There is a great deal of buzz around electric vehicles (EVs). They are being promoted as the wave of the future – a more efficient, lower-cost, and cleaner way to drive. EVs are predicted to greatly increase their numbers among the automotive population, eventually replacing all vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.

There are some EVs that you may have already seen on the roads, like the Nissan Leaf and the Teslas. While electric vehicles are becoming more visible on the roads (especially in EV-friendly states like California), they are still a tiny part of total car sales – only 2% of all cars sold in 2018 were electric vehicles.

Does it make sense for you to consider an electric vehicle for your next car? Is it more or less expensive than a traditional gas-fueled car? What would it be like to live with an EV?

Here are the pros and cons of owning an electric vehicle at the current moment.

What is an EV?

An electric vehicle, for the purposes of this discussion, is one that derives all of its power from an internal battery that drives an electric motor. When the battery gets low, it must be recharged by being connected to an external power source.

Do not confuse an EV with a plug-in hybrid, which can go limited distances on a smaller battery, and then switch over to a conventional gasoline engine to keep going. Plug-in hybrid vehicles are called “electrified” vehicles, but they do not run solely on battery power.

What are the pros of driving and owning an EV?

There are many benefits that can be yours when you drive an electric vehicle. These are the things that you will hear EV owners telling anyone who will listen:

Never having to go to a gas station again

Homeowners who have chargers at their residences can plug in and charge their EVs every night, and then leave with a “full tank” in the morning! For most people’s daily local needs, an EV will get them where they need to go, and back home with plenty of charge left. Not having to stop for gas can save drivers a lot of time and hassle.

Benefits to the environment

Because EVs do not directly burn fossil fuels and have no tailpipe emissions (because they have no tailpipes!), air quality will improve as more electric vehicles take to the roads. The cleaner that your sources of electricity are (wind and solar are cleanest, followed by nuclear, natural gas, oil, and coal) the better the results are for the planet overall.

You save money

In most places in the US, a “full tank” of electricity currently costs much less than a tank of gas, on a per mile basis. This can add up to large savings on “fuel” costs over the life of your EV.

Minimal maintenance requirements

AN EV is a much simpler device than a gasoline-powered vehicle. It has no oil, no radiator, no spark plugs, no exhaust system, and usually no transmission. That means that your overall maintenance costs go way down, compared to a conventional vehicle.

EVs are fun to drive

Because electric motors provide maximum torque (twisting power at the wheels) from a standstill, EVs have truly impressive acceleration. This responsiveness makes driving fun, and lets you more easily fit into gaps in traffic when you need to merge or change lanes. And because the heavy battery is mounted low in the car, a typical EV also has excellent handling and cornering capabilities.

EVs are quieter

EVs eliminate all of the noise and vibration of an internal combustion engine, from the intake air rushing in, to the ignition of the fuel-air mixture in the cylinders, to the exhaust coming out the tailpipe. When all of these sounds are absent, you get a much quieter driving experience.

You get tax incentives

Depending on which EV you buy, and which state you live in, you may be eligible for both federal and state incentives for the purchase of an electric vehicle. These incentives can lower the effective purchase price of your EV.

What are the cons of driving and owning an EV?

Unfortunately, owning and driving an EV at this point in time is not all butterflies and rainbows. There are some hard realities facing you as an EV owner, so let’s go through the list:

EVs are expensive

Batteries are very expensive, and they make EVs expensive. An EV costs at least $10,000 more than an equivalent gasoline-powered vehicle. Then you have to add the cost of installing a home charger on top of the purchase price. This can make an EV too expensive for the average new car buyer.

Range anxiety is real

When you run low on gas, you don’t worry. You know that there will be a gas station nearby, wherever you are. But things are quite different for most drivers of EVs. Unless you own a Tesla (which has its own dedicated charging network), electric vehicle charging stations are relatively few in number, and they can be much harder to find.

There are many different charging networks, and each one usually requires you to sign up in advance. Most do not allow you to simply drive up and swipe your credit card to charge your EV. Planning a long road trip in an electric vehicle requires you to know in advance where you can charge along your route, and what network each of the chargers belongs to. Running out of charge in the middle of your trip will definitely ruin your day!

