(WJHL) – Short answer: Yes, with a catch.

As gas prices spike to some of the highest levels seen in the last 10 years, it’s easy to start eyeing all-electric vehicles (EVs) and wonder just how much cheaper it would be to pass the pump. In 2021, over half a million Americans bought one and found out, according to the International Energy Agency.

Others may have considered joining those new EV owners, but in areas seeing less public and private investment into EV infrastructure, how possible is it really to drive an all-electric car?

The Experience

David Hrivnak has been a Tesla owner since 2011 and is a public advocate for more widespread adoption of EVs throughout the Tri-Cities. For him, the transition away from gas began during another price spike.

During the 2008 gas shortage, when hurricanes damaged drilling operations and oil supply in the US, Hrivnak decided to convert his Chevy Avalanche into a partial-electric hybrid to avoid the lines seen at gas pumps throughout the Southeast.

After the initial hybrid conversion of his truck, Hrivnak caught the EV bug and couldn’t turn back. Soon, he converted his friends’ vehicles into hybrids and purchased a Tesla Roadster, the first mass-produced EV to use a Lithium-ion battery.

The on-demand torque and blistering top speeds offered by the Roadster were a game-changer for Hrivnak’s daily drive, and he could blow past the pump in one of the fastest commercial EVs to date.

As an early adopter, Hrivnak ran into his fair share of challenges on the road. Charging infrastructure was much more scarce at the time, and several trips had to be planned around which station he would visit and when. One trip in particular got too close to a dead battery for comfort.

On one long-haul trip, Dave was banking on the Level 2 fast chargers listed at a Cracker Barrel location and had called ahead to see if they would be switched on when he got there. What he didn’t know was that the chargers operated on a timer and shut themselves off at night, meaning he wasn’t far away from being stranded when he got there.

The quick visit turned into a long stay as Dave checked in to a hotel next door and plugged into a wall outlet to slow charge, and he woke up at the crack of dawn to plug in at Cracker Barrel and finish up his charge.

Nowadays, Hrivnak reports no major charging challenges as the interval between stations is much smaller than previous years.

As to the road feel and driving experience, it all depends on the make and model that you choose. A 2022 J.D. Power study found high levels of customer satisfaction across all EVs, with Tesla sweeping the premium market and the Kia Niro EV topping mass-market models. In that study, most EV owners said they’ll be sticking with electric for their next car purchase whether or not they were completely satisfied with their current ride.

So for those who want to jump in and ride the roads today, how can you avoid overnight stays and early morning charger swaps like Dave?

For a long-range trip, starting on a full charge is your best bet. This can be done at home in a few ways, either through a simple 110V outlet or a more specialized 240V Level 2 station that charges an EV much faster. Most homes don’t have an exterior 240V outlet, however, so installation will likely be up to you.

This becomes especially difficult for those who rent and can’t install their own charger. An overnight slow charge on regular outlets gives drivers enough for short commutes (50 miles or less), but if you’re planning on doing some serious driving you’ll likely need to visit fast chargers or have your own at home.

That means the addition of new high-voltage lines by experienced DIYers or electricians. With the infrastructure in place, a Level 2 Charger must be installed, which can cost around $200 for the simplest options and approach $1,000 at the high end.

For EV drivers like Hrivnak, independence from fuel providers is a major draw. Without a home charger, though, the search for the next quick charge can resemble the original hunt for cheap gas EV buyers are trying to avoid and could take more time to fill up.

Tesla has introduced its own solution to this issue, with charging information integrated straight into EV navigation software. If you’re willing and able to pay more for the luxury brand, a full rundown of nearby chargers is just a tap away.

For other brands, websites like the Department of Energy’s Station Locator, PlugShare or ChargePoint’s station map are your friends.

The Infrastructure

Another important consideration when buying an EV is local infrastructure. Gas stations are readily available at nearly every interstate exit and major intersection, but chargers aren’t as common in the region.

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC) paints a clear picture of where EVs are currently rolling out, and this interactive graph provides state-by-state totals for June 2021. It’s important to note that the Y-axis is significantly compressed to allow all states to be visible:

The DOE reports that California has the highest concentration of EVs registered in any US state, holding around 425,000 in 2021. That number makes up around 42% of all the electric vehicles in the country as of June 2021. In contrast, Tennessee and Virginia combined had roughly 28,000 registered EVs, around 7% of California’s total. Runners-up Texas, Washington and Florida combined don’t match even half of CA’s 2021 numbers.

That trend continues to charging infrastructure, with California charging those EVs through more than 35,000 public ports. The DOE map below shows state-by-state totals as well:

Tennessee and Virginia have around 4,200 registered public charging ports state-wide. Interestingly, EV owners in these states may face less competition at each port, with 6.7 registered EVs per port compared to California’s 12.

