The Future Is Now: What to Know About the New World of Electric Vehicles

The good, the bad, and the very, very exciting.

by Michael Frank
Originally Published: 
An illustration of a Chevrolet Bolt being connected to electricity by a charger

A slow-burn technological revolution is happening right under your nose. Its cost hundreds of billions of dollars and literally tens of thousands of great minds were all hard at work on it: the electric vehicle, a pipe dream you can imagine 1960s Mad Men types billing as “The Car of Tomorrow, Today!”

To arrive at our current place, where every company is releasing their own EV, has been no small feat. By comparison, the invention of the smartphone was a tiny lift. Add a SIM card to an iPod. Done. Big deal, right?

What Tesla started has spurred, albeit kicking and screaming, an all-out battle for the future of transportation, with huge challenges that remain because batteries simply refused to evolve without extraordinary R&D. That R&D, thankfully, has been under way for nearly a decade, and the result, so far, is 300-plus miles of range for most models.

But if the technical challenges have always been there, battery-power also results in an entirely different “package” for cars, with small motors at each wheel and the battery unit mostly in the floor. That lets designers rethink the exterior and interior space. What we’ll see as a result, both this year and especially in the next few, are far cooler — and perhaps stranger looking — cars than at any time in the past 100 years.

So, EVs are finally here. Is it exciting? Yeah…but. There’s always a “yeah…but”— a few, actually — and we’ll get to those. But first, here’s just a little context.

Even if the up-front costs might be higher, driving an EV is decidedly cheaper than driving a gas-powered car. Consumer Reports’ recent study found that the fuel savings alone can amount to $4,700 over the first seven years of ownership, and that EV buyers will save an average of $4,600 in repair costs over the life of the car. That’s because electric cars don’t need oil, don’t have an engine to break, and there’s no gearing in their drivetrains. They have single-geared motors, and there’s simply less to damage, and less that ever needs maintenance.

Then there’s the experience of driving. And, wow, is it nice. Seriously.

Let’s consider one facet of this: Sound. Or, rather, no sound. Electric cars are unbelievably quiet. I’ve driven a lot of test cars in the past 20 years as an automotive journalist and there’s nothing more shocking than climbing behind the wheel of an EV and realizing that you can hear the world around you as you cruise down a road. A kid laughs in her front yard and it’s actually audible — with the EV’s windows rolled up. Hit the highway and suddenly you realize the din around you is being caused by every other vehicle vrooming along. Dial up your favorite music and that, too, comes through the sound system with a clarity that will amaze you.

Another feature to note here that’s common to most EVs is one-pedal driving. Basically this works because electric vehicles scavenge voltage generated from braking to feed back to the batteries. Most allow you to set how much re-gen occurs when you lift off the “gas” pedal. Set re-generation in a more aggressive mode and you seldom use the brake at all. You just push the “go” button on the floor, and when you lift, the car begins to slow. In most vehicles I’ve tested, you can one-pedal almost to a dead stop before using the brake. This is especially nice for stop-and-go traffic; it’s just less fatiguing.

This stuff is pretty cool and, genuinely, fun. But, like I said, there are a few things to note.

One is that the production of an EV includes its own carbon tax. Making batteries is energy intensive, and those batteries need an end-of-life plan. That’s coming, but the chemical nature of cells isn’t without its own debt to be paid. It’s hardly as damaging as the CO2 footprint of fossil fuels, but according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, some hybrids are actually “greener” than EVs, at least at first, because of the heavy carbon footprint of battery production. The longer the hybrid runs vs. the EV, the more those scales rebalance. It is important, however, to know that if, say, you purchase the XC90 Recharge, you’re actually getting a pretty green vehicle, even though it’s not an EV.

Also, where you live has a great deal to do with what you’ll pay for an EV. The reality is that nearly 50 percent of all EVs sell in one state: California. And that’s not very surprising. No state has better infrastructure for charging than the Golden one, and that means less hunting for juice. Likewise, California leads the nation in offering tax incentives for EV purchases, and if you can combine that with the federal tax break up to $7,500, buying an electric car is truly becoming a no brainer.

Other states, depending on where you live, are competitive. Tesla’s handy guide (it applies to these incentives no matter what EV you buy, not just a Tesla), shows where your state stacks up for credits/refunds, not just on purchasing an EV, but on installing a home charger. The latter isn’t necessary, but this will speed home juicing times significantly.

Still, there are more “buts” to raise. For one, Tesla and GM have now exhausted their federal $7,500 tax givebacks, and that may or may not change under the Biden administration. The old law basically allocated certain caps on certain cars, and on manufacturers, and while lots of cars still qualify, the red tape is confusing and bears some sort of revamp from the Feds.

One final caveat is that you’ll probably notice a lack of more EV SUVs on the market. But by year’s end we’ll see a Mercedes EQB, the Hyundai Ioniq7, the Audi Q4 e-tron, and a Cadillac Lyriq — all big-to-very-large SUVs. You can also count on both Ford and Chevy to deliver full-sized EV pickups, and it sounds like Toyota, Lexus, and Subaru will all be in the mix with electric SUVs as well.

Still, as you eyeball our list of electric vehicles, you’ll notice that there’s basically one dividing line right now: Tesla and everything else. For Tesla buyers it’s all about screaming fast recharging from public Superchargers.

But that’s a bit of a bigger-“something” metric.

Because almost all EV buyers — including Tesla’s — do the bulk of their charging overnight, at home, not at Level 2 charging stations. And “needing” 200 miles of range to go run a bunch of errands, fetch the kids from daycare (when, we certainly hope, the world becomes somewhat normal again), isn’t necessary. So, even recharging from a standard dryer outlet that you can have any electrician install in your home means your car will always have plenty of range.

Yes, for longer road trips, then range matters. And so does recharge time. But all the EVs are actually going to get more efficient, because all of these carmakers, like Tesla, are constantly refining their math on squeaking out more propulsion, and the cars will actually adapt to how you drive, sneakily regenerating when you’re not looking, eking out more go and more range during their lifecycles. Over-the-air updates also mean that unlike your combustion car’s aging instrumentation, an EV’s displays, features, and capabilities will constantly advance rather than erode.

What does all of this mean? The EV of today is already the car of tomorrow. And that’s the 21st century our grandparents never dreamed would come true.

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