Dec 20, 2023 at 6:00pm ET
There’s a lot of conflicting information being hurled at electric vehicle buyers right now. Much of it’s good. Some of it’s bad. Taken together, it can all be tough to make sense of.
One day it’s: “EVs are the future!” The next it’s: “Never mind, nobody wants them.” One day that car you had your eye on qualified for a game-changing $7,500 tax credit. The next day you hear the Feds are booting it off their list because of minerals from China, or something. Flashy new models frequently make headlines, but few are attainably priced.
Allow me to cut through the noise: Between the constant march of new model launches, ever-improving technology, maturing charging infrastructure and falling vehicle prices, right now is the best time in history to buy an electric car. At the same time, it’s also the most dynamic and perplexing.
“There's a lot going on,” Ingrid Malmgren, policy director at the EV advocacy group Plug In America, told me. “It's an exciting time, but also a confusing time.”
Let’s start with some of the good. Since 2019, the number of different electric models available in the U.S. has tripled from 16 to some 48 and counting. (Not too long before that, the market was practically nonexistent.) With Ford trucks, Mercedes SUVs and even exciting new entries from startup brands that didn't exist a few years ago, today’s buyers are more likely than ever to find an EV in their preferred form factor or from their favorite brand.
Technology has improved by leaps and bounds too. The average EV sold in the U.S. in 2013 could drive just 117 miles on a full charge, according to a BloombergNEF analysis. By 2022 that figure had jumped to 291 miles. Charging is getting quicker as battery technology advances, making road trips way more convenient. That’s all fantastic for buyers.
But the wealth of choices also complicates things. Before, shopping for an EV was like going to In-N-Out, said Ivan Drury, director of insights at car-buying website Edmunds. Just a few straightforward options. (Setting aside the secret menu, of course.) Now he says it’s more like perusing the vast menu at The Cheesecake Factory.
The breakneck pace of innovation means there’s a strangely broad range of capabilities on the table, as aging platforms are sold alongside bleeding-edge products. A 2024 Nissan Leaf provides a not-amazing 150 miles of range and antiquated charging speeds. A brand-new Hyundai Ioniq 6 sedan, meanwhile, promises to travel 361 miles on a full charge and can add 100 miles of range in a breezy 7 minutes. That’s not to mention everything in between.
It all means buyers need to do more research than ever and learn to grasp unfamiliar concepts beyond horsepower and miles per gallon. Yet car dealers are still catching up and aren’t great, it turns out, at educating shoppers on the specifics of electric propulsion. It’s not clear that they even want to.
More good news about the current moment: Thanks to an oversupply of EVs and a price war initiated by Elon Musk, you can get your favorite Tesla, Ford, Kia or the like for thousands less than it would’ve cost this time last year. That makes now a prime time to pull the trigger on an electric purchase or lease.
At the same time, affordable electric options are sorely needed to spur adoption. The average price paid for an EV in November was $52,345. That’s a big improvement over this time last year but still is significantly more than the industry-wide average of $48,247.
The availability and quality of public charging stations have been a persistent pain point for EV adoption, but things are slowly getting better.
The biggest news on that front—maybe the biggest news in EVs this entire year—is that most carmakers have accepted an invitation from Tesla to transition to its charging plug design for their future models.
It’s a big deal because Tesla’s Supercharger network is larger, easier to use and more reliable than other fast-charging networks, but it’s historically been exclusively available to Tesla owners. Now that basically the entire industry is switching over to Tesla’s plug (called the North American Charging Standard, or NACS), buyers of non-Tesla cars will gain access to thousands of Tesla’s chargers across the country for the first time.
That’s a potential game-changer for any buyers on the fence. But the switch won’t happen overnight.
Starting in 2024, most EV owners will be able to access Tesla chargers using an adapter. In 2025 and beyond, companies like Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen plan to integrate the NACS port into their new vehicles.
This weird transitional period introduces lots of thorny questions. Should shoppers delay a purchase until they can buy a NACS-equipped car? Should they just go ahead and buy now, even though their vehicle’s hardware is guaranteed to be outdated in short order? Will non-Tesla owners enjoy the same seamless experience that Tesla drivers get?
All the uncertainty could deter mainstream buyers from going electric for the time being, Drury said. Just imagine telling someone their new gas-fueled car needs different nozzles and different stations, he said.
“They would laugh. They would think you’re insane,” he said.
The up-to-$7,500 federal tax credit for EV purchases is another double-edged sword for buyers. On the one hand, it offers a hefty discount on certain EVs. On the other, its rules are built to get stricter over time, making the list of eligible vehicles a moving target.
Congress rewrote the longstanding incentive program as part of 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), introducing a host of details that make things easier for consumers. After they sold too many cars to qualify for credits under the previous Obama-era rules, Tesla and GM are now back in the game. Starting on Jan. 1, buyers will be able to receive an up-front discount from their dealership, rather than a tax break in April. That should make things simpler.
But in other ways, the tax credit is mind-numbingly complicated. Tightening restrictions on component and mineral sourcing for eligible vehicles (rules designed to prop up US supply chains and challenge China’s EV dominance) mean that a bunch of models will lose eligibility on Jan. 1. That’s after new rules implemented this year already disqualified some cars.
Malmgren, of Plug In America, recommends that buyers jump on a purchase while their desired car is still eligible for a credit since the list could change dramatically come next year. But, she says, more and more vehicles should qualify over time as automakers and suppliers work to build up domestic manufacturing and comply with the IRA’s requirements.
Given enough time, other growing pains of the zero-emission transition will likely be smoothed over one way or another. The shift to NACS may be messy but will ultimately result in far better charging access for many owners. Dozens more electric models should hit the scene in the near future, including some budget-friendly options like the $35,000 Volvo EX30 and, eventually, the next-generation Chevrolet Bolt.
Perhaps the biggest thing looming over this moment is the 2024 election. These tax incentives, and the rush to offer more EVs in our market, have been heavily driven by tough new emissions rules and pro-EV policies introduced by the Biden Administration. If Biden loses next year, it's very likely some or all of those policies will be slowed, or reversed entirely. Clearly, we won't know the full impact of politics on the market until the dust settles.
But one thing is clear: chaos aside, it's a better time than ever to try and break up with gasoline—if you can figure it all out.