Electric vehicles start to enter the car-buying mainstream

Nissan Leaf exhibited in the Nissan Gallery at Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. Global Headquarters in Kanagawa.

Nissan Leaf exhibited in the Nissan Gallery at Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. Global Headquarters in Kanagawa.

SOPA Images/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

The first wave of people who bought electric cars tended to be affluent, environmentally aware technology enthusiasts who lived in California. The second wave may be people such as Russell Grooms, a librarian in Virginia.

Grooms last year bought a battery-powered Nissan Leaf, spending about $20,000 after government incentives, as a way to save money on gasoline.

“I don’t have the disposable income to throw $50,000 or $60,000 at a car just to help the environment,” said Grooms, a resident of Manassas, who works at a community college. “It really came down to numbers.”

Grooms, who is married and has a 5-year-old daughter, figures he is saving about $1,200 a year on gasoline, and he has so far spent nothing on repairs or maintenance. (Electric vehicles don’t need oil changes.) “It keeps our expenses much more predictable,” he said.

Electric vehicles are starting to go mainstream in the United States after making earlier inroads into the mass markets in China and Europe.

Battery-powered cars now make up the fastest-growing segment of the auto market, with sales jumping 70% in the first nine months of the year from the same period in 2021, according to data from Cox Automotive, a research and consulting firm. Sales of conventional cars and trucks fell 15% in the same period. Buyers of electric vehicles in 2021 were more likely to be women and tended to be younger than in 2019, according to Cox data.

“Two years ago it was the EV nerds,” said Scott Case, CEO of Recurrent, a research firm focused on the used electric vehicle market. More recent buyers belong to what he calls the early majority — “when the first sizable segment of a population begins to adopt the innovation.”

Gasoline-powered cars, of course, still account for most of the new car market. But electric vehicles’ share of new vehicle sales almost doubled in the first nine months of the year, to 5.6% from 2.9% in the same period in 2021, according to Cox.

That growth could have been stronger if automakers had been able to make more electric cars. Many manufacturers have long waiting lists because production has been limited by shortages of computer chips, batteries and other parts.

Buyers of battery-powered cars are concerned about climate change, but lower costs are also a powerful attraction, according to more than 3,000 respondents to a request for stories about electric car purchases on The New York Times’ website. Driving on electricity is generally much cheaper than gasoline. Scores of respondents said they were using energy they generated from rooftop solar panels to charge their cars, potentially lowering costs even further.

Electric car buyers used words such as “love” and “awesome” to describe their vehicles. Many said they would never buy a gasoline car again, but many others said they intended to keep at least one conventional vehicle, because traveling long distances by electric car can be inconvenient and sometimes impossible because of difficulties in finding charging stations.

Electric vehicles are now becoming popular in places other than where they took off, including California, where 39% of all U.S. electric vehicles were registered as of June, according to data from the Department of Energy. Registrations outside California jumped 50% in 2021, compared with a 32% increase in the state.

In the long run, much wider use of electric vehicles will require many more affordable models. The Leaf and the Chevrolet Bolt are among the few lower-cost battery-powered cars available, with several on the way, including a Chevrolet Equinox SUV, which will start around $30,000. But it may be a while before there are enough affordable models, including used cars, which sell in much greater numbers than new vehicles. For now, Tesla, Ford Motor, Mercedes-Benz and other companies have focused on premium models that are more profitable.

Yet, many buyers are concluding that electric vehicles make economic sense even when they cost thousands of dollars more than similar gasoline vehicles.

Volatile gas prices, which hit record highs this year, swayed people such as Tracy Miersch, a resident of Miramichi, New Brunswick. She drives 3,000 miles a month setting up merchandising displays for retailers.

“I had been kind of averse to all the new technology,” Miersch said, adding, “My purpose was getting rid of gas.”

She figures she saves more than 600 Canadian dollars a month, or about $440, with the Tesla Model 3 she bought used for C$70,000 in January 2021. Charging the car at home costs about C$6, she said.

The fuel savings can be even bigger for some people.

David Kreindler, who lives in northern Vermont, 3 miles from the nearest paved road, powers his home and car solely with solar panels.

Kreindler, an information security specialist, designed and built his home to run on solar panels and batteries because of the high cost of a new utility connection. His system generates far more than his house needs. He uses the surplus to charge his Volkswagen ID.4 SUV, which he bought in July. “I’m my own utility,” Kreindler said.

But for all the enthusiasm, buyers have had problems.

The lack of fast and convenient places to charge electric cars on longer trips has been the main frustration. Chargers are few and far between outside coastal urban areas. In North Dakota, for example, there are just 19 fast chargers, according to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a car industry group. Fast chargers can fill a car battery in 10 minutes to an hour depending on the device and the vehicle. Home chargers generally take a full night to replenish a battery.

Ruth Milligan, a resident of Columbus, Ohio, tried taking her daughter, Maggie Daiber, to Michigan State University in August. Milligan calculated where she would need to charge her ID.4 during the four-hour trip.

“I did my homework on the charging network,” said Milligan, an executive speech coach, “or so I thought.”

But she hadn’t considered that the battery would drain faster when the car was weighed down with her daughter’s possessions and her husband, Dave Daiber, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall.

Less than two hours into the trip, Milligan realized that the car was not going to make it to Toledo, Ohio, where she had planned to charge. Instead, they got off the highway in Findlay. Of the four chargers in town, one was behind a locked gate; another was at a Toyota dealership that would not let a Volkswagen use its charger; a third would charge only Teslas; and the fourth had been installed recently and was not yet working.

The family wound up spending the night at a hotel and making the rest of the trip in a rented van.

Still, Milligan says she likes the ID.4, which she bought after waiting 10 months for delivery. “In general I’m happy with the car, but I’m going to be cautious as I push its bounds,” she said.

A few electric car owners surveyed said the charging stations they stopped at sometimes lacked shelter and felt unsafe.

“Women don’t want to sit in a dark parking lot waiting for their car to charge,” said Caroline Gambell, a Vermont resident and a curriculum writer for an education nonprofit who bought a Chevrolet Bolt last year. “Range anxiety is real. If you are trying to get stuff done, and you have kids in the back, the last thing you need is, ‘Is my car going to get there?’”

For the most part, Tesla owners have found that the company’s proprietary charging network works well.

Some electric car owners said they also had gasoline vehicles to help them avoid the hassles of charging on longer trips. Beth Gonzalez, of Austin, Texas, said her husband had a Jeep Wrangler and her daughter a Hyundai Santa Fe, which the family used for longer trips. Her primary vehicle is a 2017 Mercedes B250e, a car the automaker developed with Tesla and sold in small numbers.

Gonzalez, a graphic designer who works from home, couldn’t find the car in Texas, so she bought one from California for $19,000 through CarMax and had it shipped to her. The car travels about 80 miles on a full charge and fewer if the air conditioning is on, but that is enough for her daily needs, she said. “I absolutely love this car.”

Charging at home is generally not an obstacle for people with a garage or driveway. But millions of Americans live in apartment buildings, which rarely provide charging. Even in Los Angeles, there are not yet enough street chargers for renters, said Arianna Stern, a copywriter who bought a used Nissan Leaf last year.

She typically uses a public charging space that is three blocks from her apartment but it is out of order about 20% of the time. When it is not working or another car is using it she uses chargers farther away. “The thing that would make the difference is the city installing more charging stations and keeping them working more consistently,” Stern said.

Yet, like many other electric car buyers, Stern is happy with her choice, saying it has allowed her to reduce her reliance on planet-warming fossil fuels. “Overall,” she said, “for someone in my situation I would recommend it without reservation.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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