What Would Make an All-Electric Car Appeal to the Masses?

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YASUYOSHI CHIBA / AFP / Getty Images

Nissan's Leaf, an all-electric car

It’s widely assumed that the car of the future will be powered by gasoline. At least partly powered by gas, that is, and at least for the near future. When, if ever, will the pure-electric car — one powered solely by battery, without a drop of gas — go mainstream?

Much will have to happen before purely electric vehicles (EVs) will appeal to the masses. For now, auto observers foresee a much rosier future for gas-electric hybrids such as the Chevy Volt and the Honda Accord Plug-In — which can be driven a limited number of miles on electric power before a gas engine takes over — than for plug-ins like the Nissan Leaf, which operate solely on electricity. In a new report from the advisory company KPMG, auto-industry executives were asked to name the electric-vehicle technology that they thought would generate the most interest among consumers. The most popular answer was the plug-in hybrid, the category that includes the Volt. More than one-third of those surveyed (36%) said so, compared with 21% who gave that answer in the previous year’s poll.

By contrast, faith in the future of purely battery-powered EVs is waning; just 11% of executives pointed to the category as the top electric-car technology of the next decade, down from 16% the year before.

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The limited driving range of the Leaf and its niche battery-powered cohorts are some of the main factors stopping consumers from buying into the technology. Drivers are also turned off by the high initial price of EVs. But the technology is changing, as technology is wont to do. The equation regarding the cost-effectiveness of EVs is changing as well. In a story in this week’s TIME, I wrote about how new electric cars — and newly lower prices for existing EVs like the Nissan Leaf — may attract more drivers to check out plug-in vehicles. Or not.

When Nissan recently announced the new base price for the Leaf would be $6,400 less, company executives were quoted as saying the automaker is “confident this will represent a tipping point” in terms of boosting demand for the vehicle — which experienced disappointing sales in 2012.

The consensus among auto analysts, however, seems to be that while cheaper sticker prices will certainly help plug-in sales, the impact won’t be particularly dramatic. “There is no forecast of a large gain in sales” for the newly cheaper Leaf, says Mike VanNieuwkuyk, J.D. Power executive director of global automotive. “It’s clear there’s interest in electric vehicles. But despite the interest, most drivers can’t justify the price premium.” Accordingly, EV adoption should be slow for quite some time; in a recent J.D. Power survey, 94% of U.S. drivers said their next car wouldn’t be a plug-in.

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In terms of purely battery-powered plug-ins like the Leaf, which don’t use any gasoline and can only be driven 80 or so miles (130 km) before requiring a recharge, “there are tremendous obstacles from an economic outlook, even with the price decreases,” says John O’Dell, an Edmunds analyst who specializes in green cars and personally owns — and loves — his first-generation Nissan Leaf. “The price decrease isn’t going to open up the floodgates for EV sales. Honestly, I’m not sure if the floodgates ever do open for battery electrics.”

If knocking $6,400 off the sticker price doesn’t do the trick in terms of attracting the masses to the likes of the Nissan Leaf, what would do it? For one thing, “gas prices would really need to spike,” perhaps into the $6-to-$7-per-gallon range, says VanNieuwkuyk, to make the math on electricity-powered vehicles make sense. But that alone wouldn’t do it. “Automakers would still need to convince drivers electric cars aren’t too difficult to own and operate.” Gas stations are ubiquitous; for drivers to get onboard, a comprehensive and commonplace system of EV charging stations around the nation would be necessary.

The cars themselves would also have to become vastly more practical. When I asked O’Dell to list the theoretical specs that would constitute the ideal purely battery-powered EV that would appeal to the mainstream, he suggested two possibilities:

1) A car with a driving range of 150 miles (241 km) that could be fully recharged in 10 minutes

2) A car with a driving range of 300 miles (482 km) that could be fully recharged in 30 minutes

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For either theoretical vehicle, a sticker price in the neighborhood of $25,000 to $30,000 would be necessary, as would a good national network of EV charging stations, says O’Dell. For the time being, automakers are a long way off from reaching numbers of this sort. O’Dell says advances in technology are happening all the time, and he believes automakers will one day achieve the kinds of figures mentioned above. We just don’t know when. “Is it in two years or 200 years?” asks O’Dell, rhetorically.

