Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Those pushing electric cars -- not gas-electric hybrids, but cars running on batteries alone -- say they are the future answer to the world's ground transportation requirements.
Perhaps, or perhaps not. But what they aren't is the present answer to those needs.
A Reuters story last month, datelined in both Toyko and Detroit and headlined "Electric cars headed toward another dead end," said that "Recent moves by Japan's two largest automakers suggest that the electric car, after more than 100 years of development and several brief revivals, is still not ready for prime time -- and may never be."
Nissan and Toyota think electric vehicles, or EVs, are, as the story put it, "running out of juice." They are flawed because they "continue to be plagued by many of the problems that eventually scuttled electrics in the 1910s and more recently in the 1990s," including "high cost, short driving range and lack of charging stations."
So sales of pure EVs, which tend to be bought by high-income consumers, have fallen far short of projections, despite federal subsidies, including a tax credit of up to $7,500. (A Maine lawmaker, Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, D-Bangor, has proposed a bill to add a $1,000 state subsidy that would force more ordinary taxpayers to help finance an upscale purchase.)
Still, the Obama administration earlier this year decided to "back away from its aggressive goal to put 1 million electric cars on U.S. roads by 2015."
U.S. EV sales last year totaled just 14,687, out of total sales of 14.5 million vehicles (0.1 percent of the market), and the Nissan Leaf, the best-selling EV, has sold fewer than 50,000 worldwide. Hybrids did better, with 473,083 U.S. sales, 3.3 percent of the market.
These factors led one economic analyst, Robert Tracinski of the Real Clear Markets website, to say that "electric cars never really made any sense."
Hyped as the epitome of "green" technology that would save fossil fuels, instead they need frequent charging by distant power plants that burn oil, coal and natural gas. (Tracinski calls it "the long tailpipe.") And their batteries, made from such metals as lithium and cobalt, have high environmental costs for production and disposal.
Trading in EVs for newer models is also problematic. As Jose Gonzales of the PressBlue financial website put it, "Fuel-frugality aside, it seems the 2013 Chevy Volt and 2012 Nissan Leaf are proving to be expensive long-term investments. ... Recent reports have suggested that electric cars don't hold their value quite as well as their regular counterparts."
Gonzales says the vehicles retain 20 percent to 30 percent of their value after five years, compared with nearly 40 percent for an equivalent gas-fueled Chevy.
But battery-pack replacement, which can be needed after an estimated 100,000 miles (or more -- experience varies among users), is said by General Motors and Ford to run from $8,000 to $15,000, depending on make and model. That's a substantial added cost that gasoline-fueled vehicles don't incur.
Still, the big problem is EVs' extremely limited range. The Washington Post's Charles Lane noted that when the auto reviewer for The New York Times, John Broder, tested a $101,000 Tesla S EV in a run from Washington, D.C., to Boston, he was unable to keep it charged and make any decent time. The vehicle finally had to be towed when it ran out of a charge between stations.
While the company says Broder basically "drove it wrong," he says he repeatedly phoned the factory for advice and followed it.
Either way, Lane says, Tesla loses because it couldn't duplicate the performance of a $15,000 gas-fueled econobox. He says EVs and hybrids have consumed "about $5 billion in federal subsidies, guaranteed loans ($465 million for Tesla, and a stunning $1.4 billion for Nissan) and tax incentives to buyers," yet have failed to gain significant market penetration.
Thus, he says, "There's simply no denying that the administration's electric-vehicle project was a mistake."
So what about other alternatives to gasoline?
The Reuters story says Japanese manufacturers are placing a lot of faith in fuel cells, which produce no harmful emissions and run on abundant hydrogen. But the cost of energy to produce hydrogen still exceeds the energy it yields, a critical problem.
Liquefied natural gas is another significant option that is available now, if system conversion costs can be handled.
But let's not ignore the hundreds of millions of vehicles already on the world's roads that don't use a drop of gasoline. They are called diesels, and almost half of the cars and trucks sold in Europe use them.
They get up to 40 percent better mileage than gas engines, and their former emissions and cold-start problems have been significantly resolved.
If more of us drove them, many of our current problems would be greatly relieved.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: