Are electric cars a good idea for people who drive rarely?

I live downtown a quick bike ride from my work in a city with a good mass transit system so I have not found much use for a car in the years I have lived here. But I could use a car for a few miles once a week to do a big grocery run and maybe for a 20-30 mile round trip once a month or so to go to Ikea or visit the zoo or whatever it is people with cars do. I have a zip cars membership which has been very useful but it is a major hassle getting a car sear in and out for a quick trip so I have just used it for times when the kidlet is not with me.

As an environmentalist I would prefer not to have a gas powered car if I can avoid it, and imagining that the upfront money cost of an electric car was not an issue (it is of course but we’re imagining here) would an electric car be good for a person like me. Is the lifespan of the batteries used in an electric car a function of time, or just of use? Does an electric car ‘like’ to be left plugged in for up to 6 days at a time? If I am doing just 20 miles/week I imagine a gas powered car would last 20 years or more, would an electric car do the same?

If you want an electric car to make a statement that’s one thing, but nickel being mined for the batteries and the resources and transport needed for building the car aren’t very good for the environment. Maybe some other people can weigh in, but wouldn’t the car with the least impact be a relatively efficient used (already made and transported here) gasoline car?

Your car is using fossil fuels - electricity doesn’t magically appear at the outlet. Coal and other hydrocarbons are getting burned to push the electricity powering your car. And there’s a significant amount of lost power in transmission… so it’s arguable that the electric vehicle consumes more natural resources than the gas guzzler (transit losses and all the other stuff comes into play).

I’m guessing that the best way an individual like the OP can help the environment is to buy the dirtiest, most highly-polluting car, and then not drive it very much.

The type of batteries in electric cars will generally store energy well. You have to make sure they don’t deplete completely but other than that their life span is based on recharging cycles. If you only drive once a month then the batteries will last 30 times longer than someone who drives every day and has to recharge.

From an environmental standpoint you’re better off buying a used car that gets good mileage. You’re recycling rather than adding more manufacturing problems to the environment. Also, you’re better off buying a regular hybrid unless your power comes from power plant that uses 70% or more natural gas versus coal to produce the energy. We are entering a transitional phase of electrical production where natural gas is replacing aging coal plants so as time passes this breakeven point of 70% will be consistent everywhere. States like California already meet this criteria with their mix of non-fossil fuel power plants.

From a national security standpoint you’re better off driving an electric car because all the energy comes from within the country and not from countries that export trouble.

Personally, I would look into buying an older car and hire someone to convert it to electric using lead acid batteries. It would be cheaper than a new car and easily give you the range you need.

The environmental impact of an EV is frontloaded just like its cost is. The environmental benefit then accumulates with decreased gasoline use, the magnitude correlated with how your electricity is generated. Since you’d be displacing little gasoline in an ongoing basis you’d have little chance to offset those initial impacts.

Also, Magiver is mistaken: lithium batteries do not only degrade based on recharging cycles alone; the degrade with age as well as with cycling, and more in hot climates than in moderate or cold ones (the issue in cold is that a battery has less capacity when cold, see the recent Tesla debacle). Probably not enough to significantly impact your utility however.

Definitely EVs are* not* a good idea for those who drive rarely. Your kidlet will be booster seated in just a few years. And honestly getting a car seat in a car is very little hassle (having done it many times and schlepped ones with me to put in rentals). Sharing cars via ZipCars (even an EV) or some such is your best option. Buying a used vehicle next best.

Honestly, I can’t see how you can call yourself an environmentalist and purchase a car to be used as rarely as you suggest. (“I could use a car for a few miles once a week to do a big grocery run and maybe for a 20-30 mile round trip once a month or so to go to Ikea or visit the zoo or whatever it is people with cars do.”) Wouldn’t the environmentally conscious approach be to continue to use the Zipcar membership? And if you will be using a car that rarely, it would make financial sense.

Situations like the OP are why Zipcar exists.

Yes. I wouldn’t count on lithium batteries lasting a long time. They might, but I wouldn’t count on. And given their prices, that could be a costly mistake down the road. And what if many years down the road you couldn’t even get them? Or you could but they were really sticking it to you price wise because the market for that model battery was pretty small? Now these problems would be one thing if you were really racking up the miles over the years. But if you are barely driving the car and years down the road you are spending 10s of thousands of dollars for a new battery set, that ends up being some pretty high dollars per mile driving.

Another way of looking at a national security angle is using E-85. Whether ethanol prodcution is a good thing or if we’re doing i the right way are debates, but factually it is mostly produced domestically.

For groceries, I recommend a bike cart.

Many manufacturers are wanting to claim that the batteries should last “the life of the vehicle” but they are using 10 years or 100K as the “life” target and other than the batteries these cars should last for twice as long easily. So 9 or 10 or 12 or 14, it seems reasonable to me to figure in one battery replacement over a roughly 20 year vehicle life. Maybe not used as the op describes but again, silly for other reasons.

