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What it’s like to own an electric car » Yale Climate Connections

Buying an electric car can feel like bold new terrain — because it still often is. Depending on where you live, you might be in good company, or you just might be the first person in your neighborhood to have one.

As of late 2022 about 1.9 million electric vehicles, often called EVs, were on the road. That was only 0.7% of the total number of vehicles in operation.

But adoption is likely to rise, with 42% of respondents to a recent Pew survey saying they would be very or somewhat likely to seriously consider buying an EV the next time they’re on the market for a new vehicle.

Kuo-Lun Tye of Chicago went from considering an EV purchase to making it happen in 2021 when he gave up his beloved Ford Fusion to go in on an EV with his girlfriend, Lelia.

Today, Tye, a DePaul University software developer, is the proud co-owner of an Infinite Blue Ford Mach-E. We recently talked about his experience with the vehicle.

Yale Climate Connections: What prompted you to make the leap to an EV?

Tye: After my girlfriend and I moved in together in Chicago, we realized we didn’t really need two cars. So we sold each of our cars and found our current EV — a Mach-E 2021 with a 300-mile range.

Before that we’d been mostly driving her plug-in hybrid around town, so we had already gotten used to thinking about things like finding charging stations. But we wanted a full EV driving range. One reason, of course, was that we talk about carbon footprint a lot, but honestly, I also just knew that an EV would be way more fun to drive.

YCC: What’s your advice for people on the fence about EVs?

Tye: I have a friend who’s facing the same question, and the first thing I suggested was to ask, “What are you afraid of? What are your fears?”

People have different fears about getting an EV. If your fear is about range, OK, where do you normally go? We go to West Virginia, and people are like, “Oh boy, that’s gonna be tough.” And it’s true, it’s a charging black hole over there. But we make it work, and if you look at scenarios like that in your life, they could actually work, too.

So if you’re worried about range, think about where you go, then look at a route app, which can tell you where all the different types of chargers are, how reliable they are, and any gotchas you need to think about. And then sort of weigh those findings against your own appetite for slightly higher risk.

Or if your problem is with charging at home, for example, then talk to some electricians. It might not be as expensive as you think it is, or you might be able to work around it.

If you’re wondering about what you’ll do when you need advice about your EV, other than going to the dealer, then you could also look at the many online forums there are dedicated to specific models.

YCC: How did you go about finding and buying your EV? Were you able to get a tax credit?

Tye: We knew we wanted a vehicle with the longest range and with rear-wheel drive. I was fine with most colors, but I’m glad my girlfriend preferred the blue because it’s a great color.

We did get the $7,500 [federal] tax credit. It was really easy — on TurboTax it asks if you bought an EV, and then you enter some details like the model and VIN, and it tells you whether you qualify and calculates it from there.

YCC: How did it feel as you first drove off the lot? How does the EV handle compared with your previous cars?

Tye: I think the first time we drove it, we were like, “Wow, this is really quick, this is really something.” Driving an EV just puts a smile on your face — even for non-car people. The one we got is not like the fastest EV out there … It’s pretty much one of the slowest ones actually [laughs]. But from the get-go, and even compared to my old car, the Mach-E did feel faster.

It’s nice to be able to stomp on the gas pedal and not worry about revving the engine or the transmission. And things like passing people on the highway, like when there’s a long line of trucks … I used to have to wait for a sort of opportunity, shift down, get my gears ready, and then I could gun it — but with this, it’s a lot more immediate. You can just move ahead without thinking about it.

The instant acceleration is almost like a roller coaster, and lots of EVs are also rear-wheel drive, so that adds to the fun factor when you’re going around a corner.

In fact, once, when it was snowing, we took it out to an empty parking lot in the middle of the night — and we did doughnuts! It was so easy to do, like Lelia had no experience with it but she was pulling off doughnuts in like five minutes. It was really funny watching a 4,000-plus-pound SUV pulling off a doughnut quietly, effortlessly.

YCC: What does a typical charging scenario look like for you?

Tye: First of all, we live in an apartment that doesn’t have charging. So it varies a lot depending on what we do. Our closest grocery store doesn’t offer charging, which is very unfortunate. However, there’s one a little further away that does so we do shop there relatively often.

If we’re going out to the burbs, we plug in at shopping malls or try to find malls or restaurants that offer charging. Obviously, free is nice, so we try to patronize places with free charging, but that isn’t always available.

When we’re going for longer trips, we do have to sort of plan our charging stops, like, OK, when and where should we fast-charge before the trip? And then we start to look at what stations will be available on the way, too.

Photo caption: Tye (left) starting a charge session on his phone next to an F-150 Lightning. (Photo courtesy: Kuo-Lun Tye )

YCC: And there’s an app for that, right?

Tye: Yes, PlugShare maps out all the stations. My girlfriend drove to Green Bay, for example, so before she left, we searched for charging stations along the route. On her way home she had to go through Appleton, which wasn’t the most direct route, to charge at a station so she could make it to Milwaukee — which is sort of the last bastion of charging stations out here.

But it wasn’t a big deal. We had planned for that and in Green Bay, we found the fastest Level 2 chargers they had so she went to those stations instead — because being able to charge 30-50% faster than you would at a Level 1 charger can really make a difference.

