Column: I was going to buy an all-electric car but chickened out. Here’s why

I am not what you would call a car guy.

My father always bought used cars, and the lug nut does not fall far from the wheel. I swear to you my dad even bought used tires, and for several years he drove a beat-up Rambler. Style and status were not part of the equation.

Several weeks ago I was ready to get rid of my Prius, which I bought used eight years ago. The MPGs were still OMG, but the car had taken a few knocks and the low clearance was a nuisance. You know those little 4-inch-high curbs in parking lots? I’d pull into a parking space, and it often sounded as if the transmission had just been ripped out.

I figured I was ready to go electric, so I could save a few bucks by weaning myself from the gas pump. And I wanted a clear conscience as we speed toward the day when a California wildfire ignites a global inferno, ashes to ashes, goodnight everybody.

Tesla seems to be a popular choice, which is one reason I wanted something else. Besides, it’s not as though CEO Elon Musk, one of the richest people in the world thanks in part to billions in government subsidies, needs my business. The man is a pioneer, no question about it, but his Teslas are too expensive.

So I had it narrowed down to either an electric Hyundai Kona or a Chevy Bolt, and Costco, which could probably get you a deal on a rocket ship, was offering a Bolt discount at Chevy dealerships.

But I chickened out, and let me tell you why.

The Kona and Bolt can each go about 250 miles on a full battery charge, which is impressive. But as I began shopping for a new car, I was doing some legwork on a climate change story in the desert. I knew I’d be traveling to Palm Springs, the Yucca Valley and the Mojave on multiple trips, and I began having what’s referred to as range anxiety.

What if the battery on my electric car ran dry under a Joshua tree in the middle of nowhere? These cars have apps that can direct you to the nearest charging station, but in my line of work, I don’t always know in advance where I’ll be from one day to the next, how far I’ll need to travel, or how quickly.

I also knew that to go electric, I should probably upgrade the power supply at my house to what’s called Level 2 charging, for which I was quoted prices ranging from $600 to $1,500. I’d also need to pull a permit for that at City Hall, and who needs that kind of torture? Also, I got a headache trying to figure out what rebates and tax incentives might apply if I leased rather than purchased a vehicle.

For all the progress on electric cars in the last 10 years, we’re still a long way from having enough options and enough public charging stations to make BEVs (battery-powered electric vehicles) convenient for everyone.

For 2020, just over 130,000 new electric vehicles were registered in California, or 8% of all new cars in the state. The pandemic nicked sales a bit, which had been above 150,000 in the two previous years.

Scott Hardman, of the UC Davis Plug-In Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center, just published a study that found that 20% of Californians who bought electric vehicles between 2012 and 2018 later switched back to gas vehicles. Hardman said all the issues that concerned me, about range, charging speed and availability, were cited as reasons.

“One of the biggest take-aways for me is that if you don’t have Level 2 charging at home, the odds of you discontinuing ownership of electric vehicles is 50% higher. So we need to think more about how do we get fast charging to people’s houses,” Hardman said, and making that happen for apartment and condo dwellers is another challenge.

Kevin Wood, a sustainable transportation specialist at Energetics in San Diego, told me California has installed about 70,000 public charging stations in the last decade, with an additional 100,000 or more in the pipeline. Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for all new vehicles after 2035 to be zero-emission, and Wood said we’d need an additional 900,000 or so new charging stations by then to meet demand.

“There’s a lot of work to be done over the next decade if we’re going to make electric cars work for everyone,” said Wood, and still unanswered is the question of how to pay for all those chargers.

And then there’s one more rather inconvenient point to consider:

Producing electric batteries for clean energy is dirty business.

You need lithium, cobalt and other materials, and mining them in developing countries comes with a heavy environmental cost, along with questions about labor practices. Refining the production is a work in progress — not that batteries for conventional gas-powered cars don’t have their own environmental impacts.

“It’s not something to ignore,” said David Reichmuth, senior engineer of the Clean Transportation Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Oakland. But given the catastrophic impact of pumping more carbon into the atmosphere, Reichmuth said the conversion to electric will produce huge benefits over time.

“By 2025, I think that we’ll be in an even better place. Many people will know someone with an electric car, most dealerships and brands will have multiple EVs that they are pushing, and charging will be even more available,” Reichmuth said.

So what did I do about buying a new car?

I took a half step into the future. I got myself a plug-in hybrid, or PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle).

The name is confusing. I tell people I have a plug-in, and they assume that means all-electric. But a PHEV is kind of like training wheels for an all-electric. You can go a short distance, say 25 miles or so depending on the model, on a battery charge. And then when the battery bunks out, the car becomes a hybrid, much like a Prius, so you can gas up as needed.

The thinking is that for the majority of drivers, most car trips are under 25 miles or so, and if that’s you, you can go weeks or months without burning a drop of gas. You can get a full charge overnight on a 110-volt outlet, so converting to a Level 2, 220-volt power supply isn’t vital. And because the battery is smaller than in an all-electric, there’s a lighter environmental load on battery production.

You’ve got several options if you want a plug-in hybrid, and I went with the Kia Niro. I chose a leftover 2020 model to save a few bucks, and they took my old Prius as a trade-in down payment. I did a three-year lease rather than a purchase (for just $250 a month), thinking I might want to switch lanes in a few years with so many electric options opening up.

I’m guessing the Los Angeles dealership where I got my car is not selling a lot of electric cars, because after I signed the papers, three employees were unable to figure out how to remove the cable from the charging port. They looked as if they were trying to yank the trunk off a baby elephant. Finally, a fourth employee figured it out, and I drove away, a brand-new member of a very small club.

Jessica Caldwell, who analyzes automobile industry trends for Santa Monica-based Edmunds, told me that only 1,100 Kia Niro plug-ins have been sold in the U.S. since January.

We are the few, we are the proud. Elon Musk, get out of our way.

Ten times as many Prius Primes as Kia Niros have been sold this year, Caldwell said. And FYI, half the EV and PHEV cars sold in the U.S. are sold in California, because we always lead the way.

In the month I’ve owned my car, about 75% of my excursions have been under 25 miles round trip, so no gas required. Even when I’m running on fossil fuel, the Kia engine, which is roughly the size of a sewing machine, is getting about 50 miles per gallon. Electric/gas combined, I’m in the 90- to 100-mpg range.

The car is no Rambler, and it looks as if it’s having an identity crisis, not sure whether it wants to be a small SUV, a station wagon or a hatchback. But if my dad were alive, I could see him in a Niro plug-in.

No question about it, though. He would have bought a used one.

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