This issue, and the issue that the biggest environmental cost of a car powered by electricity is in the construction of its battery, is why I have become a much bigger fan of plug-in hybrid (or extended range EV if one insists), like the Volt and Ford’s Energi line, than pure battery electrics. The optimum is to have a battery that handles most of your daily needs between convenient extended charges (be that overnight or also at the workplace) and no more. For drives beyond that typical commute use the car as a decent enough hybrid. Less up front cost (both dollars and environmental) paying for significantly more battery than you need most days, and less risk of more cost than need be if a replacement is ever needed.

Thanks everyone for the informed responses. I probably should have mentioned the city I live in which is Toronto, which uses a pretty significant percentage of nuclear and hydro electric power generation.

You are definitely convincing me that electric is not the way to go (the pricetag is the other thing) I suppose I knew that, but the idea of owning a car is just so tempting. Zipcars is an awsome service and given that I live within a 5-10 minute walk of several zip car parking spaces it is really convenient. But it’s not particularly cheap and there definitely not the freedom associated with owning your own car, there is no opportunity to just drive on the spur of the moment to do something unstructured, Extending your time on Zipcars can be pretty expensive as I learned when my sister’s flight was delayed.

I am getting the impression though that if I hang onto it for 20 years and and use it sparingly so that the battery doesn’t need replacing that I will have amortized the environmental impact to that of a regular car. I could start using something like Bullfrog power which puts the same amount of non-carbon energy into the network as you take out so you can imagine that you are not causing any carbon emissions charging the car so from the point to purchasing the car the car will not be causing any carbon emissions and I would have achieved my aim.

I’m not seriously going to run out to buy an EV, but just doing a thought experiment here. What do you think?

Wow I took a long time composing that post, a bunch of responses have slipped in in the meantime.
Looks like my theory doesn’t really hold water, sigh… It’s frustrating that finally a zero emission car is available, and now I’m too much of an environmentalist to conscionably
use it.
Guess I’ll have to move out to the burbs and get a 1.5 hour commute each way and pay $150/month for a parking space at my work, sounds hard but then I’d get to spend 100K on a Tesla so that would make it ok.

I agree that Zipcars can be somewhat expensive. But if you look at the total cost of owning a car, it’s really expensive as well. My guess is that car ownership would be more expensive.

“life of the vehicle” in the industry is generally held as 10 years/150,000 miles. this is not to say that the average car will fall apart soon after, but that is the usage pattern used for typical validation testing of components and systems.

and as an aside, I like how far things have come where now people expect cars to last for 20 years trouble free.

Looking at the zip car rates, with the kind of usage you are talking about you probably pay less for the zip car than insurance for a car in the city would cost, let alone paying for your own gas and a car payment.
Toronto rates:
$65/yr + $9/hr or $78/day
So say, $18/wk to go the grocery store 1 time * 52 weeks = $936
One day a month to go the zoo, ikea, etc = $78 * 12 = $936
Or $1937/year
You could easily spend $2k a year insuring a car in the inner city alone. Edit to add, if it is anything like the US, could be quite a bit more because you would get dinged badly for “not being continuously insured” when you didn’t have a car.
Even if you bought one of the cheapest cars available, lets say a nissan versa and managed to get it for $12k, your payments would be
221.00/mo or $2652/yr over 5 years at 4%.
So you save money with zipcar vs car payments alone too, even if insurance and gas, and maintenance were free; however “expensive” zip car is you clearly save thousands a year over your own car.

Really? I don’t live in the inner city, but I insure 2 cars and a plow truck for $1200 a year.

I agree with other posters that the best bet would to just buy a 5-8 year old compact car. Provided that you have a place to park it. Drive it once a week and you are good to go.

When it comes down to it, unless you absolutely need a car, it’s often hard to justify one just on economic grounds. If you want one, by all means by one buy one and figure you’re paying money for the convenience and freedom rather than saving money vs Zipcar (or riding the bus or whatever). It’s part of the reason why you see people driving SUVs and Pickups alone to work everyday. When they need to haul wood chips or tow the boat on Saturday the extra daily expense is worth not having to rent a vehicle on Saturday, even if it turns out that the latter make economic sense.

I imagine if Toronto has significant hydro and nuclear, that’s pretty much all that’s going to be feeding the grid at night when you’d be charging the car. Natural gas plants can turn on and off really fast and cost more to use, so they’re typically only used during the day, especially if there’s other resources available. (Traditionally coal was a lot cheaper and used for base load, but recently the price of natural gas has bottomed out thanks to fracking, and coal has gotten more expensive thanks to environmental regulations.)

Another idea is to get a used compact gasoline powered car and share it with a one or two other responsible local like minded folks/friends/family. Of course you’d have to approach this carefully in a well thought out manner with only reasonable folks to avoid somekinda eventual drama/falling out.