How Low-energy Vehicles Work

Will electrics ever deliver the proper charge?

Electric vehicles will only achieve mainstream acceptance if car shoppers become comfortable with their quirks -- the features and characteristics that make them seem inconvenient. Carmakers and marketers have been working hard to make some perceived drawbacks seem like benefits (for example, you'll have to plug in your EV to recharge while you're shopping...but you might score a priority parking spot at the charging-station-friendly grocery store). Coming up with terminology is a challenge with a similar goal. So, for the sake of putting electric vehicles in a context car shoppers will understand, they're rated in miles per gallon to enable comparisons with gas-powered vehicles. Of course, there are no gallons in an EV's battery, so the standard is that 33.7 kilowatt hours equals a gallon of gasoline (both produce the same amount of energy).

So far, though, EVs' sales are disappointing to some, yet inspiring to others. The Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, the United States' first two options, sold a combined 17,345 in 2011. These sales fall short of Nissan and GM's expectations but are more than double the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius hybrids' combined first-year sales totals of 9350 -- and look how far those have come since the year 2000 [source: Szczesny].

They're still suffering growing pains -- so far in 2012, Chevy recalled Volts to study actual battery fires, and shortly after launch, Fisker recalled all their Karmas to assess the risk of potential fires. Such problems, though, are characteristic of all vehicles -- any car can experience mechanical trouble.

There's some evidence that does suggest EVs are meeting their owners' expectations... but it's not exactly straightforward. A study of plug-in electrics in California shows that the cars there are driven an average of 26 miles (41.8 kilometers) a day, which is considerably less than Americans think they drive. Here's the catch (or, at least, one of the catches): These cars tend to be owned by people with disproportionately high incomes, like, six figures and above. That might not qualify as seriously wealthy, but it means that California EV drivers don't exactly represent the general population. They're inclined to own electric cars anyway, and can do it without too much of a cramp on the lifestyle.

By mid-2012, EV sales were ahead of 2011's pace, with more models joining the Leaf and Volt. Industry analysts predict a rise that will likely mimic the decade-long ascension of gas-electric hybrids, even if continued improvement to traditional gasoline vehicles slows growth.