America's sad love affair with the electric car

The biggest letdown is still under the hood.

By Motley Fool Pick of the Day Jan 6, 2012 3:12PM

Image: Los Angeles, Calif., traffic on Interstate 405 © VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Digital Vision/Getty ImagesBy Alex Planes

 

Electric cars started 2011 with a lot of hype and ended the year with a big face-plant. Combined sales for the plug-in electric movement's marquee names, General Motors' (GM) Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, clocked in at fewer than 20,000 units. IDC Energy Insights predicted that half a million plug-ins would sell in 2011, which now seems downright silly.

 

Don't worry, IDC. You're far from the first to get burned by your love of the electric car.

 

Most have been wrong
Modern history is littered with lofty technological predictions that turned out to be ludicrously off-base, and the electric car has been a serial offender. In "Power Hungry," Robert Bryce uncovered a long list of false optimism:

  • The New York Times declares that the electric car "has long been recognized as the ideal solution" because it "is cleaner and quieter" and "much more economical." – 1911

  • The Washington Post writes that "prices on electric cars will continue to drop until they are within reach of the average family." -- 1915

  • The New York Times reports that the "old electric may be the car of tomorrow." The story said that electric cars were making a comeback because "gasoline is expensive today, principally because it is so heavily taxed, while electricity is far cheaper" than it was back in the 1920s. -- 1959

  • The Los Angeles Times says that American Motors Corp. is on the verge of producing an electric car, the Amitron, to be powered by lithium batteries capable of holding 330 watt-hours per kilogram. (That's more than two times the energy density of modern lithium-ion batteries.) Backers of the Amitron said, "We don't see a major obstacle in technology. It's just a matter of time." -- 1967

  • The Washington Post reports that General Motors has found "a breakthrough in batteries" that "now makes electric cars commercially practical." The new zinc-nickel oxide batteries will provide the "100-mile range that General Motors executives believe is necessary to successfully sell electric vehicles to the public." -- 1979

  • In an opinion piece, The Washington Post avers that "practical electric cars can be built in the near future." By 2000, the average family would own cars, predicted the Post, "tailored for the purpose for which they are most often used." It went on to say that "in this new kind of car fleet, the electric vehicle could play a big role -- especially as delivery trucks and two-passenger urban commuter cars. With an aggressive production effort, they might save 1 million barrels of oil a day by the turn of the century." – 1980

 

Who holds back the electric car?
Hype will continue despite this long history of dashed electric hopes. The 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" places blame for the "murder" on the shoulders of oil companies and automakers, absolving plug-in electric's key technology: the batteries. But battery technology, though far from blameless, is merely one of three huge hurdles the electric car must leap past to attain widespread support.

 

Computer chips keep improving, and solar panels get more efficient, but electric car batteries seem stuck in a rut. The new Ford (F) Focus electric's range? About 100 miles. GM's groundbreaking EV1 from 1999, featured in the film, maxed out at 160 miles -- but it took eight hours to fully charge.

 

One nano-engineered solution to both capacity and charging-time issues could make both 10 times more efficient, and might reach the market in three to five years. That would be a major leap toward popular adoption, but as you can see by the LA Times quote above, advanced battery technology has been around the corner for decades. If that long-standing hurdle is finally passed this time, the possibly maybe-inevitable electric car boom still finds itself (for now) beholden to China and its hoard of rare-earth elements.

 

Renewable crutch
A Prius' battery contains more than 20 pounds of lanthanum. China is the world's source for nearly all of this and most other rare-earth elements. Electric cars of many stripes make copious use of rare earths, and China -- through low export quotas -- has made it clear that it would rather use them in-house.

 

That works well for Tesla Motors (TSLA), but poorly for Molycorp (MCP). Tesla's vehicle design uses no rare-earth elements, leaving it free to push forward while other companies worry. Tesla's also providing Toyota a rare-earth-free motor for the electric RAV4, and tight supplies may well boost its partner list. On the other hand, Colorado-based Molycorp may never gain more than 15% of the rare-earth market, leaving it highly susceptible to price wars in the best of times. If you don't think China's willing to engage in price wars to gain market dominance in any industry, you haven't been paying attention.

 

Many rivers to cross
Let's say we're over those hurdles. Batteries have become good enough to support most American driving habits and the rare-earth supply crunch is out of the picture. The last obstacle is convenience. The most recent economic census found more than 118,000 gas stations in the United States, and at any given location you'll be able to fill your car up in less than five minutes. By comparison, Nissan's Leaf requires half an hour with so-called "fast" charging stations, and eight hours under normal conditions.

