(Spoiler alert: It’s not just for the environment.)
My Motivation for Going Electric
Last February my 2009 Subaru Forester was chugging along as my daily commuter. It had AWD, a rear window packed with adventure stickers and I owned it free and clear. Was she showing her age? Yup. With over 175,000 miles on the odometer and various lights blinking on the dash I knew I wouldn’t be able to depend on the rig much longer. Plus, at only ~22-23 MPG, I spent about six dollars in fuel each day commuting from my home in the gritty city of Tacoma to work in the equally gritty Tukwila. Beyond just the cost of fuel, my commute emitted over 40 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere daily.
Could I do better? Absolutely.
Now, I’ve been a fanboy of electric cars for over a decade since spotting my first Tesla Roadster on the streets of Downtown Seattle and stealing a photo next to the two-door sports car. At the time I was heavy into riding motorcycles so the instant torque and lightening-fast (but silent) acceleration of the Tesla was captivating. Over the years this initial seed of interest grew into a habit of reading news sites tracking the emerging electric car industry and the growing fleet of plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars: Ford C-Max, Tesla Model 3, Nissan Leaf and others. I was hooked.
Budgeting for an Electric Car
I had never purchased a new car before but after doing some back-of-the-napkin math last February I felt that my budget could finally afford one, even a battery-powered model. Plus, I’d hopefully have a more dependable car that would avoid costly repairs in the coming years. This is how my math broke down:
$314 estimated new car payment ($25,000 purchase price - $10,000 down payment = $15,000 financed)
$60 car insurance increase (previously I didn’t have comprehensive insurance coverage)
-$160 gas savings
-$20 oil change
But that’s before I factored in maintenance. While I loved my Subaru, when i totaled up the trips I took to the mechanic over the three years I owned the car I realized I had spent over $2,000 for various fixes: new spark plugs, wiring harness, catalytic converter, a dozen oil changes and a dozen other things I’m forgetting. Amortized, this chops another $44/month off transportation expenses bringing my new monthly cost down to $160/month.
“I can do that.”, I thought.
Choosing Electric-only or Plug-in Hybrid
While a few friends and consumer review sites recommended the Prius Prime or similar plug-in hybrids instead of electric-only models. While these proven, dependable hybrid systems eliminate range anxiety by combining a small battery with an internal combustion engine, they require the same maintenance that a traditional internal combustion engine does: replacement of oil, belts and filters and all the other hassles. Electric-only cars on the other hand have a boringly short list of to-dos: fill the windshield wiper fluid and change the tires every few years. These cars are little more than a bunch of laptop batteries wired to an electric motor driving four wheels. You skip the engine, transmission, gas tank, exhaust and all the hundreds of other moving bits that link the systems. Electric cars are just simple, and while the data is still out, some (though bias) say electric cars are far more reliable.
Features and Technology
After researching car options for months, I finally settled on a slightly used 2018 Nissan Leaf with a 40kw battery. This was the newly refreshed version of the first mass production electric car Nissan launched in 2011. The new model came with a bigger battery boasting 40kw, a more powerful motor at 147 hp, and a more advanced technology package. This tech included ProPilot, their self-driving solution offering level 2 capabilities. Together these enhancements gave the latest model a range of 155-160 miles—a boost of about 40 miles over the previous 30kw model.
While I could buy an older, used Nissan leaf with a smaller battery, I didn’t want to buy an electric car and keep my old Subaru. This would just double my insurance and I’d have to continue to do maintenance on my Subaru. I just wanted to pull the band-aid off and go all electric, or nothing.
Driving my Electric Car
As I mentioned above, I’ve never had a new car so my performance expectations are pretty low. However, I was thrilled to jump in and take off in my Nissan Leaf. The car is nearly silent to drive. This means having conversations or listening to music is much more enjoyable than prior cars I’ve owned. Removing the roar of an engine definitely changes the classic driving experience, but this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.
Another benefit is the precision of an electric car. The instant torque makes driving fun and zippy, too. While I don’t see the performance of a sports car, or high-end Tesla, the immediate response makes driving fun. Now when I drive friend’s traditional cars they always feel so sluggish to accelerate.
Beyond the driving physics, the other big change has been the semi-autonomous driving system. While I was originally a little nervous to use the ProPilot system, I’ve grown more comfortable with it as months have passed. I now use the system to steer, accelerate and brake for about 40 highway miles of my 52-mile daily commute. This is great for traveling at speed, but is especially helpful when stop-and-go traffic fills the interstate. The car identifies the vehicle in front of it, slows down to a near stop, steers in the lane and then accelerates again once the congestion eases.
My Nissan Leaf also has a system called e-pedal, meaning I can accelerate and decelerate with just my single “gas" pedal. Not switching feet from a brake to a gas over and over is a huge improvement in comfort. Within an hour of using the feature I thought, “Shouldn’t all cars be like this?”.