Charging times are long

Drivers of gasoline-powered cars are used to short refueling times. EV drivers are not so fortunate. Even the fastest currently available public chargers take around a half-hour to provide enough charge for an hour or so of driving. While it may not be a problem to leave your car plugged in overnight at home, this becomes a big issue when travelling long distances. Depending on the location of the charging station, you will definitely have time to visit a restaurant, or do some shopping. You may have to wait even longer if another EV is using the charger ahead of you!

A large number of EVs may overload the power grid

Drivers will charge their EVs when they need to charge them. When the numbers of electric vehicles on the road increases significantly, all of that charging activity will overtax our current marginal electric grid. Even if most EVs charge overnight at off-peak times, this will still eventually happen. This situation will be even more acute in large cities that have to deal with brownouts when electricity use peaks. More powerplants will need to be built.

No electricity, no driving

The recent wildfire-related power outages that have been imposed throughout California highlight the vulnerability of the EV fleet. When there’s no power to charge your electric vehicle, what do you do? This is a big problem.

Electricity costs will rise, eroding the cost savings

In many places, electricity prices increase when you use more power. Charging your EV every night will increase your household’s power consumption, and this may move you into a higher price bracket per kilowatt-hour. Many electric utilities are building their own EV charging networks, which sounds good – until you realize that the costs of building them will be passed on to all of the utility’s customers, who may or may not own EVs. Everyone’s electricity costs will rise, possibly to the point where charging an EV costs more than putting gas in a conventional car.

EV subsidies benefit high-income people

Most EVs are purchased by households with incomes of over $100,000. This means that most of the EV subsidies are going to wealthier people, who don’t really need financial help to buy an electric vehicle.

Apartment and city dwellers can’t charge at home

Where do you charge your EV if you don’t own a home? Most apartment dwellers and condo owners are unable to install a home charger. And what if you live in a big city? All of these people will have to hunt for public charging stations to charge their electric vehicles.

EVs will be taxed to make up for lost fuel taxes

Taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel are what funds the upkeep of our roads and highways. If and when EVs replace petroleum-fueled vehicles and become a larger part of the vehicle fleet, these road funds will be reduced. The federal government and the states will need to find a way to make up the difference, and they will charge electric vehicles for their wear and tear on the road system. This has already started in some states, and it will likely take the form of a per-mile tax on EVs across the country.

Batteries are very expensive to replace

No one really knows how long an EV’s battery pack will last, but it will be very expensive to replace when it happens! This is one of the great unknowns of owning an electric vehicle, and accounts for why EVs depreciate much faster than gas-powered cars.

EV materials come from some bad places

The dark side of the EV story can be found in the underdeveloped countries where some of the key raw materials for electric vehicles are sourced. Let’s take cobalt, for example. Cobalt is a key material for EV batteries. Unfortunately, most of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where much of it is mined by children, in appalling conditions, and with no protective gear. Health problems and environmental degradation in Africa and other places around the world are a legacy of the march to popularize EVs.

Is an electric vehicle right for you?

The truth is, electric vehicles are a luxury. You need a lot of resources to start with to be able keep on. If you can afford one, if you can install a charger at home, if you can avoid relying on public charging networks, if you can benefit from the tax incentives, and if you can live with the ethical dilemmas, then there’s no reason not to try the EV experience. But if you can’t check all of those boxes, you will be much better off with a conventional, gasoline-powered vehicle, whether it is new or used.

In some cities, it is relatively easy to get around without the use of a personal vehicle. In others, it is very difficult. Let’s look at the factors that cause car dependence (and independence), and which cities are the best and worst at limiting the need for you to get in your car to go anywhere within their boundaries.

The United States has a unique relationship to the car

The United States of America is a very large country. From its founding more than 200 years ago, its history has been guided by the drive to expand, and to populate the country from coast to coast. Car ownership has been attainable for the average U.S. citizen for over a century, helped by installment loans for purchasing vehicles. Automobile fuels have always been lightly taxed here, and this has promoted the development of larger, more powerful cars that could cover long distances in comfort.

As the United States developed, the automobile’s popularity was a major influence. Cities grew larger by sprawling in all directions, with new roads built to connect them. Later came the Interstate Highway System, providing the nation with a network of wide, high-speed arteries to carry people and goods efficiently in every direction. The automobile became the default transportation choice, with most people using their cars for even very short trips of less than a mile. Why walk when you can drive?

