Electric cars are sleek, fast and cool – but also expensive

Updated: Feb. 12, 2020 at 10:00 PM CST
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GULF SHORES, Ala. (WALA) – It’s sleek.

It’s fast.

It’s cool.

And with fewer than 2,000 like it on the roads in Alabama today, Gulf Shores resident Bob Keener’s electric car is rare.

Whether electric cars stay that way or make rapid gains could be the key to solving climate change, according to some experts. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency suggest that cars and trucks account for almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.

But Keener said that was a secondary consideration in his decision to order a Tesla Model 3 in 2018 – before it was even available.

“I’m not so worried about the environment,” he told FOX10 News. “I think it’s just a good car. It’s got good performance, and the environmental thing is just an extra.”

But driving an electric car just got a little more expensive in Alabama. Starting last month, electric car owners have to pay a $200 annual fee to help pay for roads and bridges since their vehicles avoid gas taxes.

Alabama is not the only state to impose such a fee, but it is among the nation’s highest. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, six states impose fees of $200 or more on electric car owners. Georgia’s rate, $212.78, is the nation’s highest.

Unlike most other states, however, Alabama has dedicated a portion of the electric vehicle fee to grants designed to encourage the construction of charging stations. That could boost electric vehicle sales in the future.

Keener is philosophical about the extra cost.

“I guess it’s what I’ve got to do … I would prefer they didn’t do that,” he said. “Like, California I think, gives you a couple thousand to drive an electric car when you buy it.”

Aside from the fee, though, the savings on fuel can be substantial. Keener said his Tesla costs 12 cents per kilowatt hour to charge his car. He said he drives about 1,250 miles a month, which translates to an additional $35 or so on his electric bill.

But Keener said he would spend more than four times that amount in gas if he drove his Dodge Ram pickup truck everywhere.

Fuel savings vary depending on the price of gas and a particular car’s gas mileage. At the distance Keener drives and the rates he pays for electricity, his annual savings compared with the U.S. average of 26 miles per gallon comes to nearly $773 at the current average price of gas in Mobile County – $2.12.

And, there are no oil changes or tune-ups to worry about.

Sticker shock

With a sticker price of $50,000, however, the Tesla is quite a bit more expensive than the average vehicle, even after factoring lower fuel and maintenance costs. That has confined electric cars to niche status – especially in Alabama.

Electric car ownership is growing in the state, albeit from the tiniest of blips. According to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Alabama registered 324 electric vehicles in the first six months of last year.

That was a 163 percent increase over the same period in 2018 but still made up just one third of 1 percent of all new vehicles registered in the first six months of 2019. That ranked Alabama 44th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Since 2011, the total number of electric cars registered in Alabama is 1,435. That was just a 10th of 1 percent of the total.

Skeptics like Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, argue the internal combustion engine is not going away anytime soon. He said it is a “big deal” that Tesla fonder Elon Musk was able to create a U.S.-based auto company from scratch that has successfully competed in the high-end car market.

“The question would be, is it a big enough deal that it’s the equivalent of going from horse and buggy to the car in the first place? And the answer to that is ‘no,’” he said. “To … extend that analogy, if we changed how we fed horses that pulled carts and carried people in the 1700s and early 1800s, it was still a horse. Electric car is still a car. It still has wheels. It has brakes.”

This is Bob Keener's Tesla Model 3, a rarity in Alabama.
This is Bob Keener's Tesla Model 3, a rarity in Alabama.(FOX10 News)

But some advocates argue that the days of gas-fueled cars are drawing to a close. Joel Levin, executive director of Plug In America, noted that the price of electric batteries has been dropping about 15 percent annually for years. He predicted that the sales price of electric vehicles will reach parity with gas-powered cars in the next three to five years.

“And then after that, they’re gonna get cheaper,” he told FOX10 News. “So then, you’ll have a car that’s cheaper to manufacture, cheaper to maintain, cheaper to fuel, a lot more fun to drive, better for the environment. And I think at that point, the world starts to get really interesting.”

But Mills, who also is a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s engineering school, said there is a limit to how much the price of electric batteries can drop because 80 percent of the cost is in the materials used to manufacture them.

“Batteries are extremely expensive. They make a car cost $10,000 more than it would be if you made it in the least expensive way with an internal combustion engine,” he said. “An inexpensive car made with a battery, you add $10,000 to the cost. Every automaker knows that. Will the batteries get $10,000 cheaper, a tenth of the price? There’s no chance of that.”

Like a roller coaster

Cost aside, it is not hard to understand the appeal from a driving perspective. The differences between an electric and a gas-powered auto are noticeable right away – starting with how quiet it is.

“There’s no motor running or anything,” Keener said as he navigated the Baldwin Beach Express. “The A/C makes a little noise. They’re talking about … making it do a noise-maker when it’s under 15 miles an hour, for parking lots.”

The Tesla immediately can accelerate, reaching 60 mph in about five seconds. It feels something like riding a roller coaster.

“Pull up to a red light in the front, with other cars,” Keener said. “You can take off and just look back, and they’re way back there. Just got to be careful not to speed.”

The mechanics of driving a Tesla can take some getting used to. There is no ignition and no keys. Keener turns the vehicle on and off with his cell phone. He said he once even unlocked it from his motorcycle while he was 50 miles away in Milton, Florida, because his wife accidentally had locked her purse inside.

The vehicle immediately pulls back to 10 mph whenever the driver removes his foot from the pedal. That make for a herky-jerky experience for those accustomed to a car gradually decelerating after taking the foot off the gas.

The Tesla runs about 300 miles when fully charged, which means Keener never has to worry about getting stuck when he’s driving locally.

When he needs a “refill,” he simply plugs into a wall in his garage and lets it charge overnight. Longer trips take a little more time and a little more planning.

It’ll probably take 40, 50 years before we convert.

Drivers traveling long distances have to find a supercharger in Tesla’s network, like one at the Shoppes at Bel Air in Mobile. Keener said that when he visits his daughter in Huntsville, he plugs into a supercharger in Greenville and eats breakfast at the Cracker Barrel next door.

A supercharger can fully charge a battery in about an hour, but Keener said he never lets it get that low before hooking up.

Despite some rosy predictions, Keener said he does not expect to see many fellow Tesla drivers on Alabama’s roads anytime soon.

“It’ll probably take 40, 50 years before we convert,” he said. “A lot of people just don’t – you know, they won’t even consider it.”