After hitting the internet for a few weeks and relentlessly researching low-cost electric cars I finally found a slightly used Nissan Leaf with 90-whole miles on the odometer at Olympia Nissan. My girlfriend and I went down on a Monday to test-drive the car. Instead of trying to sell me on model, the salesman surprised me by just tossing over the keys.
“You probably know more about that I do. Take it for a spin.”
Unlike Tesla cars, Nissan Leafs are sold through the traditional dealership model. This is good if you want to skip visiting the big city and instead go to a dealership close by, but probably bad for supporting electric car adoption. Why? Dealerships don’t make that much selling a new car. Instead, they make the majority of their revenue through servicing the cars they sell, specifically the internal combustion engine cars. The oil changes, filter swaps and other scheduled maintenance add up to healthy profits. Unfortunately this sales model hurts electric cars that require next to no maintenance. Salespeople are just less likely to care about recommending that new electric model to the next shopper if it won’t ultimately be paying the bills… and that’s if they know much about the new technology.
If you’re interested in buying an electric car, my suggestion is to start by doing your own research. Below are sites that outline the basics of buying, charging and driving electric, and a few online sources of new/used models:
Researching Electric Cars:
Buying New/Used Electric Cars:
Filling Up with Gas vs. Electricity
My home electrical monthly costs before and after buying an electric car. I saw my electric bill jump about $20/month after buying my Nissan Leaf last February. This cost is minuscule compared to the $140-$160 I spent previously monthly on fueling my previous car with gas. Luckily, Washington State has the lowest per-kilowatt cost in the US. Data: Puget Sound Energy, average bi-monthly cost
It is inherently cheaper to “fuel” electric cars compared to internal combustion engines, or “ICE” vehicles. Research shows that less than 15% of the energy added into a traditional gas tank goes to driving that vehicle or powering useful accessories like A/C. Ouch. In contract, electric cars are 85-90% efficient.
Charging My Car: 110v to 220v to DC
For the first five months I charged using a heavy gauge extension cord connecting my car charger to a regular 110v outlet on the outside of my house. This form of trickle charging is the slowest requiring about 30 hours to charge my Leaf from a dead battery. However, this wasn’t an issue because I just plugged in each night and topped off after commuting 55 miles round trip to and back from work. The only downside is I had to lay an extension cord across my sidewalk in front of my house. (Plus, it probably wasn’t the safest option. Extension cords and electric cars are usually a no-no.)
I eventually picked up a used electric car charger from Craigslist for a little over $100—a big savings over a new charger. Eventually I ran power to my rear garage and parking pad and wired up the level two charger (different than the autonomy “level two” described above) with a J1772-style connector. This charged my new car about three times faster, but more Importantly was safer than using an extension cord.
In addition to charging at home, I was fortunate to supplement my electrical commuting costs thanks to free electric car charging offered by my employer, BECU. Each day, I use the Chargepoint app to get in a virtual queue with other electric car owners at my HQ. I then get a notification when it is my time to charge. After two hours, my allotted time is over and I re-park my car in a non-charging spot. Typically, this charging session covers half of my daily commute. While I wasn’t going to retire on the savings (especially because electricity is cheap in Wa as I described above), I value the offering from my job, and it has reduced any range anxiety I might have feel.
The third way I charged was using DC Chargers, or Direct Current. My Nissan Leaf has a CHAdeMO plug—a somewhat legacy connection. The emerging format is CCS. Instead of taking hours to fill my 40kw battery, I could charge from 0% to 80% in about 45-minutes. These commercial chargers are located close to major highways—including the West Coast Electric Highway. This means you can bring your EV on long-distance trips. After a few hours of driving, just stop at a charger (often near coffee shops and restaurants), then “fill up” while grabbing a coffee or having a meal. After six months of ownership, I’ve only used these DC chargers about three times, but it was cheap and effortless. I paid between $5 and $10 each visit. This was a premium over charging home, but allowed me to use my Leaf for visits to the mountains for camping or trail runs.
Car Maintenance: Little to None
After over 8,000 miles of driving, I haven’t done any maintenance beyond a car wash or two. The car drives and feels just like it did on day one. Nissan recommends getting the tires rotated every 7,500 miles, and the brakes and suspension to serviced as-needed. Thanks to the regenerative braking, some owners report that the brake pads are lasting 10+ years. So, I guess this means I need to have my tires inspected for even wear, but otherwise I’m good to go.
Conclusion: Save the Planet, and $$$
After six months of ownership, I couldn’t be happier with my choice to switch to an electric car. I am confident that I won’t be going back to an internal combustion engine—probably ever. Moving away from a carbon emitting car to a more “green” vehicle was a big motivation for making the switch. While buying any finished product links you with the carbon emissions used to create that thing, electric cars are inherently less-destructive options than ICE cars.
After going through this change, I would put as a close second the financial savings of electric cars. As long as I take care of my Leaf, the savings in fuel and maintenance costs cost appear to reduce my lifetime transportation expenses significantly. Not everyone needs to drive to get to work. However, for those that do need a car, I highly suggest looking at an EV.