Why Electric Cars Aren’t Ready for Prime Time

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Why Electric Cars Aren’t Ready for Prime Time

When the auto industry was in its infancy over a century ago, it appeared for a while that electric vehicles would win out over internal combustion vehicles because they were thought to be more reliable, safer, and easier to operate. 

But then, improved gasoline engine technology began providing more power, which meant more speed and hauling capacity.  These capabilities, added to the longer driving range a tank of gasoline could provide and their ability to greatly outperform battery-powered cars in cold weather, led to the era of the internal combustion engine. 

Over the years, market-driven attempts to reintroduce electric vehicles have failed.  The only success that has slightly nudged the market toward electric vehicles is the introduction of hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs), which were first launched in 1999. 

But HEVs are far from being true electric vehicles.  In reality, they rely mostly on internal combustion engines for propulsion, with an electric system that cleverly recaptures kinetic energy to boost gas mileage.

The sales of electric plug-in cars sold in the U.S. in 2011, and the forecasts for 2012, reveal that in spite of all the drum-beating for electrics, this industry is still embryonic.1  In 2011, just under 18,000 electric plug-in cars were purchased.  It has been estimated that this number will more than triple in 2012 to 62,400.  Here are some specifics: 

  • Chevrolet sold 8,817 Volts in the U.S. in the first half of 2012, and it planned to end the year with approximately 20,000 sold. 
  • The Nissan Leaf, which was the 2011 EV sales leader in the U.S. with 10,000 vehicles sold, was also projected to sell 20,000 units in 2012. 
  • The Toyota Prius Plug-in hybrid has been selling at a monthly rate that will put sales over its goal of 12,000 cars for the year. 

Although these numbers represent a significant leap, for perspective, the total number of vehicles projected to sell in the U.S. in 2012 is slightly more than 14 million.  This would put electric vehicle sales at less than one-half of one percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. 

The picture is not much different in developing countries.  Over the long term, China is expected to become the largest market for electric vehicles due to the following trends:2

  • It is projected that China’s oil consumption could increase by approximately 70 percent by 2020, reaching 16 percent of global demand.  Since most of this increase will need to be accommodated by imported oil, it will expose China’s economy to fluctuations in the oil supply...

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