 

Of course, the electric car offers the advantage of charging at home, so every Leaf (all 9,300 of them) could have its own charging station in the garage. What about people without a place for a charging station, or people who drive often, or college kids on a road trip? There are currently 1,894 publicly accessible electric charging stations in the country, with most (as you might expect) in California. That's not going to cut it.

 

To reach a broad audience, electric cars need a refueling infrastructure that takes into account the diverse living, working, and driving situations of the populace. Not only that, they need it to be efficient -- spending half an hour waiting for the car to charge while heading from Point A to Point B is not any driver's idea of a quick fill-up.

 

Charged-up final thoughts
Anyone proposing a glorious plug-in future needs to understand both the troubled past and fitful present of the electric car. Moving the world toward a new technology is never easy, especially when so many diverse components are needed to make it a part of people's lives. Battery technology must improve, and it must be met with manufacturing that avoids reliance on scarce elements and a robust and rapid infrastructure. Only then can America's love affair with the electric car have -- after a century of waiting -- a happy ending.

 

Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford Motor. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford Motor, General Motors, AeroVironment, and Tesla Motors. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a synthetic long position in Ford Motor. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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45Comments
Jan 6, 2012 5:36PM
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I have done the research!!! Does anyone have any idea of what thermodynamics is?? Every time you transfer energy you lose a little. Start counting how many times you transfer the entergy until it is in the Electric Car. Electric Cars will use far more BTU's of power than any gasoline engine. Electrical Cars make no environmental or entergy conservation savings. Electric car batteries will have to get 10 times lighter, last at least 5 times longer and produce 20 times more power per charge. Better diesel engines for cars & trucks is much more attainable in the near term. Generate as much electrical power with Hydro-Electric, Nuclear, & Natural Gas as possible. This will cut down on Co2 emissions from all the coal fired plants we had to build because the environmentalist killed the nuclear plants being built in this country.
Jan 6, 2012 4:18PM
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America is not "in love" with eclectric cars.  Why would anyone want a coal powered car?  If there was a love for them people would be buying them.  This article proves that Americans don't want them and haven't wanted them for the past 100 years.  The main problem is that the range has not improved.  The electric car from 1895 had a range of about 40 miles, and today's electric car still has a range of about 40 miles.  Improve the range, charging times, and lower the price and we'll buy them. 
Jan 6, 2012 4:13PM
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I will not be buying an electric car anytime soon.  Our closest shopping mall is 120 miles away and I have no intention to subject us to that.  As for electric cars being cleaner, whomever came up with that one must be extremely ignorant. Electricity comes from some form of plant that generates it.  Most are coal fired or nuclear.  There are a number of hydro plants as well.  It doesn't just magically appear at the outlet. All of you environmental whacko's need to actually do some research before you start heaping praise on these expensive little toys that can not make a round trip of over 100 miles.
Jan 6, 2012 8:30PM
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My 68 GTO doesn't get much for mileage but oh is it fast.   The automakers just can't get it right. They tout their wares with claims of mileage increases and pretend they have done so much. Well, check this out. I can only say this because I owned one. A well used, 1984 Volkswagen Jetta with a  1.6liter,4 cylinder, aspirated (non- turbo) diesel and a manual transmission. . When I got it,  it had 128000 miles on the engine. I replaced the injectors and did a couple of other things and averaged 48 to 52 mpg driving back an forth to work  25 miles each way and driving 65 to 70 mph.Now VW said in 1984 that the Jetta would do that. With all the new technology and 28 years later you would think the industry would at least be able to match this or even do better. Many claim they do but the feedback I hear from consumers is much different than what is claimed.  At least with the Jetta you could drive across the country and not have to worry about running out of electricity and even new it didn't cost $40K.
Jan 6, 2012 6:12PM
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xcite said it better than the article. The cost and (lack of) convenience factors are keeping people away from electric vehicles.
Jan 6, 2012 4:53PM
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Electric Cars are a great idea BUT battery technology is not at a point to support electric cars.

