Zondits Interview – Purchasing a Used EV

Mark D’Antonio, Zondits staff, 6/14/2022

Amber Watkins is Senior Consultant and Policy Advisor at DNV and recently purchased a used electric vehicle (EV). In this Ask-The-Expert discussion, she shares her experience, perspectives, and key takeaways.

What drove you to purchase an EV and why did you opt for a used vehicle?

When I lost my house in the Santa Rosa Tubbs Fire in 2017, I decided to replace my BMW sedan. It had a fair amount of heat and smoke damage, and I didn’t want a daily reminder of what we went through. As a research consultant, I had worked on an EV charging study in Virginia and talked with the EV owners. During those years, I cataloged some pros/cons of owning an electric car. I started my car search in 2018 and leased a BMW i3. A college friend had leased one a few years prior and I always enjoyed the big windshield, the modern look and feel, it was quiet, fairly comfortable, and of course the best of all was the acceleration.

The BMW i3 I leased had a gasoline back up, which made me feel “safe” as it related to range anxiety, however, over time I learned it was insufficient and still required frequent stopping because the tank was so small. Additionally, the generator couldn’t recharge the batteries fast enough when accelerating up steep hills and would max out at about 45 miles per hour. At first, I thought the car was defective, but read up on the issue and learned that was the downfall of a generator to battery system. I tried to avoid this as I basically became a road hazard on certain highways. During the time I leased the i3, the Oakland A’s had given us season tickets (thank you Dave Kaval) and so we were making a lot of 150-mile trips from our home in Aptos to the Oakland stadium. It was through those routine trips that I better understood the capacity and charging network challenges. I kept the i3 for the duration of the lease and returned it to the dealership as the cost of ownership was far beyond what I felt it was worth.

For a couple years I went back to driving my family car, a BMW X5. Being someone who genuinely attributed losing my home to climate change, I felt that continuing to drive a V8 model car conflicted with my values of caring about the environment and lowering my carbon footprint. For about 10 months I searched weekly online for an electric car and found a local seller that was offering the car of my choice, a used Model S Tesla.

What led you to choose the Tesla?

I didn’t want to spend more than $40,000 on a car but most new EVs are about $60K so I knew I’d be buying a used car. I had considered a plug-in hybrid. Both Honda and Toyota had good options, but felt it defeated the point of getting rid of high gas prices, oil changes, smog-checks, and the car itself still had a good deal of components that might one day translate into repair issues. A study I read pointed out that the average internal combustion engine (ICE) car has 30,000 components while an electric car has half that, which translates into fewer parts that can break overtime. I saw this as another win for the EV vs. ICE car debate.

I wanted a car with at least a 200-mile range. A “nice to have” would be to test drive it (I’d never driven a Tesla). As much as I tried to convince myself to go with an alternate manufacturer, I knew I would be most satisfied if I was part of the Tesla EVSE charging network. After owning the i3 with about a 115-mile range, I got real life experience of using a variety of chargers. While the Level 1 or 2 chargers are great resources for overnight (e.g., a home), they have limited benefit for long-distance trips. In the two years I was using the public Level 3 charging stations my passion for EVs quickly deflated. There simply wasn’t enough throughout California, much less anywhere else in the U.S. Typically, there were only a few Level 3 chargers at any given location. Other issues include unreliable software and undesirable locations for charging. Even today, the EV charging infrastructure is still far below ideal, even with Tesla’s more advanced charging network.

Thus, I eventually narrowed it down to the Tesla Model S, which was a little larger than the model 3. I’m more satisfied with the Tesla network but still feel constrained in how far I can travel. Let’s just say it’s a lot easier to convince myself the wait is worth it with gas prices now inching toward $7 a gallon.

How did you approach the shopping experience, and did it go as planned?

Buying a car online has become common place and I went to all the online websites like Carvana, CarMax, Tesla, Craigslist, etc. After weeks of searching and considering my limited budget, I ended up with a used 2014 that was showing some wear. The next best option was a good $5-10K difference and with a smaller battery and lower range. I made arrangements to test drive it and within one week the former owner was delivering it to my driveway. The final purchase price was $36,000 including registration and taxes, with 85,000+ miles and a 230-mile range.

Are your family and friends curious, are they weighing EVs more now that they see you have purchased one?

That certainly was the case for me, I bought one after a friend purchased one – so yes, influencing does happen. I think the curiosity and desire is often there, but the cost is still out of reach for most, especially those with the high cost of housing and childcare.

What are your key takeaways to share?

  • To be an EV driver today is to be a planner.
  • Your car’s range, your driving needs, exclusive use of a Level 1 charger at home, or needs away from home will limit how you use an EV.
  • EVs are still too expensive for the average buyer. Income qualification requirements for rebates should be expanded to include middle income buyers. This will facilitate greater adoption.
  • Utilities could do a better job of creating tools to inform customers on whether a time-of-use rate plan or EV rate plan is more advantageous.
  • All EVs should have built-in apps to help identify charging stations and provide “low-friction” seamless billing (Tesla has addressed this).
  • Charging infrastructure needs to expand with more locations, shorter charge times, reliable operation, and “easy-to-use” apps to remove charging bottlenecks. The infrastructure will need to keep pace with the expansion and rapid growth in EV sales. Tesla has largely done a better job in building a charging network, user-friendly apps, and home charging and has set the standard.
  • I’m satisfied with my purchase and look forward to the evolution of electrified transportation in the coming years.