Our society is built around the convenience afforded by the internal combustion engine. Whether moving ourselves or our goods, gasoline and diesel have made everything possible. As has a network of hundreds of thousands of branded gas stations around the globe; miles apart or across the street, they allow us to refuel a vehicle in a matter of minutes.
This is the market reality facing electric vehicles. They’re catching up quickly in price, range, and performance, but even the best haven’t reached parity yet. When you ask which version of the same car you should buy, the answer is a question: What price will you pay for convenience?
For clarity, it’s useful to remove variables by examining a vehicle offering both types of power trains, in this case the Volvo XC40 and its gas T5 AWD and electric Recharge T8 AWD variants. It also helps to remember where we came from. The automobile arrived before the gas station, just as the electric car came before the electric vehicle charger. Bertha Benz had to convince the local druggist in Wiesloch to mix her up some ligroin (a petroleum-based solvent) to complete the world’s first automobile road trip when the ol’ Benz Patent Motor Car ran dry. Today, you can buy gas nearly anywhere.
Just as there was a druggist in nearly every village in 1888, there’s an electrical outlet in most inhabited places today. Depending on the supplies the druggist had on hand, it’s an even guess which would be a slower fill-up. Today’s gas stations can dispense 10 gallons per minute. High-speed electric chargers and the electric cars capable of taking advantage of them are narrowing the gap, but there are fewer than 150,000 of those chargers globally, and they’re not at all evenly distributed.
In the U.S. in 2020, for example, there were fewer than 4,000 fast chargers, compared with 168,000 gas stations, each with multiple pumps, per the U.S. Department of Energy and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and public charging stations are clustered in major cities and along major travel corridors.
This won’t be the case for long, though. The Biden administration has committed to building more than 500,000 public chargers by 2030. Private companies have pledged to build thousands more in the next few years. Vehicles able to take advantage of high-power charging are hitting the market, and more are promised every day. We’ve reached an inflection point in the mass adoption of the electric vehicle, the same way a horse-riding nation did with the automobile a century ago.
Where, though, does this leave today’s EV buyer? It depends. Right now, most EV buyers are homeowners who can plug in every night and need only visit a public charger on a road trip. Not ever having to visit a gas station is an oft-cited EV advantage, but otherwise, driving one to work or to run errands isn’t all that different from driving a gas-powered vehicle. Today, the road trip is the great equalizer.
Consider this comparison test a snapshot, the clearest look at the pros and cons of EV ownership compared to an otherwise identical gas-powered car.
To keep things as even as possible, I set some ground rules. Both vehicles would start with a full tank or battery. I would make a 400-mile round trip in both cars on back-to-back weekdays to guarantee each would be driven in the same manner and in as similar conditions as possible. I’d start at the same time each day and set the climate control at 72 degrees. I would drive as normally as possible, making no effort to game the results. I would do no advance research on gas station and charger locations. I would just get in the car and drive and figure it out on the way, just like most people do when they road trip in a gas-powered car.
The results speak to the central question: What cost convenience? The trips were remarkably similar. Each required a stop halfway to the turnaround point in Paso Robles, a stop at that point itself, and a stop halfway back. Traffic was effectively the same, as were the average speeds. The differences came in cost, both in terms of time and money, which each advantaged one vehicle over the other.
Dollars and Sense
In monetary terms, charging the Recharge three times on the trip and upon returning home cost between $66.29 and $70.20 for 187 kilowatts. Why the range? My home electrical utility charges different rates per kilowatt-hour of electricity depending on whether I exceed certain usage thresholds each month, so the price range reflects the lower and higher amounts I might be charged depending on the month.
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