Battery Warning: Why Electric Vehicles Have Yet to Take Off

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Any takers? Sales of electric vehicles like the Chevy Volt have been slower than expected.

2011 was supposed to be the year of the electric vehicle. All kinds of people said it—including this guy. And in some ways it was. After years of anticipation—and piles of presumptuous magazine stories and unending commercials—2011 saw the commercial introduction of GM’s extended-range electric Volt and Nissan’s all-electric Leaf. The tax credits were ready, gasoline was expensive and the cars were set to sell. All they needed were drivers.

Turns out, however, Americans weren’t quite sold on the electric car revolution. In 2010 Americans bought around 20,000 electric vehicles, compared to 14 million non-electrics. Sales of both the Leaf and the Volt failed to meet expectations, with the Volt possibly held back by safety concerns over a battery fires in some crash tests. (Today GM announced that it was adding more steel to the Volt to protect the lithium-ion battery in the case of a collision—the move will fix some 8,000 Volts on the road, and another 4,400 still up for sale.) All of which begs the question: are electric cars running out of juice?

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First it’s important to understand that no one expected the American fleet to suddenly go all-electric overnight. Americans buy millions of new cars a year, but they already own so many that it would still take some 20 years for the U.S. auto fleet to turnover. And despite the commercial hype, the initial batch of EVs should be thought of as pilot projects—a recon mission for the car of the future.

But as electric vehicles moved from the showroom to the driveway, certain facts became hard to ignore—facts that could slow down the adoption of EVs even more. In a piece for the website Jalopnik—which, to be fair, seems to really dislike EVs—Joel Johnson explained why Americans aren’t going electric. It essentially boils down to cost: electric cars cost too much and deliver too little, especially for Americans who don’t live in dense urban areas:

I was staying the week with a pal of mine in his new house in De Soto, Kansas, another theoretical suburb of Kansas City. To ride my motorcycle from my sister’s place—where we’d just taken the kids through a nearby corn maze to show my niece and nephews what it looks like when five-hundred horny teenagers paw each other in a field—back to De Soto took over an hour. And that was normal. That’s just what people inthe midwest do. They drive and drive and drive.

The Nissan Leaf, one of the best—or at least more car-like—electric vehicles on the market, has a full-charge range of 73 miles. I couldn’t have made it back for dinner that night if I were in a Leaf.

There’s no getting around that cost barrier for many of us, even with the $7,500 tax credit and further state rebates that can come with purchasing an electric vehicle. The Nissan Leaf costs about $35,000 before credits and rebates. Yes, you save money every day by not paying for gasoline—which is likely to break the $4 a gallon barrier soon enough, especially if Iran decides to shut the Strait of Hormuz—but as Johnson points out, you can get a similar-sized, very efficiently gasoline-powered sedan for much less. And you wouldn’t have to contend with range anxiety, which isn’t likely to abate until an electric infrastructure pops up that can contend with the existing coast-to-coast array of gas stations.

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With its gasoline-powered range extender, Chevy Volt drivers don’t have to worry about running out of power. But the otherwise average-sized sedan costs nearly $40,000 before credits and rebates, which is again a huge premium over a comparably sized car. If you simply want to save money—versus saving the planet—it doesn’t make much sense to go electric.

That doesn’t mean EVs are the wrong choice for everyone, as Boing Boing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote in a post today. For Americans who live in denser urban areas where daily rides might be relatively short, a Leaf or Volt could fit ideally into their driving habits—especially as a second or third car for a family:

Right now, some of us are able to find electric cars useful if we live in relatively dense communities and if we have some extra money to spend on buying a car that serves our personal interest in consuming less oil. Those are good incentives, but they aren’t broadincentives. And as long as the incentives stay that narrow, the resulting energy change will stay small. The problem isn’t that Americans don’t like electric cars and need to be convinced to like them. The problem is that we’ve set up our infrastructure and shared systems in such a way that most people’s incentives are heavily stacked in favor of gasoline-powered cars. Do you want a world where most people own electric? Then stop telling people they have to buy electric cars, and start telling zoning boards that cities, and exurbs, have to be denser with more multi-story, mixed-use development and fewer single-story buildings that group all the services in one place far away from where all the people live.

In the end, the success of electric cars isn’t just about technology. It’s about the social priorities we favor as a group, and how we apply those priorities. Electric cars will continue to be a niche thing as long as our cities are built for cheap gasoline, and as long as the cost of gasoline doesn’t take into account all the money cheap gasoline forces us to fork over in the form of healthcare costs, environmental damage, and adaptation to climate change.

But that’s kind of the problem, isn’t it? It’s true that electric cars would be a better fit in a denser America—but unfortunately, that’s not the country many of us live in, even if we’d prefer to. In Slate today Matthew Yglesias pointed out that Americans often want to live near transit, and will = pay a high premium for it—as much as 40% in parts of Washington, DC. But that makes dense, transit-friendly neighborhoods a bit like electric cars—great goods we want to have, but too often simply can’t afford.

The difference between transit and housing is that we don’t need a technological leap to lower the cost of  homes near rail or subway lines. We just have to accept greater density, including building up instead of out. But zoning regulations and other outmoded rules tend to hold those developments back—as, sometimes, do NIMBYish feelings from locals who don’t want to see more development or more construction. (See this recent New York Times story about a 40-year battle over a planned train line on the Hawaiian island of Oahu—which I can tell you after sitting in traffic there on vacation this summer, could seriously use some transit.)

Electric cars will play a major role in transport. The question is really when, and how we’ll get there—which means, how will they get cheaper. You can make a better battery—and battery makers are hard at work, if only to soup up our iPads and phones—but what we really need is a much cheaper battery. Tax credits and rebates can help make EVs more affordable for the masses, but they’re limited—the more people who buy EVs, the more those policies would cost at a time when no one is eager to defend massive public spending. By their very nature, they limit scale.

The question is which set of policies will move EVs to the discount lot fastest, and I don’t have a single answer. But even if electrics didn’t quite blow up in 2010, don’t lose sight of the fact that small, cheap, energy-efficient cars did. Sales of compacts like Chevy Cruze and Sonic are up more than 50% compared to a year ago. (The Chevy Cruze, which gets 42 mpg on the highway, costs less than $17,000.) Both American car companies and American drivers seem to finally be learning that in a oil-squeezed future, energy-efficient vehicles are the way to go—however they’re powered.

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