25 comments
nik1
nik1

The article (predictably) fails to mention the Tesla Model S, the most advanced electric car, by leaps and bounds. Fully electric, a range of 250-300 miles, completely recharges in 40 minutes with the supercharge network, seats up to 7 people alongside a vast amount of luggage, out-accelerates most sports cars, stunningly beautiful design, state of the art electronics, now rated as the safest car on the road, and it's completely US designed and built. 


C'mon Time Warner. The Tesla Model S make the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy offering look pretty sad.

FarukKekic
FarukKekic

For the time being, automakers are a long way off from reaching numbers of this sort."

Hm what???

Tesla S

60.000$, 150 miles range, recharge time(with fast charger) 30 min.

And by the way Tesla S is a premium car and is being produced in small number. Now if they were to sell milion of these cars per year and make some stripped down version (Corolla type car) price would probabliy fall to 35-40k. 

I do not think this is a long way of from your numbers.


teedee
teedee

No one seems to care that electricity comes from mostly coal fire power plants.

Have experts calculated how much energy it takes, or how much CO2 is produced in comparison to gasoline vehicles?

Just sayin.

kerryknoll
kerryknoll

Those predictions sound realistic but of course are American focused. Electric and hybrid cars are taking off much faster in Asia, and faster in Europe than here (in Europe gas is $8-$10 a gallon). Sales in Japan of hybrids are 20% of sales, compared with 3.5% of sales here. The article also fails to mention the all-electric Tesla, which won Car of the Year in several auto magazines and for which there is a long waiting list (which I'm on). 

Brian_Keez
Brian_Keez

The electric vehicle isn't the problem.  I've averaged 2,200 miles per month in my Nissan LEAF for the past 16 months, just like I did in my gasoline car.  Many people just cannot imagine not buying gasoline because it's a way of life for any vehicle driver.  I have found that the EV lifestyle is an improvement, but it is a major shift.

JoshuaE
JoshuaE

Problems with electric car.  Range and battery life.

Solution: make multiple small swap-able batteries that you exchange at the gas station for new ones (like you do with your propane tank).  Get a full charge in 60 seconds.  

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

I'm more interested in price than miles; the Leaf gets enough miles for me to get back and forth to work.

Everyone seems to expect that electric cars have to replace gas powered vehicles, but I think aiming for commuters and two car families is the way to go. The vast majority of miles that most people drive are for commuting. I spend almost $1000/year on gas for commuting. If the premium for electric cars wasn't so high, I could get one solely for my commute and save money.

jim_dandy_is_a_big_sundae
jim_dandy_is_a_big_sundae

He left  a possibility out.  How about  common battery packs that can be replaced in under 5 or 10 minutes?  Even if the charge time takes too long, on long trips the pack could be replaced, much like adding gas to a gas tank.  Though you'd still need to get a range of over 250 miles out of a charge.  Of course, that might require all of the car makers and battery makers to cooperate ...  Obviously, the replacement would cost money, like refilling your gas tank.  Not sure what the engineering would be.  But it seems like a viable option to me.

Tallgirl
Tallgirl

When will someone do an article or study on the power source for these cars? Just because you plug it in, doesn't mean it's clean power. We're just adding to the elec co's profits without pushing them to use green energy sources. Powering cars by elec is no better for the environment if we elec co's provide their power by strip mining and burning of fossil fuels. Are these car makers making any investments in clean energy? Are the materials that go into these huge batteries still amazingly bad for the environment? I have no idea but until this issue is addressed, I'm not jumping on the band wagon.

qitcryn
qitcryn

How do you conclude EV's don't appeal to the massses??   foowie...!    Don't base consumeres desire to eject gasoline by the sales of a clown-car like the Leaf & Prius. In fact.. Start looking at the Volt, as the stardard hybrid measure and the Tesla Model S as full EV measure. GM continues to develop and place $$ on the technology in the Cadillac ELR and as Tesla gains ground on delivery time for the prepaid Model S...they too are looking to expand in the SUV segmant over the next 24months. The final push for the EV market will be cost and size. If the EV market really want's to take off..short power charges of 1 hour for a 250mile range charge is a must and prices of $38K-$45K for a large 7 seater EV will have to appear very soon. The leaf, prius and other oversized electric go-carts should only cost a max of $17K..

