Top five questions when buying an EV

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Kirsten Tanner spoke to Chris Jones from the Australian Electric Vehicle Association for the Ultimate Guide to Buying an Electric Vehicle. Here are her top five things to consider when buying an EV.

Electric cars, motorcycles and scooters are here to stay. Over the next 10 years, Australia’s vehicle fleet will get cleaner and quieter, as plug-in vehicles displace the incumbent internal combustion engine. Once considered a quirky novelty, electric mobility is now a genuine option for motorists. In the last year, the number of plug-in vehicles on the road has literally doubled, and more new models are being released this year.

How do electric cars work?

Electric vehicles (EVs) are cars or motorcycles which use an electric motor and a sizable battery pack to store energy. Pure EVs use only batteries, while plug-in hybrid EVs, or PHEVs, use a small petrol engine to extend the cars range. Most modestly-sized EVs have a 16 to 24kWh battery, while a full sized electric sedan like the Tesla Model S has a 60 or 85kWh battery. The bigger the battery, the further you can drive, but the more expensive it is.

Perhaps the best thing about EVs is their maintenance schedule – check the brakes once a year and rotate the tyres every 20,000 km. That’s about it! With just one moving part – the rotor – electric vehicles are particularly-simple and very robust. PHEVs have a more extensive and expensive service schedule as the onboard petrol engine needs oil and air filter changes.

How do you charge them?

Production electric cars typically come with two charging options – slow and fast. The slow charge option is the most commonly used, as you will no doubt plug in at work or at home. This takes a standard 240 volt AC, 15 amp supply and the vehicle’s on-board charger charges the battery. The rate of charge will depend on the on-board charger – 2.5kW to 7kW is typical. So at 2.5kW, a Nissan Leaf will be fully charged overnight. The fast charge option involves a publicly accessible ‘fast charger’ or ‘Supercharger’ which provides power directly to the battery. Fast chargers may put out anywhere from 25kW to 135kW, and can charge a depleted battery in under 30 minutes. Expect to see more of these around the country, typically located in towns so you can enjoy a coffee break. Converted electric cars typically come with a simple 15 amp plug, however there are now several automotive standard kits out there which allow you to use public charge points.

How far can I drive?

Depending on how you drive and what the conditions are like, your range will vary quite a bit. Long mountain climbs, sustained high speeds, strong headwinds, three passengers and luggage – all of these situations will see a reduction in economy and therefore range (exactly the same as in petrol vehicles). But the upshot is long descents and tailwinds will vastly improve your range. A full charge on a brand new Nissan Leaf will give you about 150km around town and about 110km on the highway. A Tesla Model S with the 85kWh battery can offer an astounding 470km around town, and 300km on the highway, but you will pay for it up front.

The ‘fuel’ economy of a battery electric car is typically quoted in watt-hours per kilometre, or Wh/km. Expect an average of 135Wh/km for a compact EV like the Mitsubishi i-MiEV or Nissan Leaf, and about 185Wh/km for the Tesla Model S. PHEVs will have a modest electric-only range of between 50 and 100km, before the petrol engine kicks in. Due to the added weight and complexity, the electric-only range of a PHEV will generally be worse than a pure EV, but still plenty for most daily needs.

Are they more expensive than a petrol car?

Most automakers are not currently tooled up to manufacture large numbers of electric cars, so the low production runs are more expensive. Also, most automakers rely on finance arrangements and regular service schedules for revenue. With a substantially reduced maintenance regime, you can expect a higher upfront cost. A new Nissan Leaf is about $39,000, and a new Tesla Model S (P85) is about $150,000. But bear in mind you will be driving around at less than 3 cents per kilometre, while a similarly sized petrol car might cost you about 12 or 14 cents per kilometre. If you drive an average of 14,000 km a year for six years, you will have spent as much overall on your electric car as if you’d been driving on petrol. You’ll also break even sooner if you charge off-peak or charge from roof-top solar.

What about converting cars to electric?

Up until very recently, if you wanted an electric car or motorbike, you had to build it yourself. The technical challenge of removing the petrol engine and replacing it with a motor, controller and battery has kept many backyard workshops lit up at night. It’s also a great way of preserving an old or unique car for which replacement parts are hard to find. However it will be difficult to come up with a vehicle as refined as a production model, and certainly not at the same price point. It’s always best to start with a quality donor vehicle you are comfortable with, as it will only ever be this good. Get in touch with your local Australian Electric Vehicle Association (AEVA) branch for more advice on the conversion process, or head along to a branch meeting of the Alternative Technology Association EV groups. The Geelong EV Branch and Melbourne EV Branch meet regularly to discuss EV ownership and conversions.

Find out more about electric vehicles in ReNew 131, the Electric Vehicle Special, or search the ReNew archives for electric car conversion articles.

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