Author :
Maria Cecilia Pinto de Moura
Category :

Rural Drivers vs. Disinformation: Three Facts about Electric Vehicles to Set the Record Straight

   

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EV demand is on a clear upward trajectory, in spite of fluctuations in the market. Availability has also increased, with many auto dealers offering a wide range of new and more affordable electric passenger car and pick-up truck models.  This is all good news, but while urban areas have witnessed a growing adoption of EVs, adoption in rural areas is still lagging. According to one estimate, rural EV sales lags by about 40 percent compared to urban areas. Disinformation and misconceptions about electric vehicles are a major reason for this lag. 

False claims about EV demand, reliability, and performance are circulating widely, making it more challenging for rural drivers to separate fact from fiction as they consider purchasing an electric vehicle.

It can sometimes be difficult to judge if what you read or hear is based on the latest science, or if it is deceptive information spread by bad actors with self-interest at stake. There is also a lot of well-intended information going around that is unsupported by the latest science, and even correct information that is being conveyed in a confusing manner, as the topic of EVs can be quite complex.

To help counter the false claims, it’s essential to both understand (and share!) some essential facts about electric vehicles in rural areas. In this blogpost I address three points that are often obscured by deceptive information and are particularly relevant for rural drivers. How interested in EVs are rural drivers? Is the reliability of new EVs improving? And how well do they perform on the road?

Rural areas are home to approximately 46 million people, according to the 2020 census, and rural roads play a critical role in the country’s transportation system. Indeed, the majority of the country’s road miles– an impressive 68% – are located in rural areas.

The term rural is deceptively simple, however, because it describes a remarkably diverse collection of places and people, with diverse geographic and socio-economic characteristics. In rural areas, people face unique transportation challenges. Most rural areas have low population density and trips are longer. Some locations have steep hills or curvy roads, others have extreme weather patterns. Vehicles serve very different purposes, from tugging farm equipment to driving kids to school.

There have been many studies looking at the challenges and barriers facing EV adoption in rural areas.

Drivers anywhere must make decisions about what they need in a new or used car or truck based on their specific needs. Circumstances are quite varied, but one thing is generally true: public transit and shared-ride services are not as frequent in rural areas as they are in urban areas, so private vehicles are the overwhelmingly dominant mode of transport in rural areas. Making sure the new or leased car is reliable, safe, has adequate range and good performance is absolutely essential for rural drivers making the switch to electric vehicles.

But there is one other important factor which qualifies as a significant barrier: the availability of reliable, science-based information. Trustworthy sources of information are among the most important things a person looking to buy or lease a car or pick-up truck needs to inform a good decision, whatever their concerns and special circumstances are. 

In the past few years, interest in EVs has gone up sharply, nationally and in rural areas. In 2022, Consumer Reports, EV Noire and Green Latinos  collaborated with UCS on a national survey asking US residents in rural and urban areas if they would buy or lease an EV for their next vehicle. The results showed that 11 percent in rural areas and 18 percent in urban areas would definitely consider an EV. When adding on drivers who were seriously considering a switch, in rural and urban areas this share increases to 29 percent and 43 percent, respectively. These results show increasing interest relative to a prior national survey where only 4 percent of the respondents around the country said they would definitely plan to switch from a gasoline-powered vehicle to an EV.

The slow adoption rate in rural areas is therefore not because of a lack of interest. According to the 2022 survey, there are several factors which might explain this discrepancy. Top concerns, which are addressed in my three previous blogposts (here, here and here), and by my colleague Sam Houston (here), are charging logistics, range, cost, not being able to perform repairs at home, and performance.  

However, underlying all these concerns is a lack of familiarity with EVs. Electrification involves a transition away from a technology which people have become accustomed to, and change is always challenging. Residents of rural areas do not see EVs around as much as their urban counterparts. According to the 2022 survey mentioned above, in the past year 96 percent of rural respondents had not driven an EV, 90 percent had never been a passenger in one, and only 16 percent had a friend, relative or co-worker who owned an EV.  

To address this lack of familiarity and set the facts straight about major (or minor) concerns, having access to reliable information is of utmost importance. But we are off to a good start, because a large percentage of rural residents are indeed interested in EVs.

A survey from Plug In America reports that 90 percent of EV drivers are likely or very likely to purchase an EV as their next vehicle. Consumer Reports also finds that consumer satisfaction with EVs, defined as the likelihood of consumers buying the same vehicle again, has been consistently high.

First, let us look at reliability from the perspective of maintenance needs. Minimizing maintenance is especially important in rural areas, where people are more dependent on their cars because of the lack of alternatives. Intense use – longer trips and more accumulated mileage – contribute to more frequent regular maintenance and the need for repairs. In the case of households with only one vehicle, maintenance can mean the vehicle is unavailable for some time, and this can affect quality of life and access to healthcare, jobs and schools. Even though the average number of vehicles in rural areas is the highest in the country, at 2.4 cars per household, many households have just one car. In 2017, approximately 27 percent of households in areas with less than 2,000 people per square mile had just one car. The share of households with just one car is even larger – almost 36 percent-  in areas with 2,000 to 4,000 people per square mile (the Census Bureau defines rural areas as those with less than 5,000 people per square mile).

