Are electric cars a failed experiment?

The charging point of the Nissan Leaf is displayed at the 'A World Without Petrol' art exhibition at Customs House in Sydney, Australia. Want to learn more? Check out these electric car pictures.
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images for Nissan

It seems snarkier than necessary to call electric vehicles (EVs) a "failed experiment" -- after all, they've been around, off and on, for more than 100 years. The more pedantic might prefer to say they're a series of failed experiments. On what basis, exactly? Well, they haven't worked so far, based on one of the most important benchmarks -- meeting sales projections. And yes, if people choose not to buy electric cars (for whatever reason) each time they become available, that could reasonably be described as "failing."

That said, electric vehicles do reduce the toxic emissions that harm the environment. And, we did learn from them -- isn't that what experiments are supposed to do?

We've seen that, when conditions are right, EVs might have a fighting chance. Some people point to the state of California as proof that electric cars are taking off, but the example is really an anomaly. The state has invested heavily in clean energy infrastructure, making the logistics of EV ownership a lot easier on the sunny West Coast than the rest of the country. Several manufacturers, including Mercedes and MINI, have tested new EV models in California through lease-only programs ... and these cars aren't available anywhere else. A California-focused 2012 study revealed that EV owners prefer to drive electric whenever they can, logging about 85 percent of their driving in their EV, which shows the cars are actually usable for real-world purposes. But more than half of EV owners in California have household incomes over $150,000 per year, and another 25 percent are above the six-figure benchmark [source: Shahan]. This demographic is a lot more willing to take a chance on new technology. So, they might love their EVs, but they don't reflect mainstream America's mindset (or means). It's hard to conclude, under such conditions, that EVs failed on their own merits -- there was really no way to achieve a conventional benchmark of success.

But the California early adopters jumped on board before the most recent crop of EVs hit the market. Now we have more affordable small electric cars like the Nissan Leaf, cars that are attainable to a much broader population, and there are more on the way. Even though the latest models' first couple years of sales haven't met expectations, it might be too soon to write them off for good. The question remains: Can we achieve the proper conditions for EV success?