My experiments with an electric car

As I near the end of my sabbatical, I’m reflecting on my year of driving an electric car. I leased a 2014 chevy spark last summer and have been driving it for all my commuting and other trips around L.A, about 6000 miles so far. Note that this is *not* a hybrid or gas-powered electric car (like the Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius, etc).  This car cannot use gas, period. To charge it, I plug it in to a standard three-prong 120V outlet in my garage. I have never taken it to a gas station. Over all, it is somewhere between a smartphone and a normal car.

Driving an electric car has been one of the highlights of my year in LA. I have to thank the state of California for forcing the major car companies to sell a certain percentage of low-emissions vehicles. In addition to not needing gas, electric car owners get special perks (like driving in the car pool lane and subsidies). The electric car was irresistible – in LA, were everyone wants to be a VIP, I got to feel a little bit special for $199/month + tax.


Good things about driving my electric car

  1. No gas – I simply plug the car into an ordinary wall-socket for charging at night (I have one in my garage). Faster charging is available via fancy ‘charging stations’ but I never needed this.
  2. Drive in the carpool lane even when I’m alone – special stickers ward off the CHiPs.
  3. It’s smooth and powerful. I also drove the non-electric, gas-powered Chevy Spark (which comes in better colours) as a rental car before I got my electric one, and it could hardly make it up the hills in LA.  So the improvement really has to do with the electric engine.
  4. It’s very quiet. I can drive around the neighbourhood and not add to noise pollution.
  5. No air pollution/deadly fumes.  I don’t contribute to smog and I can leave it “running” in the garage
  6. Small car – actually fits in ‘compact’ spaces. Still 4-doors, and back seats fold down for transporting large items
  7. Possibly get $2500 from the government – you can apply for California Clean Vehicle Rebate after 18 months (I didn’t apply because I only had the car for 1 year)
  8. Deepens my understanding of Newton’s laws of motion.  Because the car gives a real-time estimate of its power-use (or regeneration) in KW/h through a display of little dots beside the speedometer, it really makes physics intuitive. It takes relatively little power to keep going the same speed you are going (inertia – Newton’s first law). Much more power is used when you increase your speed and then some of it is stored up again when you slow down (changes in velocity require force, Newton’s second law). This also illustrates the conversion between electric potential energy in the battery and kinetic energy in the velocity of the car (conservation of energy).  The universality of gravity is also illustrated clearly when you drain the battery going uphill and then charge it up again  when you go down.


One reason that people are interested in electric cars is because they represent a path away from fossil fuels, carbon emissions, climate change, etc.  I should say that I think electric cars are cool *regardless* of whether they will help save the planet or not (or whether the planet is really endangered or not). Most obviously because of the reasons I listed above.

Bad things about my electric car

  1. Surprisingly slow charging. 8 hours overnight is only enough to charge for about 40 miles of driving if plugged in to a standard 120V socket.
  2. Badly designed charger. It’s essentially a giant heavy duty extension cord wrapped around a heavy plastic base, with a gas-pump-shaped handle. I have seen the charger for the Tesla, and let’s just say I have the equivalent of a 90s laptop charger, and the Tesla has the iphone charger.

How much power does it use?

According to the car, I get at least 4.5 miles per kwh on my commute. Since the commute is ~25 miles per day, I use about 5.5 kwh.  A hair dryer might use 1200 w, so the power used every day is equivalent to running a hair dryer for about 4.5 hours straight.

I have noticed that using the heating or driving fast can use up to 25% more power. In cold weather, when I use the heat it’s a double whammy because the car seems less efficient overall. On the other hand, the car seems to be more efficient during hot weather, which more than makes up for the power needed to run the air conditioning at a low setting.

Does it save money?

In LA, electricity costs about $0.20/kwh, so my commute costs about $1.10 in electricity. (My “low emissions” discounted parking pass is $1.50 per weekday, so parking is still more expensive than energy.) Driving the 2014 Prius c (a very fuel-efficient hybrid car) I get about 55 miles/gallon, so the commute would use less than half a gallon of gas, and cost about $1.80. So I’m still saving a bit of money by going electric (about 38%) compared to a very fuel-efficient hybrid car.

For historical comparison, when I was a grad. student in California in the early 00s, I drove a ’91 cadillac eldorado that got about 20 miles/gallon. (Ironically, it was at that time that the previous generation of electric cars were on the streets of California.) In those days gas cost about $1/gallon, so my commute would have cost $1.25. Correcting for inflation, that’s about $1.70 in today’s money, pretty similar to what I’m paying now in electricity or for the gas in the very efficient hybrid. So the new technologies are only keeping up with the increase in gas prices.  In other words, if we *don’t* drive ultra-efficient (or electric) cars, we’re just handing over more of our $ to the oil companies.  All else being equal, I would rather pay my money to companies that are developing new transportation technologies than new oil extraction technologies.

Note that in Toronto, off-peak electricity is only $CAD 0.075/kwh, so my commute would only cost $0.41 in Toronto. Since gas costs about the same in Toronto as in LA, driving a Chevy Spark in Toronto would be 75% cheaper than even a prius c.  Furthermore, since electricity in Ontario is largely from nuclear and renewable sources, driving electric cars could actually save money *and* reduce pollution.

Can you get one?

Unfortunately, electric cars seem to have worse profit margins than conventional cars. This means that even if they are good for drivers, they reduce the profits of the car manufacturers. Because major car companies are trying to make profits (not trying make me feel cool), it does not make any sense for them to produce and market electric cars, as long as there is no serious threat of electric cars putting them out of business. Apparently, it’s as simple as that.



One Comment

  1. Taraneh Zarin

    Wow, looks like electric cars address a lot of the qualms I have with cars in general. I like the idea of feeling the physics – something I’m amused by on my “hilly” (by Toronto standards) bike commute.

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