With the Nissan LEAF making its market debut this year, the Ford Focus EV due out in late 2011, and BMW working on a small electric car that could launch in 2012, it seems that the era of the electric vehicle (EV) is finally upon us.

But with so much hype and hoopla circulating, many of us could barely fill a thimble with what we actually know about EVs. With that in mind, we compiled this list. It’s by no means a comprehensive overview, just the top 5.1 most important things to know about the long-awaited and highly-touted electric car.

1. How the heck it works In a (layman’s) nutshell…

Rechargeable batteries provide electricity to a controller, which powers a motor, which, in turn, spins the wheels. Yup, that’s it. Instead of filling up with gas, batteries are “filled up” with electricity. Recharging can be done by plugging into a normal 120- or 240-volt electrical outlet and takes anywhere from 4–10 hours.

2. How far it can go

Though driving range might vary depending on the type of vehicle and batteries, most EVs can go 80–100 miles on a single charge. And while that’s not sufficient for a Thelma & Louise-type adventure, for the general population, it’s plenty of power to get to work and home again with a few errands in between. Plus, similar to fuel-powered cars, the way you drive an electric car can affect battery efficiency.

3. How safe it is

Because there are 3 different categories of electric cars – Highway Capable, 3-wheeled “motorcycles,” and Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEV) — safety standards vary somewhat. Low-speed NEVs and 3-wheeled vehicles are currently subject to different requirements, but all highway-capable electric vehicles are regulated by the same standards as gas-powered vehicles. And in fact, in March of this year, 41 countries met in Geneva and agreed on international safety standards for fully electric vehicles.

4. How much it costs

Until recently, the Tesla Roadster was one of the few highway-worthy EVs on the market. And at $110K a pop, it was about as accessible as a NASA space shuttle. But with the Chevy Volt expected to hit showrooms later this year at a base price of $41K, and the Nissan LEAF scheduled for a December release at around $28–35K, electric cars are becoming more and more affordable.

5. How much it saves

Subtract from these prices the $7,500 federal tax credit you’ll get if you buy an electric car before the end of 2011, and the odds of being able to afford an EV in the near future jump from out-of-this-world to pretty-darn-good. And that’s without mentioning how much you can save on gas and maintenance.

5.1 How it all adds up

Electric vehicles are 100% emission-free and 97% cleaner than gas-powered vehicles. According to Scientific American, the cost of charging an electric vehicle is equivalent to paying 75 cents per gallon in gas. Over the life of a vehicle, the total “fuel” savings are likely to be thousands of dollars. They’re also 3 times as efficient. It all adds up to a happier, richer you and a happier, richer planet.

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This post has been updated to reflect the pricing of the 2011 Chevy Volt.

Smart technology | Getting there


about Heidi

Heidi brings 11 years’ experience to her role as Esurance’s copywriting manager. Writer, editor, and all around wordsy, she was content when content wasn’t cool. Also, she likes old-school country.