Those numbers aren’t evenly distributed throughout each state, however. When looking at the DOE’s Station Locator, there are around 30 stations located within News Channel 11’s coverage area. Two charging hubs in downtown Nashville alone beat that total.

That’s not to say that electric infrastructure isn’t expanding here. ETSU’s campus now sports several EV spots as well as several other local locations, with historic investment into charging tech at the private, state and federal level.

If a car buyer decides to cut the hose and plugin, these numbers become significantly more important. While the Tesla Model S Long Range boasts a 412-mile travel distance, the DOE estimates an average range of 100-300 miles across all models and years on the road. Just like in a fuel-driven car, finding somewhere to fill an EV’s battery up can make or break a trip.

Paul Castille, who purchased a Chevy Bolt in 2018 after taking a ride in Hrivnak’s roadster, found that road trips were extended quite a bit due to his model’s charging rate. Newer models can charge much faster, but Castille was spending ~45 minutes per stop to keep his Bolt rolling on long trips.

The Price

No matter how seamless the charging experience or speedy the instant acceleration of an EV, for many buyers the choice is pretty simple: Is an EV cheaper than a fueled car?

In the case of many all-electric vehicles today, your main options are where you spend your money rather than if you spend it.

Hrivnak shared a rough breakdown of the cost per mile of his Roadster compared to a fueled car that gets 25mpg:

Cost per kWh or gallonDistance per unit $/mile
Cost per kWh$0.104 miles$0.025
Gas Costs/gallon$3.99925 miles$0.16

With higher gas costs or lower fuel efficiency, drivers stand to save even more each mile with an EV. If you drive 15,000 miles per year at the above prices, that difference adds up to $2,025 saved. That number is subject to change based on the ever-fluctuating price of gas.

That’s not the only opportunity for EV owners to save, either. Without an engine, there are far fewer moving parts to wear down and replace. Electric vehicles don’t need engine oil, oil filter or spark plug changes since they never had them in the first place. EV transmissions are usually 1-speed gearboxes that are much simpler than Continuously-Variable Transmissions found in many new cars. Even the brake pads can last longer on EVs with regenerative braking, Hrivnak said.

For one of his trips, Hrivnak coasted from the top of Roan Mountain to the bottom without touching the friction brakes. Rather than wearing out his pads or shifting down (considering there are no other gears to shift down to), Hrivnak drove away with more range than what he had at the top.

According to AAA’s Your Driving Costs study, the top five selling 2021 model electric vehicles (BMW i3, Chevy Bolt, Hyundai Kona Electric, Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model 3) are projected to cost around $375 less than the industry-wide average of $9,666 in a yearly breakdown. That said, EVs were also projected to cost around $2,050 more yearly than competing small sedans and around $675 less than a full-sized SUV.

Of course, driving an electric vehicle means hauling the heaviest and most important component — the battery.

EV batteries, often made of the same Lithium-ion construction as Dave’s roadster, can be the priciest component to replace if they fail. According to a 2019 report from the International Council on Clean Transportation, average-sized battery packs were expected to cost around $8,000 in 2025. In that same report, the authors note that the drop in price over each year has exceeded estimates in some sectors, so it may be lower.

For Tesla, the base warranty on battery units promises at least 70% charging capacity after 8 years or 100,000 miles on the Model 3 RWD. Covered mileage is extended for higher-end models. If a battery fails within that window and qualifies for coverage, the repair job’s cost is Tesla’s problem, not yours. You may not receive a new battery, however. Tesla’s warranty documents say it may be replaced with another used battery that has a similar capacity to yours before it failed.

Paul Castille had to replace his Bolt’s battery under a General Motors recall. The swap process took two days at Champion Chevrolet.

The recall was in response to problems in LG batteries that caused fires within the model, and led to a full replacement for every Bolt brought into Chevy dealers across the country. Castille never had any problems out of his and said it functioned perfectly before and after the replacement.

The Takeaway

Just like with any car, buying an EV is more a statement of priorities than an evaluation of cold, hard facts. Cars are complicated, to say the least, and every model will vary in price, amenities and performance.

For those that find satisfaction in cruising past the pump without a care and enjoy the gut-punch of torque that some models offer, EVs are absolutely the answer. But to get the most out of them, you need to meet some requirements:

  • Live in a home or apartment with charging infrastructure;
  • Have the money to pay for higher MSRP vehicles;
  • Be willing to plan road trips more than a few miles ahead;
  • Be prepared to give everyone a ride in your new EV.

There are many more factors to consider based on your own personal circumstances, and researching the market is your best option. Finding an EV on the cheap end is especially difficult as chip shortages continue to bottleneck the auto industry, so it may take some time to see them on the lot.