As more and more people lived farther from the city and town centers, commercial venues were built in the suburbs. Shopping centers and malls grew in importance, each with huge parking lots to accommodate their shoppers. Without a car, it was difficult to access these places.

Widespread vehicle ownership, combined with an extensive highway system and low fuel prices, made it easy to live a long distance from where you worked. The term “commuter” was coined. Increasing numbers of people chose to live in less densely settled and more affordable places, while driving to their workplaces in more built-up areas. Traffic congestion followed, adding “traffic jam” and “long commute” to our vocabularies. With a total of 250 million cars on our roads, most cities have been adversely affected by this state of affairs. What can be done about our severe case of car dependence?

What are the downsides of car dependence?

In addition to all that time wasted in traffic driving to and from work, there are other factors and costs to consider, including:

Exhaust emissions Traffic noise Insurance and vehicle accident costs Fuel usage and costs Depreciation of your car’s value from extra miles driven Cost of car repairs and servicing Costs of road building, repairs, and maintenance

Some cities have been able to become less dependent on cars

Residents of some American cities have been able to move around easily without the need for a personal vehicle. Most of these cities are extremely dense, were well-developed before the creation of the automobile, and have had well-thought out mass transit systems built into them. These cities have made it possible to easily move around by using trains, subways, and buses. Travelling within these cities does not require you to get into your car. The top ten cities with the largest number of transit commuters are:

  1. New York
  2. Chicago
  3. Los Angeles
  4. Philadelphia
  5. San Francisco
  6. Washington, D.C.
  7. Boston
  8. Seattle
  9. Jersey City
  10. Baltimore

Some cities have been unable to become less dependent on cars

There are many cities in the USA that were created and have grown significantly during the Age of the Automobile. The presence of cars dictated how these cities were designed, and how they evolved. Places like these have sprawled across their local landscapes, making it difficult (and expensive) to add mass transit systems that can practically and cost-effectively serve them. These are the places that are most dependent on cars. They also have the lowest numbers of households without any vehicles. Here are ten of the top larger cities in this category:

San Diego, California – 6.5% of Households do not have a car.

Charleston, South Carolina – 7.7% of Households do not have a car.

Albuquerque, New Mexico 7.7% of Households do not have a car.

Boulder, Colorado 7.7% of Households do not have a car.

Houston, Texas 8.2% of Households do not have a car.

Phoenix, Arizona 8.7% of Households do not have a car.

Orlando, Florida 8.8% of Households do not have a car.

Dallas, Texas 9.7% of Households do not have a car.

Las Vegas, Nevada 10.4% of Households do not have a car.

Los Angeles, California 12.1% of Households do not have a car.

Los Angeles gets to be on both lists as a city that has always been car dependent, but in the 90’s started enhancing its public transit to draw more people away from the freeways.

How can cities become less car dependent?

There are a number of strategies that cities can use to reduce their dependence on the automobile, and to reduce the ill effects of all that vehicle traffic. Some are aimed at reducing the numbers of cars that drive into and within the cities:

  • Convenient and pleasant mass transit options connecting suburbs with cities Car sharing services like ZipCar and Car2go Congestion pricing, which is a toll you must pay to enter the city during peak hours.
  • Limiting access by commuters to city centers during peak hours.
  • Parking restrictions which limit the amount of on-street parking.
  • Availability of last-mile solutions, like e-scooters and e-bikes Bicycle-friendly initiatives like separate and protected bike lanes.
  • Car-free zones for the exclusive use of bicycles and pedestrians

Others are focused on encouraging more people to live in the cities instead of commuting:

  • Mixed land use, so that you can live near where you work.
  • Higher density building, to reduce sprawl and make room for more city dwellers.
  • Improved mass transit systems that make it easier to move around within the cities

Only time will tell how well these measures will reduce the car dependence of the many cities across the USA. It has taken more than one hundred years of living with the automobile to get us to this point, so any changes to the present state of affairs will take time, money, and a serious change in people’s attitudes toward their cars. If you really want to dig in on driving statistics by-city in the United States, checkout this comprehensive report from CityLab.