Just as we've learned to plug our phones in at night if we want to use them in the morning, we'll need to remember to plug in the car if we want to get to work. This will replace the old thinking in which, as the gas gauge approached empty, we lived in confidence that we could duck into a nearby gas station to top off the tank, just as we know we can find a grocery store or fast-food place if the kids get hungry. The infrastructure for recharging electric cars isn't that developed yet.
The two main contenders are the Chevrolet Volt, an "extended-range" electric with a backup gas engine, and the all-electric Nissan Leaf. There's also the Tesla, a Silicon Valley-produced all-electric sports car capable of hitting speeds of 125 mph.
Beyond those are smaller start-up carmakers that sell various all-electric and extended-range electric cars like the Volt with small backup gas engines. Add to that hundreds of do-it-yourself conversions that backyard mechanics have done to turn their gasoline vehicles into electric cars and the numbers on the road begin to reach into the thousands.
But last year 12.5 million new cars and trucks were sold in the United States. So that makes electric cars, for all the hype, a drop in the bucket.
As of April 30, 1,025 Leafs and 1,703 Volts had been sold, according to Autodata, a company that tracks auto sales. Production is only slowly ramping up. Nissan has orders for 20,000 Leafs, which it hopes to deliver by the end of the year. Chevy says it has 10,000 Volts on back-order that will be on the road by 2013.
The main issue is going to be getting Americans beyond the No. 1 fear about electric cars: "range anxiety," says Rosanna Garcia, a marketing professor at Northeastern University in Boston who studies innovations and what keeps people from adopting them.
"Despite the fact that most people don't really drive more than 40 miles a day," running out of charge is their main worry when asked if they'd buy an electric vehicle, she says. That will change as people see how the cars fit into their friends' and neighbors' lives and as the charging infrastructure is built so people can top off their batteries while they run errands.
In some ways, it's similar to the situation in the early 1900s when automobiles were new. As late as 1927, AAA put station information in its TourBooks so people would know if they had to carry their own gas and how much gas they would have to carry to get to the next station, says AAA's Heather Hunter.
Today, electric-car owners consider it polite to send e-mail or Twitter updates when they use a public charging station to tell other drivers it's up and running.
To get a glimpse of the daily routine of a few of the thousands of Americans already living the electric life, USA TODAY plugs in to see how the new EVs (electric vehicles) work in reality.
Carolyn Buckley drives to work 35 miles each way four days a week. "I've driven almost 15,000 miles in my little EV (electric vehicle)," and it has yet to run out of power. She drives her NmG to work and has a Toyota Scion to transport her three children.
What people worry about: "People say, 'You could get stuck in a traffic jam, and you'd run out of power!' And I have to remind them that when I'm not moving, I'm not using any energy."
Her routine: When Buckley gets home at night, she parks in her garage and plugs in the car. In the morning, it's fully charged. The NmG plugs into an ordinary 110-volt socket and takes 10 to 11 hours to charge to its full capacity. In the morning she drives the 35 miles to work, then plugs in there to top off the battery.
She's never run out of energy, though just after she bought it she was worried she might. She had driven to a football game in a cold rain, so she had on her bright lights, heat and windshield wipers. She was about 5 miles from home and was down to 25% power so she decided to top off. She went to a gas station, "and they were very nice about it and let me plug in." Her husband picked her up; a few hours later they went back to pick up the car — "and leave a nice note for the woman who was so helpful."
What she likes about it: Driving is never simply "a trip from point A to point B, because people are waving, they're smiling. I get thumbs-up, and once in a while someone will applaud when I drive past. I love pulling up behind school buses."
Carry-along charger extends her Leaf's range
Every night after Waidy Lee of Los Altos, Calif., drives into her garage, she plugs her car in. The next morning, she says, "I go off."
She also owns a BMW 2000 that she takes on longer trips, for example, if she's driving to Los Angeles, 355 miles away. Usually, "if it's just me going to L.A., I will fly, because that uses the least fossil fuel. I did the calculation."
Her commute: Retired since 2000, Lee doesn't have a daily commute, but drives a lot to see friends and take part in many activities. Since she got the car, she's driven 2,882 miles. She has a 220-volt charger in her garage.
But when she knows she's going someplace that doesn't have a charger — for example, a weekend up to Napa wine country — she carries one in the trunk. "It's about the size of a carry-on suitcase. You can plug it into an electric dryer outlet," she says.
There's also a website that lists all the available chargers in the USA, and an iPhone app as well, she says.
