The Inconvenient Truth About Electric Vehicles

The experience of owning, charging, and driving an electric vehicle makes the rising inequality of America more visible in new and subtle ways.

Illustration of an electric-vehicle charging station made of gold
Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.      

During one of the high-dollar ad spots in last night’s Super Bowl, Will Ferrell plowed an electric GMC Sierra truck through Zack Snyder’s army of the dead. He then drove an electric Chevy Blazer into Squid Game and staged a getaway in a hulking EV Hummer. General Motors’ ad, the latest in a string of EV-touting, celebrity-laden Super Bowl commercials, hopes to paint the company’s battery-powered offerings as being just as rugged, capable, macho, and desirable as the big, petrol-powered trucks it has sold for decades. Here’s something the ad doesn’t tell you: How far those electric vehicles will go depends a lot on how much you can spend.

The basic, $45,000 version of Ferrell’s Blazer EV can drive 247 miles on a charge. To go farther, you’ll need to pony up $47,595 to get 290 miles of range or $51,995 to reach 320 miles. The gaudy $100,000 launch edition of GMC’s electric Sierra is rated for 400 miles, but the entry-level models of that truck are widely expected to have a diminished range to go with the price cut when they arrive. For the revived Hummer, too, driving range is an upsell. Eighty grand buys 250 miles, while spending six figures raises the range to 350.

Americans are no strangers to splurging on their wheels. They commonly take on endless car loans to throw more money at taller, stouter vehicles, or to indulge in a luxury brand that tells the world We’re doing better than a Toyota. Yet for all this showy spending, Americans, in particular, mythologize the car as the great equalizer. Anything with four wheels and a reliable engine, be it beater or Bentley, delivers the freedom of the road.

On the eve of the long-promised electric-vehicle revolution, the myth is due for an update. Americans who take the plunge and buy their first EV will find a lot to love, just as I have. (I purchased a Tesla Model 3 in summer 2019.) They may also find that electric-vehicle ownership upends notions about driving, cost, and freedom, including how much car your money can buy. No one spends an extra $5,000 to get a bigger gas tank in a Honda Civic, but with an EV, economic status is suddenly more connected to how much of the world you get to see—and how stressed out or annoyed you’ll feel along the way.

A new Ford F-150 Lightning—the electrified version of America’s long-time best-selling vehicle, and one of the most important vehicles for persuading the majority of the country to ditch gasoline—starts at $55,000 in its most basic form. (Yes, EVs remain expensive. But consider that the average price of any vehicle snuck up to $47,000 by the end of last year, and Americans are already paying luxury prices on formerly utilitarian pickup trucks.) Choosing the F-150’s extended-range battery, which stretches the distance on a charge from 230 miles to 320, raises the cost to at least $80,000. The trend holds true with all-electric brands such as Tesla, Rivian, and Lucid, and for many electric offerings from legacy automakers. The bigger battery option can add a four- or five-figure bump to an already accelerating sticker price.

Should you take out an even bigger loan for the extra miles? Turns out, they matter more than you might think. Consider Tesla’s most affordable version of the Model 3. It is rated at 272 miles of range, but not all those miles are usable: The automaker discourages drivers from regularly exceeding 90 percent, and range anxiety limits the number of useful miles at the battery’s bottom end, where drivers can’t risk running out of juice. Not all miles are created equal, either. A Chevy Bolt flying down the interstate, or an F-150 Lightning towing a boat to the lake, won’t go as far as the stated remaining miles would suggest. For this reason, popular EVs such as the Hyundai Ioniq 5 have begun to list their range statistics for both city and highway driving, like typical cars have traditionally done for their gas mileage, to give potential owners a more realistic idea of how far the various trim levels of the vehicles will truly go.

These stated mileage figures apply to new vehicles. Just like a smartphone battery inevitably fades toward oblivion, a car battery steadily diminishes over the years. A warranty like Tesla’s guarantees only that the battery won’t fall below 70 percent of its original capacity within 100,000 miles of driving. Eight years into its life, then, that 272-mile Model 3 might max out at 190 “miles” of range. Suddenly, the gaps between far-flung highway chargers are larger than they may appear, and you may rue that you couldn’t spend more on the battery size at the beginning.

I know this anxiety all too well from years spent seeing the American West in an EV. As evening fell this past New Year’s Day, I departed Death Valley National Park facing a 150-mile drive across the desert in my own standard-range Model 3 from one Supercharger to the next. As the car crossed hill climbs and stark descents, its estimate for how much battery would be left on arrival started to slip, from a comfortable cushion toward a troublingly low number. I locked the cruise control at the speed limit or just below to ensure that I wouldn’t cost myself any miles with a lead foot. While I puttered, two sets of headlights pierced the blackness behind me, closing in and then gleefully whizzing by. They, too, were Teslas, but I could spy the badge on the back that signals they’d paid $5,000 to $10,000 more for a dual-motor, long-range version of the car.

For those who never leave the comfort of the city, these concerns sound negligible. But so many of us want our cars to do everything, go everywhere, ferry us to the boundless life we imagine (or the one we’re promised in car commercials). The fat surcharge for extra miles—if you can swallow it—may make the difference between worrying you’ll get there and knowing you will.

It’s not just battery size. In an electrified America, charging access may become a status symbol. Because the first wave of new EVs have been so expensive, America’s affluent tax brackets made up the bulk of early adopters. The same people are also those most likely to be able to afford their own homes and install a charger that can power up their car overnight. As EV adoption reaches mainstream levels—which is happening at rates outpacing even rosy expert predictions—lots of new electric drivers will be the same urban dwellers that have been priced out of their local housing market, creating two classes of EV owners.

“You’re talking about renters who may not have the option to install charging infrastructure,” Jeremy Michalek, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the director of its Vehicle Electrification Group, told me. “And even if they have charging infrastructure this year, renters tend to move, and they don’t know whether they’ll have that access next year. Even a lot of homeowners don’t have off-street parking, and relying entirely on public charging infrastructure is a whole different ball game.”

For those who can plug in at home, everyday driving gets better—no more service-station pit stops to top off the dinosaur car. If you can’t charge at home or at work, car ownership may get more annoying. As Michalek noted, fast-charging stations aren’t meant to be treated like gas stations. Using them can mean driving a few miles to the closest one, possibly waiting in line for a plug, then waiting to actually get the electricity into your car (that time is decreasing as the tech gets better, but it’s still much longer than pumping a liquid fuel for a minute or two).

The cost is more than the time and the nuisance. Fast-charging in public is marked up and costs more than charging at home. Residential electricity where I live in Los Angeles costs about 24 cents per kilowatt-hour; the peak afternoon rates for Tesla Superchargers in town can be twice as much. The rising use of such price signals is meant in part to balance demand so that people who aren’t in dire need of a charge wait until off-peak times. In practice, it also means that having to charge your car in public is a de facto tax on renters’ money and time.

Set aside the culture-war histrionics and an electric car is like any new technology: It comes with pros, cons, and unanswered questions. New EV drivers will encounter zoomy torque, lower maintenance costs, and the joy of leaving on the air-conditioning for your dog while you run into the store. They will cope with a new tension in the shoulders as the battery level keeps on falling while the next plug remains miles down the road.

Fortunately, we have found the cure for range anxiety. It’s money.