The state of the electric car is dismal, the victim of hyped expectations, technological flops, high costs and a hostile political climate.Is this the beginning of the end of the latest experiment in the electric car, whose checkered history goes back to the dawn of the automobile age?
THE future would appear bright for the electric car. Gasoline prices are high. The government is spending billions on battery technology. Auto companies are preparing to roll out a dozen new electrified models. Concern is growing about the climate impacts of burning oil. And tough new fuel economy standards are looming.
Yet the state of the electric car is dismal, the victim of hyped expectations, technological flops, high costs and a hostile political climate. General Motors has temporarily suspended production of the plug-in electric Chevy Volt because of low sales. Nissan’s all-electric Leaf is struggling in the market. A number of start-up electric vehicle and battery companies have folded. And the federal government has slowed its multibillion-dollar program of support for advanced technology vehicles in the face of market setbacks and heavy political criticism.
The $41,000 Volt, in particular, has become a target of conservatives. Glenn Beck called the Volt “crappy.” Rush Limbaugh accused General Motors of “trying to kill its customers” by selling an unsafe car. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said while campaigning for president in Georgia last month that the Volt was too small to handle a gun rack (a claim proved wrong repeatedly on YouTube).
Daniel F. Akerson, the chairman of General Motors, defended the Volt before Congress earlier this year after revelations that the battery pack in one Volt caught fire three weeks after a federal crash test. Federal authorities eventually declared the car no more flammable than regular gasoline-fueled vehicles.
“Unfortunately, there’s one thing we did not engineer,” Mr. Akerson said. “Although we loaded the Volt with state-of-the-art safety features, we did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag. And that, sadly, is what it’s become.”
Is this the beginning of the end of the latest experiment in the electric car, whose checkered history goes back to the dawn of the automobile age? Can the electric car survive only with heavy government subsidies and big consumer rebates? Are the Teslas and Fiskers and ActiveEs and Volts and Leafs destined to be the playthings of only rich technophiles with a couple of spare gas-powered cars at home?
Or is this what an emergent technology looks like before it crosses the valley of death?
“Face it, this is not an easy task,” said Brett Smith, assistant research director at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “You still have an energy storage device that’s not ready for prime time. You still have the chicken and egg problem with the charging infrastructure. That’s not to say it’s not viable over the long run. But the hype is gone and the challenges are still there.”
The market for all-electric and plug-in electric cars in the United States is tiny, amounting to fewer than 20,000 sales last year out of total light-vehicle sales of 12.8 million. Even in optimistic forecasts, plug-in vehicles will account for less than 5 percent of the global market by 2025.
Hybrids that do not require external charging, however, like today’s Toyota Prius and many others already in showrooms, are a growing segment. Forecasters say they could represent as much as 6 percent of the market by 2015 and 25 percent by 2025, in part because they are among the few vehicles currently on track to meet the government’s proposed new fuel economy standard of roughly 50 miles per gallon by 2025.
Other propulsion technologies, like natural gas and fuel cells, are more likely to be seen first in heavy trucks and local delivery vans because of limited refueling options.