped cars.
At this point only the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MiEV will have support for DC Fast Charging, and it is an extra-cost option you need to select when you order the car. None of the plug-in hybrids will have the fast charging ports, because they can travel long distances on gas.
For almost every lifestyle and need there is a plug-in car coming within the next four years – there are even plans for plug-in SUVs, crossovers and pick ups.
It's a change that promises to shift the automotive landscape and make driving more affordable, reduce the U.S.'s dependence on foreign oil, and help the environment at the same time. And although it's a brand new technology, planning for your part in it isn't that complicated.