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

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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.