VoltOwner
VoltOwner

@teedee Mostly? If you mean 38% and falling, then yes mostly...

info2
info2

Yes the experts have spoken. The Union of Concerned Scientest did an entire study in this regaurd. Check it out.

tom.litton
tom.litton

@teedee It's easier and more cost effective to clean up the relatively few power plants than the many cars.  Plus there are alternatives to coal when it comes to electricity.  

I think if everyone uses a ubiquitous power distribution (i.e. electricity) for everything, then we can focus on making that efficient and clean.  And maybe one day completely renewable.

jpwhitehome
jpwhitehome

@Brian_Keez I average about 1,100 miles per month in my LEAF and have had far fewer journey's where the LEAF was not practical than I had anticipated when I purchased it. So the reality is better than the common expectation. However I would agree with the article that a range of 150 miles would be much better. A recent trip of 108 miles required a 30 minute QC and 2 hours of L2 charging. More inconvenience than I'd like. With 150 mile range, I could have driven with no need to recharge.

With a 150 mile range, charge times are almost irrelevant, so I disagree with the charge times in this article for the ideal vehicle  The BEV will never be a great choice for long haul trips where recharge time are an issue. 120 miles is the furthest I've driven (or needed to drive) my LEAF in one day; a 150 mile range would really be perfect for almost all daily driving needs.

Simply extending range to 150 miles will allow for a mass adoption IMHO. Of course costs would have to be about the same as they are now, not go up to achieve this range increase. It'll take some more battery technology and cost improvements to achieve a vehicle acceptable to the unwashed masses.


mbmbender
mbmbender

@JoshuaE 

Uh, a well-funded company called Better Place has been trying to do this for years with limited to terrible results.  I will admit that it sounds good though.

tom.litton
tom.litton

@JoshuaE While i think that's a good idea, that will take time.

I would rather see charging stations and businesses, restaurants, tourist attractions, etc.  Anyplace that you would/could stop for long periods of time. 

You would still need to greatly reduce the charging time to make it worth while for pure electric vehicles though.  But more charging stations would still help immediately.

PaulScott
PaulScott

@mtngoatjoe I've been leasing LEAFs in Los Angeles for well under $300/month with essentially no down payment. This is less than many people pay for gas every month, so for them, it's like getting a new car for nothing.

We're now starting to get the first wave of used LEAFs and Volts as people trade up for new ones. The used cars are selling for $19K-$23K. That price will drop every year. Thse used LEAFs are excellent deals since they perform as good as new for many years. And cost of operation is very low.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

@jim_dandy_is_a_big_sundae250 miles seems like a lot for me. The farthest trip we take on a monthly basis is 150 miles (one way). If there was a quick-charge station in the middle, we could have dinner (which we always do anyway), and charge up. A Leaf would work great in this scenario.

You may drive 250 all the time, but I think most people, especially city commuters, drive far less than that each day. 

info2
info2

Union of concerned Scientests. Look up there study all of your questions anwsered.

PaulScott
PaulScott

@Tallgirl You have the choice to use clean, renewable electricity. You don't have the choice to use renewable gasoline.

You run your home on electricity. If you don't like dirty electricity for your car, then why do you use it for your home? You can request to participate in your utility's renewable energy program, or if you have the roof for it, solar is a great option. Here in CA, solar is cheaper then grid power. 

I've been driving an EV and powering it on solar energy for ten years. My electric bill averages a mere $100 per year!. My panels paid for themselves years ago, so fo rthe rest of my life, I get free energy from the sun to run my house and car.

There are thousands of Americans doing the same thing now. 

Two years ago, we had about three thousand EVs in the U.S. Today, there are 75,000. These cars are amazing. Just ask anyone who drives one. Those who haven't driven the cars find fault when none exists. Just test drive a LEAF or Volt and you'll understand.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

@Tallgirl : Do a little Google research before you express your assumptions. Greenhouse gas levels produced from gasoline are far higher than burning coal to move a vehicle the same amount of miles. And even if the same amount of greenhouse gases were created, wouldn't you prefer to use American made electricity than foreign produced oil?

VoltOwner
VoltOwner

@qitcryn Again with the 250 mile/1 hour bit. That is an outlier requirement for maybe 20% of drivers. About 80% drive 40 miles per day or less.