My 1974 Mustang II and 2023 Bolt EUV.

What the oil crisis taught me about driving an electric vehicle

When I was a high school senior in 1979, I hopped in my (still new to me) 1974 Ford Mustang II, with my first driver license in my wallet, and pulled into a long line at the gas station. As I sat there hoping they still had gasoline when I got to the pump and cursing the oil companies that were gouging us at an unheard of price of $1.00/gallon, I thought, “Why can’t they make electric cars?”

Nearly 45 years later, I’m driving an electric car.

Getting my first driver license during an oil crisis taught me lessons that I’ve carried throughout my driving life. They are especially helpful when I ditched gasoline.

The biggest fear of new EV drivers is range anxiety. With internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, we don’t think about range because there is always a gas station a few blocks away. After a few minutes fueling and getting a 44-ounce soft drink and a Slim Jim, we’re back on the road. But during the oil crisis, you can’t trust there will be a gas station with gas nearby. In states where there were odd-even days, you might not be able to buy gas at all. So, range became an issue with gasoline cars.

I had to pay attention to range with my Mustang II. MPG ratings weren’t published when the car came out. As I remember, I got around 17 MPG on a good week. With a 13-gallon gas tank, my Mustang II had a range of 221 miles—less than my Bolt EUV.

Range is still an issue today for ICE vehicles when gasoline becomes unavailable because of natural disasters, like the recent flooding in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Or when the price per gallon becomes prohibitively high. California goes through seasonal changes of gasoline blends where prices go from high to ridiculous. But even if you don’t have to worry about getting fuel, you still want to save money on driving.

This is when I lean into one thing I learned from the oil crisis in the 1970s: efficient driving. This was a topic covered in Shell Oil’s “The Gasoline Mileage Book.”

A lot of the tips still apply today for both electric and ICE vehicles: Stay within the speed limit. Avoid fast acceleration and sudden stops. (These are also important for safety.) Don’t take unnecessary trips. Get regular maintenance. Some tips are easier to follow today. With tire pressure sensors, you can make sure your tires are the right pressure. Many cars, including the Bolt EV/EUV, show you the exact pressure of each tire.

In the 1970s, there was a difference in gas mileage between manual and automatic transmissions. Many drivers back then chose a manual transmission because of the fuel savings. If you rarely see manual transmissions today, it’s because automatic transmissions have become nearly as efficient with gas mileage.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the impact climate control has on your car’s efficiency. Crank up the A/C or the heater, and your range goes down. I had a decent air conditioner with my Mustang II, but I rarely used it (even on 100+ San Fernando Valley summer days) because of the effect on mileage. I haven’t had to crank up the heat or air on my Bolt EUV yet. But my car has heated and cooled seats so I don’t have to use the heater or air conditioner as much.

One thing that is different with an electric vehicle is how you measure efficiency. Instead of MPG, you have miles per kilowatt hour (mi/kWh).

Bolt dashboard with miles per kilowatt/hour

I should point out what a big improvement the Bolt dashboard is over the last Chevrolet I drove, the Sonic. Everything that appears on the Bolt’s dashboard guides you to be a more efficient driver. The ring around the speedometer turns green when you’re driving efficiently and yellow when you’re not. It shows how much energy you’re using and regenerating while driving. The “guess-o-meter” on the left changes the estimated miles of range based on your driving and remaining charge. You can get additional energy details from the infotainment system, but I appreciate how the Bolt puts the most important information in front of you.

The range of your vehicle is based on your mi/kWh. The Bolt EUV has a 65 kWh battery. If you drive at 3.8 mi/kWh, you get its estimated range of 247 miles when fully charged. But the higher you can get your mi/kWh, the greater your range. At 3.9 mi/kWh, the range goes up to 253.5 miles. I’ve gotten it up to 4.2 mi/kWh to get a range of 273 miles. That’s better than some more expensive EVs.

Weather, terrain, and winds can affect your mi/kWh and your range. Efficient driving still helps.

It also means you need to be aware when shopping for an EV. Some vehicles claim a 300-mile range, but only because they have a bigger battery. A Ford Mustang Mach-E California Route 1 has a 312-mile range, which is impressive. But this is with a 91 kWh battery at 3.43 mi/kWh. A bigger battery can take longer and cost more to charge. But the Mach-E is larger and has more horsepower than the Bolt. Just like ICE vehicles, you must weigh efficiency with the capabilities and performance when choosing an EV.

The lessons I learned as a new driver in the 1970s are still valuable as a new EV driver in the 2020s. Efficiency is key in getting the most range from your vehicle. Safe and smart driving will help you be more efficient, as well as keeping your tires properly inflated and getting routine maintenance. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about waiting in a gas line. We’re now living in the future that I imagined as a teenager with electric cars we can charge at home.