Monday, November 22, 2010

Five Reasons Electric Cars Could Fail in the US

With the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf set to take over very soon a small chunk of the new car market, it's worth asking whether we can expect this to be a brief fad (a la Delorean) or a lasting consumer trend. The Ford Focus electric is slated to be released next year, and the very same question could be asked of that model as well.

Clearly, many key stakeholders are heavily invested in making sure that electric vehicles are successfully launched as a mainstay of the US car market. General Electric has announced it will buy 25,000 EV's for its company fleet in 2015 as part of its long-term corporate strategy. A number that large can hardly be written off as mere environmental lip service. Nearly half of these vehicles are expected to be the Chevy Volt, due to its dual electric-hybrid engine that is not fully dependent on an electric charge.

The City of Houston, Texas, long a bastion of the oil industry and its defenders, will be the first city in the US to have a privately-funded electric vehicle charging network. By the end of next year, Houston is expected to have between 50 and 150 charging stations throughout the city, operated by NRG Energy. The chargers will be Level 2 and 3, meaning that vehicles can be fully charged in as little as a half-hour, surpassing a major stumbling block of Level 1 "electric highway" efforts we have seen in California and Washington. Talks are underway to even expand the network into San Antonio and Austin. It may be the most ironic development yet if Texas, and not liberal California or New York, were to be the most EV-prepared state in the country.

Despite these positive developments, there are several reasons to question whether EVs really are here to stay or are just a passing trend.

Here's five reasons from The Infrastructurist for why EV's are not ready to take off in America:

1. Money
The Leaf has a sticker price of $32,780, and the Volt starts even higher, at $41,000. Of course those numbers go down $7,500 with a federal subsidy (or, as George Will puts it, “bribe”) on EV purchases. But that’s still a lot to ask for cars whose similarly sized competitors ask less than twenty grand. Complicating the picture is that gas prices are (somewhat) stable at the moment—and it sure doesn’t look like the gas tax will go up either.

2. Time
For most people, buying a plug-in also means buying a new plug. That’s because achieving a full charge with standard 120-volt sockets found in most homes will take 20 hours — clearly too long to make the morning commute. Upgrading to a 240-volt charger will cut that time to roughly 8 hours, or a typical night at home. But that can run you another two grand. There’s currently a federal subsidy for these, too, but it’s set to expire December 31, and Congress may not renew it. (And, if we did all buy EVs and charge them at once, apparently the power grid would totally fail.)

3. Range Anxiety
Far and away the biggest concern of potential electric buyers is range anxiety, or the fear of running out of power far from home. Public charging stations are few and far between at present. While people commute less than 40 miles to work on average—well within the range of most electrics—the distance one can travel in a fully charged EV varies based on factors like speed, road conditions, and air conditioning or heat use. In three typical scenarios, Popular Mechanics recently found that the Volt goes only on an average of 33 miles on its electricity (before switching over to an auxiliary gasoline engine).

4. Misinformation
Part of the fear of range anxiety stems from misinformation: A recent survey by the Electric Power Research Institutefound that 38% of people believe the maximum range of battery electrics to be 50 miles, when in fact it’s often double. The same survey found that 35% of people consider electrics “less reliable” and 20%  consider them less safe than gasoline cars — “misperceptions,” says environmental writer Jim Motavalli, that “are definitely going to color your attitude toward EVs.”

5. Man’s Inexorable Reluctance to Change
One leading authority, when asked about the future of automobiles, said that the limitations of battery power simply make gasoline motors “more promising.” That was Thomas Edison, speaking to the New York World in 1895. Although electric cars have been discussed since Edison’s day (some early American car manufacturers even preferred them), the gasoline engine won out, and its position has only grown stronger over time. Today EVs must fight not only battery power but also a deeply ingrained national habit. As the manger of electrics for BMW North America recently told USA Today, when it comes to electric cars, people “need a little more convincing.”

 Via: The Infrastructurist, Inhabitat

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