YCC: Are there different ways you drive the EV to boost the range?

Tye: For sure, so it ranges from normal things like maintaining the right tire pressure, inflation — that kind of stuff — to optimizing speed. Higher speeds are less efficient aerodynamically for cars in general, but aerodynamics play a much larger role at higher speeds for efficiency for EVs.

So for example, I used to drive a lot to West Virginia to visit Lelia while she still lived there. It would take me about 8.5 hours in my old car, partly because I could refuel quickly and also because I would exceed the speed limit by like, a lot. Don’t tell the cops.

With this car, I’m a little more mellow and relaxed, so I usually drive the usual five to 10 over [the speed limit]. While this does mean the trip takes a couple hours longer, I arrive feeling much more refreshed compared to before.

And then the more extreme one is climate control in winter. It uses a good amount of energy to heat the cabin, so we also use seat heaters and steering wheel heat as well as just dressing appropriately for the weather. I think that’s important whether you have an EV or not.

YCC: What’s your experience with maintenance been like so far compared with your previous, gas-powered car?

Tye: It’s like zero maintenance. Ford alerted us through the app when we had 10,000- and 25,000-mile maintenance marks, and it’s like, “Make sure your brakes and your tires work, check the windshield wiper fluid, and rotate your tires” — very basic things. But yeah, no oil changes, no transmission fluids — there’s a lot less fluids to worry about in this car. The windshield wiper fluid is pretty much the only thing that’s at all difficult maintenance-wise.

That said, the software is where you do see more issues. EVs are kind of a laptop on wheels — high tech, lots of processing power, big battery — that just so happens to be able to roll around and transport people. I have actually updated the car myself, partly because I can do it in a more timely manner than the dealer, and also because there’s really not enough software expertise at your average dealer. I think that reliability of software updates and fixes is sorely lacking in most major automakers.

YCC: Have you ever run out of battery, or come close and worried you wouldn’t get to the next charging station in time?

Tye: Sure, range anxiety is a real thing. But I think a more common concern is just that new owners can get majorly inconvenienced because of things they’re not used to yet, like how cold weather can result in lower range or slower charging time.

There’s obviously the sensationalizing pieces you’ve seen like, “Oh, I bought my Tesla and it went three miles because it was freezing out, and I had to walk 800 miles — uphill both ways — plus it was snowing and also very hot at the same time!” [Laughs] But those are really hit pieces because it’s very rare to actually run out of juice on the road.

YCC: Have you ever had range anxiety?

Tye: There were a couple of times when we were going out and it was really cold and we were in the middle of nowhere. We knew we were going to make it but it’s still a bit of a puckering feeling — when you’re down in the mid-single-digits percentage state of charge, it’s cold and you’re like, well the theories and the numbers say you can make it … but …

It’s like if your phone has only 5% battery you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I need to get to a charger right away!” So when you’re in your car in the middle of winter at night and in the middle of nowhere, that just sort of multiplies that feeling.

So I guess maybe there’s been some anxiety but certainly not a consistent basis. And we have driven several long-distance trips — to West Virginia, to the UP [Upper Peninsula of Michigan], and Kansas City — and we’ve never had any real problems.

YCC: Now that you’ve had it for one and a half years, what would you say are the pros or cons of EVs in your everyday life?

Tye: The best part about it is its simplicity. It really is a get-in-and-go kind of experience. And if you have at-home charging, you start off with a full tank of “gas” every day, and you don’t have to deal with things happening at gas stations in the middle of the night, for example, or possibly gasoline spilling, and all that kind of stuff.

It sounds silly, but I think something I’m looking forward to when we get our own house is not having to think about it. You can go home at night, plug it in. The next morning you unplug it and you’re good to go.

It is also the best-handling car I’ve ever had. Last winter I drove like a fool on purpose, basically trying to get stuck in parallel parking spots or streets or whatever it is — and I have gotten stuck zero times. That was the first winter I got stuck zero times in the snow.

YCC: What would you say is the point of taking that “slightly higher risk” to become an EV owner?

Tye: I think the point is that the upsides are a lot higher. Even things like getting started on a cold day. There’s no exhaust fumes in an enclosed parking garage, for example. You can start your car up while it’s still plugged into your wall and you can hop into a warm cabin and not have to worry about burning gas or cold engine fumes.

Obviously, the fun factor is big for me, too — it’s so nice to pass people quickly and safely on a highway! A lot of people get EVs because they’re just really fun cars to drive. Even the cheapest EV now is miles better than entry-level gasoline cars. If speed is your thing, you can get one with a power that was previously only attainable by higher-end German manufacturers, for example, at a fraction of the price.

There’s also just comfort, especially for long-distance driving, with the lack of engine noise.

And of course, it can feel nice to know that maybe you’re helping reduce the reliance on fossil fuels. But that’s hard to quantify because obviously, we’re not saving the world by getting an EV, and a lot of owners acknowledge that.

So there really isn’t just one thing, like “Oh yeah, get this and your life will be better!” kind of thing, or ‘You will save the world.” But at the end of the day, I think it puts a smile on your face that is different from another high-end car.

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