An Electric Car Test Drive—In 2020

With the Nissan Leaf, the Chevy Volt and other plug-in cars entering the market, potential buyers wonder: How will recharging stations work? What will a “fill up” cost? To answer those questions, Popular Mechanics talked to dozens of experts and spent a day with a hypothetical EV driver from the future.

This is an excerpt of a post that originally appeared on the Popular Mechanics website, where you can read it in its entirety. Written by Erik Sofge. llustration by Dongyun Lee.

Santa Monica, California, 12 AM, August 4, 2020. At midnight, your car wakes up. The hefty, 15-pound charging cable tethering the front of the vehicle to a 220-volt outlet in your garage goes live, pulling 5 kilowatts of power from the grid. In just 5 hours, it will nearly double your home’s average daily electrical consumption. Across California, hundreds of thousands of plug-in hybrids and pure electric vehicles are doing the same, sipping electricity from a power network at rest. Some of those vehicles have different charging regimens, communicating more with the local utility, or even allowing that utility to actively control when and how to recharge their batteries. But yours follows a simple pricing scheme, automatically charging during what is typically the cheapest time of the day, between midnight and 5 am. That’s when the utilities have power to spare, when the office buildings in downtown Los Angeles have gone dark and sweltering. In the daily rhythm of the grid, this is off-peak.

Tonight, though, the off-peak grid is unusually busy. Air conditioners across Southern California are battling a week-long heat wave, with temperatures exceeding 100 F during the day and barely easing up at night. So far, it’s the worst heat wave to hit the region since 2006. The forecast for today shows no signs of a break: Angelenos can expect afternoon highs of 103 F. Aug. 4 is shaping up to be one of the first real tests of the so-called smart grid, an effort to create a nimbler, more efficient, less vulnerable electrical grid. It will also test the nearly 500,000 electrified vehicles in the state.

The push to make plug-in vehicles a key part of America’s automotive mix began in earnest back in 2010, when the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf were poised to hum into dealerships. That same year, strict new mileage standards forced carmakers to begin developing petroleum-free methods to power portions of their fleets. But vehicles were only one part of the equation–what would happen, exactly, when people plugged them in? What would it cost to recharge on the road? And would an aging, weather-vulnerable electrical grid be able to safely charge thousands, even millions, of the most power-hungry consumer products in history?

In the summer of 2020, the answers to many of these questions are becoming clear (PM interviewed over two dozen engineers, analysts and other experts to create this hypothetical scenario): By this time the U.S. electrified vehicle fleet has reached 2 million. It’s a number that’s seen as either a minor triumph or a total disaster–higher than some analysts had estimated, but short of the 14 million that companies like Nissan had predicted, accounting for less than 1 percent of the national fleet (a smaller market share than even diesel).

Half are plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), with lithium-ion battery packs that provide 40 or 50 miles of electric range, and liquid-fuel engines that kick in for longer trips. These are most popular in suburbs, rural communities and colder states. The other million or so vehicles are called simply EVs, or electric vehicles. With larger battery packs that can run for 100 miles or more between charges and no backup gas engine, they tend to be used by residents of cities and warmer climates. Collectively, these various types of electrified vehicles are called grid-enabled vehicles, or GEVs, because unlike early gas–electric hybrids, the grid–not just the brakes or the motor–provides their batteries with a full charge. Thanks in part to zero-emissions vehicle mandates dating back decades, California has attracted the bulk of this new market, meeting analysts’ predictions of a 25 percent share.

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