Why electric cars won't gain mass adoption -- yet
Gasoline-fueled cars still trump the electric cars in price, speed, maintenance costs, range and refueling options.
The world's dependence on oil will need to wane sometime in the future and electric cars would help this transition. And yet, very few know that they were one of the more preferred cars before the advent of the internal combustion engine and gradually lost the battle of becoming the preferred choice for customers.
In the 1890s and early 19th century, many electric car competitions were held where they competed to clock the fastest speed. In 1899, an electric car designed by Camille Jenatzy, clocked a record speed of 65.79 mph.
The first sustained effort to provide a recharging infrastructure for these electric cars was made in 1896 by Hartford Electric Light Company. It covered over 6 million miles. The first commercial application of electric cars was made in 1897 when a fleet of electric New York taxis came into existence. However, in spite of this, the electric car did not enter public consciousness until the energy crisis of the 70s and 80s when it was suggested as an alternative to counter the monopoly of oil.
Understanding why these cars went out of vogue is critical to understanding why their sales are not picking up right now. The gasoline cars that emerged were cheaper, had an almost infinite range (since they could be refueled anywhere) and required negligible maintenance cost compared to electric cars. Since at that time oil was in abundance, it was a no-brainer to switch to gasoline cars. Although the cost of driving the electric car was actually lower, it was a benefit that was realized over time and the consumers went for the more immediate savings to be found with the gasoline car. Besides, it also saved the consumer from all the hassles of recharging and always keeping stock of the range traveled.
The situation remains pretty much the same today, except that oil has become expensive and industry advocates are starting to lobby harder the point that the long term savings of running an electric car might triumph the price differential. There are also concerns about pollution and an energy crisis.
In spite of these developments, the price differential between gasoline and electric cars of over $10,000 remains enough for average consumers to prefer the gasoline car, especially since he thinks that they would be replacing it in the next 2-3 years. All other factors such as speed, maintenance costs, range and refueling exist as they did earlier with practically no improvement.
The problem is that pollution and the energy crisis appeal to the conscience of consumers, which isn't enough, in the same manner the UN finds when asking developed countries to cut carbon emissions. Consumers are going to assume that while they are sacrificing comfort for the sake of others, other people are enjoying all the comforts and also nullifying their efforts. The fight between day-to-day comfort and conscience will most of the time be won by comfort.
Factors promoting gasoline cars -- price, speed, maintenance costs, range, refueling -- are the ones car drivers care about.
Factors promoting electric cars -- lower running costs, energy efficiency, lower pollution levels -- are ones users' conscience cares about.
We think electric cars won't be successful unless breakthrough technology is able to make itself attractive on the parameters that the users care about -- price, speed, maintenance cost, range and refueling. In other words, appealing to the conscience of the consumer won't have a meaningful impact unless a dramatic crisis forced this change.
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In the never-ending contest for sales, American carmakers are pulling ahead.
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