Are electric cars a failed experiment?

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)

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