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?

Will EVs ever have a real chance?

The United States government is usually offering some sort of tax incentive for the purchase of an EV and home charging infrastructure. These incentives help get cars off dealer lots by defraying part of the cost-of-entry barrier, and the programs send the message that the government supports evolving eco-friendly technology (perhaps reassuring consumers that their fancy new cars won't be quickly rendered obsolete). President Obama hopes to have a million EVs on the road in the next couple of years, and a report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says the government will spend billions of dollars attempting to achieve that goal [source: Plumer]. According to the 2012 report, tax incentives, lean energy grants, and loans to EV manufacturers account for most of the planned and anticipated spending, but the CBO doesn't think it'll achieve the desired result. Instead of 1 million EVs sold by 2015, the CBO expects about 270,000 by 2019. Some experts believe that without these tax breaks, we have no way of knowing if electric cars are truly winning converts -- at least, on their own merits. Until the EV economy can survive on its own, without government assistance, we can't expect EVs to make a long-term difference in our transportation habits.

Manufacturers and clean energy advocates have also clearly underperformed in one crucial area -- public perception and understanding of EVs. Many consumers still believe EVs are too slow, too expensive, and are prone to running out of juice without proper notice. In fact, major improvements have been achieved in all three areas in just the past couple of years. Nissan Leaf drivers might spend more up front compared to a conventional compact, but the car can easily handle spirited highway driving, and with a range of about a hundred miles (160.9 kilometers) enables an average round-trip commute. Lithium-ion battery costs are expected to plummet by the end of the decade which could give a big boost to the industry by helping reduce the cars' prices [source: Plumer]. Consumers have also been worried about safety (Just how hot do those batteries get, anyway?), but if time goes on without recurring incidents, those fears will start to subside.

Some of these concerns are still rational, given the number of short-lived electric models that have come and gone (especially highly-publicized cases like the GM EV1). If consumers don't want to make a considerable investment in new technology that might soon be outdated -- or worse, abandoned -- that's a big blow to the EV movement. But manufacturers and their distribution network play a role in this problem. Shortly after 2013 rolled around, some Chevrolet dealerships announced that they couldn't justify a $5,100 investment in the specific tools they needed to service Volts. Just over two-thirds of Chevrolet dealerships got approval from GM to sell Volts, and only those dealerships were trained and equipped to perform Volt service. But Volt sales are so concentrated in urban areas that 300 of those dealerships sold 70 percent of the Volts on the road [source: Demorro]. And a handful of others are deciding Volt sales are not worth the time, money and effort -- if they don't buy the latest specialized tools from GM and train their technicians, they'll lose Volt sales certification, as well. (Keep in mind that the Volt isn't a pure EV, since it features a small gasoline engine as a backup, but they're a good example of how complicated it is to bring an innovative new car to market, and the Volt suffers from many of the same problems as EVs.) So, what does it mean that some sellers of perhaps the most well-known clean energy vehicle on the road are opting not to sell it anymore? At the very least, it indicates that the Volt isn't catching on across the country. That said, it's worth noting that the Volt's drivetrain will be making an appearance in future GM electric cars [source: Demorro]. So GM, at least, plans to keep this round of experiments going for a while.

Author's Note: Are electric cars a failed experiment?

Even if the electric car could be conclusively deemed a failed experiment, it's hard to believe that it will ever really go away. It's too compelling of a concept, especially since we're told repeatedly that developing and adopting low-energy vehicles, juiced up with a clean, renewable energy source, is the only way future generations will be able to justify driving cars at all.

As we discussed in this article, there are multiple points of failure in electric vehicles -- available technology, car design, infrastructure, economy and public perception. But so much work has already been done that it seems like only a few things need to fall into place before the plan becomes plausible again. Maybe gas-electric hybrids will eventually become good enough that a mass conversion to fully electric vehicles won't be worth the effort. But until that happens, the drawbacks to electric vehicles only provide practical arguments ... not an emotional one.

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  • Demorro, Christopher. "Some Authorized Chevy Volt Dealers Cease Selling Hybrid Over $5,100 in Tools." Gas Jan. 3, 2013. (Jan. 9, 2013)
  • Plumer, Brad. "CBO: Government will spend $7.5 billion on electric vehicles. What are we getting back?" The Washington Post. Sept. 21, 2012. (Jan. 9, 2013)
  • Shahan, Zachary. "California Plug-In Car Owners Driving Less & Saving Serious Money." CleanTechnica. Aug. 26, 2012. (Jan. 9, 2013)