All vehicles need regular maintenance such as rotating and replacing tires, inspecting brakes and changing air filters, regardless of how they are powered. However, electric powertrains have less mechanical complexity and fewer moving parts. As an example, according to a 2017 study, a Chevy Bolt has 35 moving and wearing parts, while a comparable car, the VW Golf, has 167. EVs therefore typically need less maintenance and fewer repairs than gasoline cars. They do not need routine work such as oil changes, or belt and spark plug replacements. Brake pads and rotors wear out at a slower rate than gasoline cars because of regenerative braking which recovers kinetic energy. EVs do have cooling systems that need to be checked regularly, and tires wear out faster because of the weight of the battery, but EVs still come out ahead when it comes to time and savings on maintenance.

Because EVs are a relatively recent technology, statistics are still being collected on the frequency of maintenance and repairs, but there are some estimates of the cost of predicted repairs and maintenance. Consumer Reports does annual surveys asking hundreds of thousands of drivers how much money they spent on repairs and maintenance over the previous year, how many miles they drove and their vehicle mileage. Results in 2020 showed  that battery-electric and plug-in vehicle electric owners typically pay about half as much as internal combustion engine owners.

Second, let us look at concerns about the longevity of batteries. This concern is in principle understandable, as replacement of this major component is very expensive, and no driver wants to spend thousands of dollars on a new battery pack (battery prices are expected to decrease as technology improves). What is not as well- known is that the chance of this happening is very, very low and is comparable to a transmission replacement in a gasoline vehicle. Batteries degrade slowly, at about a slightly over two percent of range every year, with slight variations depending on factors such as charging behavior and climate.  EV lithium-ion batteries have a lifespan of up to 20 years and can even outlast the car.

Over time EV reliability ratings have rapidly improved as technology progresses and automakers gain more experience building EVs. Note that reliability ratings include all kinds of trouble spots, from battery and charging all the way through paint and trim issues. One problem area where there has been much improvement, but still has a way to go, is advanced electronics, because automakers have been including a lot of this latest technology in new car models. By the way, Keith Barry of Consumer Reports (quoted in a 12/5/2023 CR article on the most reliable cars of 2023) states that CR members report many of the same issues with most brand new EVs as with brand new gas-powered cars.

Driving an EV is a different experience from driving an internal combustion engine vehicle, and according to most drivers, a better one. They are notably fun to drive, very quiet and have no tailpipe emissions, and have several advantages compared to internal combustion engines.

Just like for all cars, performance varies by model, but user satisfaction with EVs is generally positive.  Here are some of the facts about the driving experience that have been subject to misinformation.

First, EVs do accelerate well. They have a shorter response time because of their ability to deliver full torque immediately, the so-called ‘instant torque’. Because of the single-speed transmission, there is no need to change gears and the drive feels smooth compared to the feel of an internal combustion engine’s multi-gear transmission. As a result of instant torque, EVs accelerate more quickly from stop than gasoline or diesel-powered vehicles (which gradually increase torque as energy is transferred from the pistons to the wheels). At higher speeds this rate of acceleration slows down, but instant torque can still be a safety feature when an EV is trying to pass another vehicle on a highway. Note that even mainstream EVs such as the Chevy Bolt feel very powerful.

Second, EVs are very stable vehicles. They are less likely to roll over compared to gasoline or diesel-powered vehicles, because their weight tends to be concentrated in battery packs that are mounted low, resulting in a low center of gravity.  

Third, braking is very effective. EVs have an additional feature that contributes to very effective braking. In the so-called ‘one-pedal’ mode, when the driver lifts their foot off the accelerator, the electric motor reverses and regenerative braking kicks in and the car slows down instantly. Aside from the faster braking, this mode improves the efficiency of the car, and extends the life of the battery as well as that of the brakes. The brake pedal can still be used normally in this mode, for even more braking power.

Fourth, EVs are perfectly capable of towing heavy loads. According to Autotrader, the towing capacity of EV passenger car and SUV models varies from 2,000 (2023 Polestar 2) to 5,000 pounds (2023 Tesla Model X). For trucks, this ranges approximately from 9,500 (2024 GMC Sierra) to 20,000 pounds (2024 Chevrolet Silverado).  Because of instant torque, towing does not affect acceleration, such as when a car needs to merge into high-speed traffic. However, towing does drain the battery faster, depending on the weight, speed, weather, and terrain, the same way that a gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicle uses more fuel under different circumstances.

Conclusion

Vehicle electrification is a critical part of the transition to a clean transportation system everywhere in the country. The US transportation system is heavily based on petroleum, with at least 94% of liquid fuels used in our vehicles coming from petroleum, and we need to urgently move away from this dirty energy source.

Electrification along with other strategies—improved public transit system, more active mobility and cleaner liquid fuels in hard-to-electrify sectors—are together the fastest and most efficient way to fight climate change.  Electrification will improve the health of millions of people who are exposed daily to tailpipe exhaust that contaminates air with harmful pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and many other compounds which have been definitively linked to pulmonary and heart diseases, cancer and many other serious illnesses.   

The barriers to EV adoption in rural areas are similar to barriers in the rest of the country, but the specific characteristics of rural areas affect the magnitude and priority of these concerns. Disinformation, misconceptions, myths—whatever you call it—muddy the waters and contribute to concerns about the transition. One of the factors that gets in the way of addressing barriers to EV adoption is the uncertainty about what an electric future looks like, particularly in areas where EVs are still not common. People need a realistic vision of an electric future to help them get ready to make a shift from gas-powered cars to EVs, and solid information based on science is the foundation for such a vision to take shape.

 

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