Charged up, ready to go! After some delays. How it is to buy an electric car these days.
The share of electric vehicles in Germany keeps steadily increasing. In November 2021, 20% of all new passenger car registrations were battery electric vehicles (BEVs). I myself am one of those new BEV owners, having registered my own vehicle back in August this year. As is the case for almost all of us, this is the first electric vehicle I have owned (the first car of any kind, in fact). And while I have been working on electric vehicle technologies and electric vehicle policies for the past several years, it is an entirely different experience to go through the process of finding, registering, and operating an electric vehicle in practice—as well as an excellent reality check that I would like to share with the interested reader.
The first step for me was to get an overview of the BEV models on offer and to filter and rank them based on my personal criteria. Consumer websites, such as MILE21.eu, a European Union funded project in which ICCT is one of the scientific partners, turned out to be tremendously helpful for this initial selection process. Generally, consumer studies indicate that aside from purchase price, electric driving range as well as charging opportunities and charging times are among the key concerns of potential electric vehicle owners. I am a case in point: aside from purchase price, my key criterion was the electric range of the BEVs on offer. Even though I expect mostly to take trips of less than 100 km, I feel safer knowing that I could still make it to one of the beaches on the Baltic Sea (about 300 km distance from Berlin) without having to recharge. Applying these two subjective filter criteria of mine, a purchase price below 50k EUR and an electric range of more than 300 km, the list of suitable vehicle models turned out to be around 20, many of them variants of a platform.
Only later in the selection process, after I had already test driven some of the BEVs I had initially identified, did I also start caring about recharging speed. Some BEVs can recharge with 150 kW or more while most others are limited to a much lower charging power (Figure 1). Assuming that a suitable fast charger is available, this can easily translate into a waiting time of 15 minutes instead of an hour or longer to complete a decent charge-up of your vehicle while on the road. The fast-charging capability of the BEVs on offer therefore turned out to be another key criterion for me. I decided I would be satisfied with a smaller battery size if the vehicle offered a fast-charging capability of at least 150 kW, thereby saving on battery costs as well as reducing the environmental footprint of my vehicle, which is largely determined by the resources needed for battery production.
Thinking through my criteria and doing some research on different models was pretty straightforward—it is what I do for a living, in a way. But the process also vividly brought home how one of the barriers consumers experience operates in real life, because dealers were no help to me at all. Worse, they were a hindrance, in some cases providing information that was clearly wrong or trying to talk me into purchasing a plug-in hybrid instead of a battery-electric vehicle. If I had this kind of trouble, what about somebody who does not do this kind of thing for a living?
And it did not stop there. Not only were dealers disinterested and information poor (two barriers we frequently name). When I had narrowed my choices sufficiently I came to find out there were no cars to buy. The delivery time estimates I was given were at least six months, more realistically nine months, not only for my dream BEV but for all the BEV models I had left on my filtered list. Why such long delivery times? The global semiconductor crisis seems to be an influencing factor, in combination with shortages of maritime shipping capacity. And, of course, the fact that nowadays many other consumers opt for an electric car. With the German government offering a €6,000 subsidy for a new BEV, plus the manufacturers being obliged to add another €3,000 rebate on top of this, purchasing a BEV has become very attractive from a total cost of ownership perspective, in comparison to conventional combustion engine vehicles.
But I needed a car right now and I did not want to wait another eight months before picking up my vehicle. So I started calling around. Systematically I searched for dealerships all across Germany and asked whether they had any actual vehicles in the showroom. Some did, but always in a top-configuration with all sorts of (pricey) extra features that I feel I do not need. It took me a few days and a lot of dedication before I came across one dealership, in the middle of nowhere, that had one vehicle available in a base configuration similar enough to my desired version that I could happily agree to purchase it.
A couple weeks later, after I had taken care of the necessary paperwork for the registration process, I boarded the train to the country dealership where I could finally pick up my personal BEV. When I started the trip back home to Berlin, the range shown on the dashboard was exactly 400 km. Enough to get back to the city but still, I decided to recharge on the way, partially to feel safer and partially to just try it out. What a disappointment when the first recharging attempt did not work out. The charging spot, located in a small town on the way, turned out to be broken. Of course, at first I did not know whether something was wrong with the charging spot or my new car. Only after twenty minutes on hold with a call center I was given the information that they were suffering from technical issues with their charging spot(s).
And this remains my general experience after the first months of BEV ownership: Yes, there are a lot of things to consider and be aware of when you think about models (e.g., how far do you really have to drive?) and dealers are not particularly helpful, plus the delivery waits are long. But the key thing really, really is the infrastructure. We at the ICCT have published lots of studies quantifying the charging gap. Now I am experiencing it, and it is big.
In theory there are already plenty of charging spots available. But often these are blocked by other EVs recharging or—much worse—by combustion-engine vehicles parked illegally in designated charging spaces. The world of charging is also less than transparent. I have three different charging apps installed on my smartphone because each of them lists some charging spots that the others do not include. And pricing varies from 38 cents per kWh to 79 cents or more. My personal impression, though, is that charging prices are secondary. Whenever I find a charging spot that is actually located where it is shown in the app and is not broken or blocked by other vehicles, I happily plug in and suck as much electricity as possible, no matter the price.
Yes, by now I have my own wallbox installed at home. The German government currently provides a generous subsidy of up to €900 for the installation of a wallbox, so getting one is actually a no-brainer—that is, if you have the luxury of your own parking spot in front of your house. As a result, I do not have to worry about recharging anymore, at least most of the time. Every time I plan for a longer trip, though, I remain worried about where I can charge, whether the charging spot will be operational and unblocked by other vehicles. Public charging still is the key, for sure.
All in all, a lot of hassle for getting and driving a car, you might think. There is some truth to that, and it probably explains why so far BEVs are still mostly attractive only for Early Adopter customer types. But the hassle is definitely worth it, at least for me. Driving on urban and extra-urban roads in my area, I am able to recuperate most braking energy and hardly ever use the vehicle’s brakes anymore. My average electricity consumption is around 15 kWh per 100 km, well below the official WLTP type-approval value and astonishingly economical for a vehicle weighing 1.9 tons.
It is not really that often that the real-life connections of our work at the ICCT become so vividly apparent. Yes, I live in a European city in which ambient NOx levels have been high for years because of dirty diesels built by dirty manufacturers, whom we helped expose. I know that, and I know what it has done to my lungs, but I do not exactly feel it. This was different. We and others do a lot of research on how to goose the EV market, and I know the key points. But buying this car, and now driving it, gave me a fresh insight into the whole situation, and drove home the importance of comprehensive and transparent consumer information as well as recharging infrastructure.