With "Auto Show Season" in full swing now it's likely that you are going to see an EV this year and think, "I wonder what it's like to live with one?". That's how I felt a few months ago. Luckily Kia was kind enough to loan me a Soul EV for a week to test it out. This isn't a review of the Soul EV but rather a summary of my experience living in what is likely the future of personal transportation.
Just to get it out of the way - I absolutely loved the experience of going electric for the week with the 2016 Soul EV. While I had a chance to drive the Soul EV during a press event last year, there's a huge difference between driving it on a closed course and having to deal with finding charging stations and using it for everyday driving. While the experience wasn't perfect, I can say that it is a practical option if you live in an area like Southern California where there is a strong network of charging stations and you don't have to worry about extreme temperatures.
I learned a lot about the EV culture during this review and quickly realized that when you make the decision to "go electric" it's more than just buying a new car. Instead, you are changing the way you run your life.
Most Car Dealerships Will Allow You To Charge There (sometimes for free)
A couple hours into my first drive the car began to scream at me to find a charging station and quick. I was given a ChargePoint card by Kia but I discovered that in San Diego that almost all of the stations were run by Blink (except those inside of parking structures). Luckily I was near a Kia dealership and they welcomed me to charge up there for a bit on their DC Fast Charger station. Even better was that it was free and I had a great conversation with one of the sales managers about how I liked my Soul EV.
To test it out a bit, I decided to call a couple other (non Kia) dealerships to ask about their policies. Each one of them welcomed me to visit and charge for free as well on their fast charger. This is likely to not last as more and more owners are out there but it set the tone that being an EV owner is sort of like being part of an exclusive club ... and everyone watches out for each other.
Not All EV Drivers are Courteous (but most are)
As part of the benefits for this club are dedicated parking spaces in garages. Unfortunately not all EV drivers are courteous and you'll find fully charged cars blocking spots. Similarly, you'll find petrol-powered cars in these spots as well.
While there's really no "law" dictating behavior right now, it's extremely frustrating for EV owners. This issue isn't so much about a parking space - but rather can they get home or not.
Overall though, while charging I had some great conversations with other owners. The EV market is still more of a "I want an EV car" than "I need a car" situation, but right now there's a good sense of fellowship where people are genuinely interested in helping each other. This extends even to people who have listed their homes as free charging stations for people through PlugShare.
You Can Get Some Sweet Parking Spaces
Despite what I just said above about it not being about the parking space ... some retailers are using EV charging stations to promote their stores. As part of this, you'll sometimes find EV charging stations that function as dual purpose with handicap spots and are located close to the store entrance.
This doesn't give you a license to park there all day but if you need to charge anyhow and you can shop while you do it then that's a win-win!
Having a Charger At Home Can Be Slow But Makes Things Easier
The Soul EV comes with a charging plug designed to connect to your standard outlet at home. It isn't going to be fast but if you are able to plug-in overnight then it certainly helps reduce "charging anxiety". For about a thousand dollars (including installation) you can also get a level-2 charger that is much faster.
For those people who have garages this works great but if you park your car outside or in an apartment building it's not exactly practical unless you are ready to run wires to your spot or negotiate with your landlord. Unfortunately I'm in that position but was lucky to have a great neighbor who agreed to swap spots for the week.
However, for those of you with homes and garages that do less than 100 miles per day this is sufficient to fully charge each night.
Driving an EV is Fun!
The experience of driving the Soul EV is a blast! It's virtually silent while driving around town, accelerates with great torque and retains all the great styling of the petrol version.
What's even more fun though is that there's something special when you drive it to the beach or a beer garden and people look at it and smile. After-all, we've passed the days when EVs were odd looking cars designed for hyper mileage. We now have great looking cars like the Soul EV and Leaf that just happen to be doing something to make things that much more green.
Not All Charging Stations Are the Same (but it's a lot less complex than you think)
The first time your roll up to a charging station it hits you that there's a lot of different options. Are you on ChargePoint or Blink? Do you use a Level 2 or a DC Fast Charger? Can you charge a Soul EV at a Tesla station?
The good news is that while it's a complete mess with having to have a membership to different charging networks, almost all of them do offer "guest rates" that you can access by calling them on your phone. It's a bit confusing initially but I'm sure this will work it's way out in time.
Right now though think about it as having to have an Exxon credit card to use their pumps but you can still fill up at Shell ... just have to pay a little extra.
With the charging plugs on the other hand, it's a bit more complex. While you really can't mess up (the plug will fit or it won't), a Fast Charger costs more to use than a Level 2 plus. It's all electricity but the difference is how fast you want to charge. Both options are significantly more expensive than what you'd find charging at home and the Fast Charger is almost the same cost per mile as gas. (though my rate would be lower if I was a "member" and not charging at guest rates)
On top of that, some EV charging stations charge by the hour, others charge by the kilowatt-hour, and some charge "per session". This just adds to the confusion but it's more of a learning curve issue that I suspect will get easier the more you drive / charge.
You'll End Up Having to Plan Your Route Around Charging
Because of the various factors related to range you need to plan your route around where charging stations are. For instance if a friend says, "let's meet up for lunch" then it behooves you to select a place where there's a charging station so you can top off. This isn't really a big deal for short trips around town but if you are going to be driving around all day then you need to take charging stations into consideration.
Unfortunately, unlike a petrol-powered car, it isn't a matter of visiting a gas station for a quick fillup. Instead, it might be a 30 minute visit on a Fast Charger or a several hour stop to top off on a Level 2 depending how low your battery is.
Luckily though the Nav system on the Soul EV does a great job of warning you when you're getting low and points you to the closest charging stations. You can also use apps from the various charging networks to see what's available and even reserve a spot so there's no surprises when you get there.
So, Would I Buy An EV?
As I mentioned above - electric cars are absolutely the future. It's simply a superior experience aside from a few things that are almost certain to be worked out over the next couple years related to the infrastructure.
While owning an EV isn't yet practical in all parts of the country because of infrastructure and weather, as someone in Southern California - I look forward to making the jump when my current car (a Kia Soul) is ready to be traded in.
The 2016 Soul EV starts as low as $24,450 (after $7,500 federal tax credit) and has an estimated range of 93 miles. That makes it considerably more expensive than the petrol-powered version but is comparable in price to the Nissan Leaf and other competitors.
Over time, price will come down, battery technology will improve, and the charging infrastructure will work out the quirks and that makes me excited!