Though the car is rated to get 100 miles to the charge, Lee, an engineer, likes to see just how far she can go with careful driving. It's called "hyper-miling" and is something electric car owners brag and compare notes about. "Once I got 128 miles on the Leaf," she says.
What other people worry about: "All my friends and neighbors ask me, 'How can I get one?' The waiting list (to buy a Leaf) is closed right now, but they're going to reopen it, so they're worried they'll miss that date."
What she likes about it: "When you get it serviced, there are only three things they check: windshield wiper fluid, the brakes and tire pressure. There's no oil, no oil filter. You don't need to go to the gas station at all."
BMW electric gives him a surprisingly quick start
Tom Moloughney drives to his restaurant in the morning and plugs into a 220-volt outlet at his parking space behind the building. "In an hour I'm back up to 100% charge." He spends the day doing errands, picking up supplies and meeting with vendors, sometimes driving 50 miles.
His car is part of an experiment BMW is running to gather information for the launch of its electric BMW in 2013, so the company installed a charging outlet at his home and, later, at his restaurant. The car takes four hours to fully charge.
His commute: It's 32 miles from his home in the country to his restaurant in Montclair, N.J. Before the Mini E, he spent about $400 a month on gas. Now he spends about $100 a month on electricity.
Moloughney still has the Toyota pickup he commuted in previously, which he keeps to plow the restaurant parking lot in the winter and to pick up large loads for the restaurant. His wife, Meredith, drives a Chevy Equinox.
What other people worry about: "They feel they couldn't adjust to something new in their life. But it's really not much of an adjustment."
What he likes about it: "I didn't expect I would like the electric car experience as much as I do. In a regular car, you hear the engine rev before the power comes. But electric cars have full power and full torque all the time. So when you step on the pedal, it immediately throws you back in your seat."
Thoughts: How we think about powering our cars is going to change. Instead of making a trip to the gas station every week or so, we'll plug in when it's convenient to top off the battery. "With electric cars, you're never really waiting for your car to charge. You simply charge when you're not using the car."
Volt owner enjoys not pumping gas
David Schieren and his wife, Cristina, live in a 40-unit apartment building with an underground parking garage. He hasn't yet been able to persuade the owners to let him install a charging station in the garage, so he charges his Volt at his office.
"It's not that sophisticated," he says. He has an ordinary, heavy-duty orange extension cord plugged into an outlet running out the back door of the building to the yard where his company parks its trucks.
It takes about 10 hours to fully charge the car, but in the month he's had it he hasn't used up a full charge in one day.
His commute: Seven miles to the office. Because the Volt has a backup gasoline engine, he doesn't have to worry about running out of power.
Cristina has a Mercedes CLK 350, but "Since we got the Volt, she leaves hers parked, and then I drive her to the train station.
"I'm a very good husband: It's door-to-door service."
What other people worry about: "Everyone at my office got worried when they saw it was raining out and came and got me, but the Volt coupler is rated for wet environments."
What he likes about it: "I've had the car for a month, and I haven't been to the gas station once. That feels pretty good."
It's also fun. "People turn their heads. People ask me to roll down the window when I'm driving, and they want to talk to me. They wave. You park it somewhere, and people are leaving you notes that say, 'This is amazing. How does it work?' And they'll leave their number."
Good for long drives — at a steep price
Randy Wonzer parks in a garage in the alley behind his house in San Francisco, where he plugs the car in. He had an electrician run a line from the garage's breaker and put a 220-volt socket on the wall next to where he parks.
He uses the car to get to and from work. His wife, Carrie, has a Chevy Tahoe she uses to take their twins and three other neighbor kids to school. They plan to replace it with Tesla's Model S sedan, which seats seven, when it becomes available next year.
His commute: Wonzer drives 35 miles to his office in Palo Alto and back each day, plus business meetings around the Bay Area. Because the Tesla has such an extended range, he charges up overnight at home and doesn't worry about running out of charge during the day. He's driven it as far as Lake Tahoe, 190 miles northeast, to go skiing, though he did stop in Davis, Calif., to top off the battery.
What other people worry about: "People are worried that electric cars are slow and golf-cart-like — not serious cars. I remember shortly after I picked up my Roadster, a woman in a 7 Series BMW asked me at a stoplight if it was a 'toy.' The light turned green, and I smoked her. "
What he likes about it: It's fast and fun. His home's rooftop solar panels generate the electricty to charge the car.