Senior Tech: Electric vehicles are here to stay, but is the higher price tag worth a lesser environmental impact and other potential benefits vs total cost of ownership?

If you are thinking about getting a new car, you have likely considered buying an electric vehicle (EV). More and more of them will be hitting the roads as the auto industry transforms from producing primarily internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, to electric models. Zero-emission vehicles will account for 70% of new passenger vehicles globally by 2040, according to a Bloomberg study
ICE engines generally cost less upfront, people are familiar with the operating systems, and refueling is fast and easy to find. On the other hand, EVs are better for the environment, cheaper to charge than fuel with gasoline, and less expensive to maintain. But what are the real numbers?
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The U.S. Department of Energy commissioned research that examined the maintenance costs of EVs versus traditional cars that run on gas. After accounting for all aspects of service, from oil changes to brake pads, the study found that light-duty gas vehicles cost 10.1 cents per mile to maintain, whereas similar battery electric vehicles could be serviced for 6.1 cents. That is a difference of $8,000 if each car travels 200,000 miles, the average expected lifetime of a gas-fueled car. But EVs are made to last an average of 300,000 miles, putting the cost savings at $12,000.


Energy costs for gasoline, and especially electricity, vary from state to state. Currently, there is no gas tax for electric cars, although some states add a tax to EVs to replicate it. According to AAA, the average fuel cost for an EV is between 4 and 5 cents per mile. If gas is $3 a gallon and your ICE car gets 35 miles per gallon, then it costs 8.6 cents per mile to operate, or nearly double the EV fuel cost.  
But there are some hidden costs to driving electric vehicles, according to EV owner Patrick Anderson. He lists four factors that are often not taken into account:
  1. The cost of a home charger. Home EV chargers cost between $300 to $600 for a Level 1 charger, according to Carvana. You simply plug the unit in yourself and you are ready to go, but it can take up to 20 hours to charge your car. A much faster Level 2 charger runs $500 to $700 with an additional $1,200 to $2,000 for the labor required for installation. 
  2. Commercial charging. It is always cheapest to charge your car at home. If you want to take your EV on road trips, if you travel more than 100 or so miles away from home, or you forget to charge it and need a boost when you are out and about, the cost will rise significantly. Commercial charges are generally about three to four times that of residential rates, and some charge a one-time fee to use them. 
  3. The EV tax. Some states currently (and likely all states eventually) charge an EV tax to make up for the losses of taxable gas vehicles. In Michigan, for example, it ranges from $135 to $235, depending on the model.
  4. Deadhead miles. These are hours you may spend driving around, searching for a charger. Use an app like PlugShare to avoid wasting time.

Traditional Car Maintenance Not Required for Electric Vehicles

If you hate going to the mechanic, an EV may be for you. Your electric engine never needs an oil change, and recommended routine inspection frequency for most drivers (under 14,000 miles per year) is once per year. Yes. One time every year! Here is what else your EV will never need done or checked:
  • Replacing the spark plugs
  • Changing out fuel filters
  • Swapping the drive belts
  • Replacing the water pump
  • Carburetor flooding/issues
  • Blown head gaskets
  • Replacing belts/hoses
  • Radiator problems
  • Ring and cylinder wear
  • Bearings/crankshafts/camshafts
  • Exhaust system/pipes


Most electric and plugin hybrid vehicles are eligible for up to a $7,500 federal subsidy on the purchase price. The amount you get will depend on factors like battery capacity. Unfortunately, most Teslas are no longer eligible for the credit, a victim of their own popularity. Once the company sold 200,000 vehicles, the credit phased out. The Build Back Better Act, if passed into law, would include significant refundable tax credits that include Tesla vehicles. 
State and local incentives may also apply, so be sure to check in your area. 

Are EVs Really All That Green?

The short answer is yes. But just because EVs have no exhaust emissions, that does not mean that there are no associated environmental impacts. 
  • Power plants that rely on coal to generate electricity emit carbon pollution. Energy generated by renewable resources such as wind and solar have an extremely small carbon footprint. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed an interactive online tool to calculate the climate impacts of different vehicle models. For instance, on average, an all-electric Chevy Bolt will produce about 189 grams of carbon dioxide for every mile driven over its lifetime, whereas a 2022 gas-powered Toyota Camry will emit 385 grams. A gas-fueled Ford F-150 pickup will produce 636 grams of carbon dioxide per mile. But those numbers vary depending on how many coal-fired plants are on the electric grid. Many countries are pushing to clean up their electric grids; the U.S. has retired hundreds of coal plants over the last decade. “The reason electric vehicles look like an appealing climate solution is that if we can make our grids zero-carbon, then vehicle emissions drop way, way down,” said Jessika Trancik, an associate professor of energy studies at MIT. “Whereas even the best hybrids that burn gasoline will always have a baseline of emissions they can’t go below.”
  • Using raw materials is problematic. Cobalt and lithium are required in lithium-ion cells. Cobalt is mined largely in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a large proportion of mines are unregulated. Adults and children mine using hand tools, even though particles emitted during mining may be radioactive and cause cancer, vision problems, vomiting, nausea, heart problems and thyroid damage, according to Science Direct. The mining produces waste that can leach into the environment, affecting nearby communities. The smelting process can emit harmful air pollution. Lithium mining operations use groundwater to pump out brines, reducing the amount of water available for farmers and herders in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, where these mines are found. Consequently, it requires 50% more water to make an electric vehicle than one fueled by gas. Technology to address some of these issues is in development, such as finding a way to make batteries without cobalt. Until then, raw materials should be responsibly sourced to improve conditions in the mines.
  • Spent batteries are difficult to reuse and recycle. While 99% of lead-acid batteries are recycled in the U.S. (in part due to legislation), only 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled. Some 12 million tons of lithium-ion batteries are projected to retire between now and 2030. Tesla announced in August 2021 that it has started building a recycling facility at its Gigafactory in Nevada. Redwood Materials already extracts copper and cobalt then sends the refined metals out to manufacture new batteries. The Department of Energy also launched its own recycling project, ReCell, in early 2019. One challenge is that the batteries have not been made with recycling in mind, and the components are welded together and hard to separate. At UK startup Aceleron, engineers are working on batteries that use fasteners instead, which can be removed later to replace faulty components. Another concept is to reuse batteries that cannot hold enough charge for a car but would be perfectly fine to store solar or wind power, which would allow them to last a decade or more. Companies like Enel Group in Spain and Powervault in the UK are running trials with retired batteries. This technology would have the secondary bonus of displacing toxic lead-acid batteries, many of which are used for stationary energy storage. Legislation could also help. The European Union and China already have laws in place requiring battery manufacturers to pay for establishing collection and recycling systems. The Global Battery Alliance is working on a battery passport to enable the tracking and performance management of every battery across the supply chain, from mining to recycling and repurposing. 
There is not enough space here to address yet more benefits of electric vehicles: there is the fun factor (they can accelerate amazingly fast) and they are at the forefront of the self-driving car movement, with several models at or on the cusp of allowing you to eat or read while you are on the road. 
Whether or not to invest in an electric vehicle is a personal decision, and one not to be made lightly, considering the cost of a car these days. Maybe you will want to sit back and hold onto the old SUV in your garage another year, watching as more and more EVs roll out. But before you make up your mind, be sure and take all the variables into account.