 

Not only the run time allotted with batteries but

1) Longevity factor of how long the battery will last

2) Hazardous Disposal Factor to get rid of the old battery

3) Cost of replacing the battery

4) Having a place to charge the car battery

5) Hazard to people of a vehicle that runs silent hitting them

6) Hazard of short circuit due to snow or rain causing electric shock or fire

 

Jan 6, 2012 6:48PM
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If Apple came out with an Electric Car, people would buy it.  Pretend that they found a mock-up from the Steve Jobs archives for an iCar. Instant market, no matter what the price!  :)
Jan 7, 2012 6:04PM
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the author failed to mention the biggest reason these cars arent catching on is because people are not willing to shell out $40,000 for a volt when they can buy a toyota corolla for $15,000. That gives them $25,000 to spend on gas before the volt even starts to catch up on fuel savings. Why cant detroit do better???
Jan 6, 2012 5:05PM
Jan 6, 2012 3:57PM
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I'm sure more negative press will make it better.......always does.......I bet no one involved in this article has even been in an electric car.

Jan 6, 2012 8:48PM
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The Chevy Volt overcomes most objections in the article.  Though it gets no better mileage than most other electrics, it will make an excellent commuter car:  You will buy no gas at all if you drive less than 40 miles daily.  It's big advantage, however, is that you CAN take it on a long trip.  Since it converts to gasoline power after about 40 miles, you can fill at any gas station and drive clear across the country with it.
Jan 7, 2012 4:30PM
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Get my wife driving electric and worrying about getting home on a single charge.  Good Luck

 

When our Washington elite drive Electric Limos.

Jan 6, 2012 11:00PM
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A few short years ago we were told our electrical grid was about maxed out and we could be facing serious shortages if we didn't build more capacity. The only thing that changed is the economy going bad and less industry using power. Even though we have unused capacity at night, what happens when things get back to normal, but then we have the added load of all the charging stations? Not all charging would happen in the evening, and even if it did no one seems to be addressing what that load could be in a few years if these start selling fast. So will the people that seldom drive end up subsidizing electric cars through higher electric rates for everyone?

 

I also wonder how the road building and repair will be funded when electric cars do not pay a fuel tax.

Jan 7, 2012 2:53PM
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Every electric car has failed for the same reason: battery cost.  Even with the initial cost subsidized by the government, the payback in gas savings for the extra cost beyond a mid-price gasoline-powered car is 5 to 10 years.  At that time, you must replace the battery pack at a cost that is roughly equal to your original cost of the car.  Electric cars cannot complete on any basis with diesel cars or 40 mpg gas cars - even when looking at total cost of ownership. 

 

Currently, the market for electric cars is limited to true believers with high incomes.  This is a very small market segment.  Even then, it is a tough sell.  Tesla sells cars in the $100,000 price range and has not survived without large infusions of cash from Toyota.

 

Even in Europe where gasoline cost between 2 & 4 times as much as in the USA due to taxation, the solution is economical gasoline-powered cars. 

 

A government sponsored nation-wide change would require a 35% increase in electric power production and a commensurate increase in distribution systems.  This would cost roughly $1 Trillion - that is roughly $7,000 per working person.  Are you willing to pay this?  On top of the expense, a political solution would be required: coal? natural gas? or nuclear? Wind generates energy 30% of the time - and that is during afternoon hours.  Dams have already been built at every possible location.  Photovoltaic has similar limitations to wind at twice the price.  Which will you allow?

 

A more credible proposition for the near future is natural-gas fueled cars.  This, too, has its expenses, but the costs are much more manageable. 

 

 

Jan 6, 2012 6:38PM
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I bought a Nissan Leaf last summer, and it is the best investment in a car I have ever made. I get the equivalent of 110 miles per gallon of gas, in terms of the cost of electricity that I use. It's a commuter's car though, not for driving across the state.
Jan 6, 2012 7:38PM
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Whoever figured that the nation that loves big V-8 gas guzzlers would cozy up to $40,000 electric cars must have been the same dummy that thought the Smart car would sell here. After 100 years of trying and failing don't you think its time to throw in the towel? It simply doesn't work. Spend the money on natural gas infrastructure. That makes sense and it works. Its time to throw the electric car in the same scrap pile as the typewriter.
Jan 6, 2012 6:43PM
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all that money would buy alot of gas
Jan 7, 2012 9:13PM
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I have an idea, if you people stop driving and walk more often and buy smaller cars we would not have a need for this article.

Jan 7, 2012 4:29AM
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Without getting into lengthy debates, I think it is quite safe to say that the future price of oil will be the primary determining factor in the long term success or failure of the electric car. 

Jan 6, 2012 7:50PM
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This is what happens when you have the government incentivizing and media hyping the "solution" for the industry.
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