Skip to main content
opinion

Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.

Grayson Brulte admits his choice for a new family car has surprised some of his friends and followers of his popular podcast, The Road to Autonomy.

A rising voice in the U.S. conversation about the technology around electric vehicles (EV) and autonomous transportation, Mr. Brulte chose an extended-range plug-in hybrid SUV rather than an all-electric model.

His new car has about 46 miles of range on a single battery charge for driving around town, where charging stations – including the one at his house – are readily available. But it also gives him the gasoline option to go on long road trips with his young family to places where charging stations are sparse and recharging times can be lengthy.

“We’re not there yet,” Mr. Brulte said of the all-electric future. “The future is electrification, but the charging infrastructure is inconsistent and unpredictable when compared to traditional gas stations.”

Many consumers facing a painful spike in gas prices, made more acute by the Russia-Ukraine conflict, are paying closer attention to the argument for EVs. With the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gas at US$4.33 this week in the U.S. – and some stations in California and New York charging more than US$6 a gallon – EVs appear to be a compelling alternative.

But those curious about making the jump to EVs have a lot to consider. The biggest surprise may be the purchase prices, which have long been softened by government subsidies and tax credits designed to accelerate adoption of EVs.

Mr. Brulte notes that the average price of a new EV is now about US$60,000, driven in large part by the high cost of the batteries themselves. The cheapest Tesla is now pushing US$50,000; a new Cadillac EV is US$60,000. As battery costs decline over the next few years, affordability will improve, but until then these cars are out of reach of most average consumers.

Beyond steeper sticker prices, basic practicality is a main hurdle for the all-electric market. Most EVs take overnight to fully recharge. Even with superchargers, which can cost US$3,000 or more to install in a home, a full charge typically takes significantly longer than the few minutes it takes to fill up a gas tank.

Tesla is an encouraging exception – its supercharger takes about 45 minutes. But technology experts warn that supercharging a battery on a regular basis can shorten its life and add significant expense for its owner.

In the U.S., charging stations are growing in number, but they are still too few and far between to be a reliable network for long-distance trips. And because of the time it takes to charge a battery, and the long lines drivers face at many charging locations, time-crunched travellers will find the all-electric option impractical for even moderate-length hauls.

For example, the 2,000-kilometre trip from New York to Miami – a popular vacation route – can be covered by ambitious drivers of gasoline-powered vehicles in under 24 hours, with a few quick stops for gas, to-go bites and bathroom breaks.

In an EV – even one with a range of 400 miles between charges – the trip can take significantly longer. Charging time will gobble up a bigger percentage of travel time than gas station fill-ups, even if supercharging stations can be found without any lines.

Add to the mix unforeseen events like road closures, detours, traffic jams and bad weather, and the vulnerability of EVs is exposed. Many EV skeptics point to the January blizzard that paralyzed Interstate-95 around Fredericksburg, Va., stranding some motorists in their cars for more than 24 hours. How, they ask, would these drivers have fared if they were in EVs that ran out of charge and the heaters failed? An extreme example, perhaps, but instructive fodder for the debate.

The complexity of the problem – and the solution – is the reason people like Mr. Brulte advise patience. There are too many “ifs” during this time of technology transition to make one option suit everyone.

“There is no one-size-fits-all answer right now,” he said. “Every driver has different needs, uses and habits for their vehicle, and fully electric has a way to go before it can provide a comprehensive alternative.”

The point Mr. Brulte makes is not that we shouldn’t pursue EVs. We should, and we will – for all the right reasons. And some day, the technology and infrastructure will make EVs an important part of the transportation ecosystem.

In the meantime, inflation-weary consumers need to be careful not get caught up in claims that EVs are the panacea at a time of high gas prices. They are just as vulnerable as gas-guzzlers, and in many respects, more so. For now, at least.

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.