Electric cars and plug-in hybrids are a fail

Electric cars and plug-in hybrids are a fail

Summary: GM's Volt and Nissan's Leaf sales are pathetic. Fisker is going to be issued its last rites, A123 and CODA are going bankrupt, and Israel is now sitting shiva for a Better Place. Why are electric cars and plug-in hybrids failing so miserably?

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I like the idea of electric cars. Heck, I've driven them, and downright enjoyed doing so. The inner geek within me yearns for a car that makes no noise other than a suppressed electric whine, and that glides down the highway like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie or Knight Rider.

So let's just get this out of the way: I do not hate electric cars. In fact I think they are awesomely cool, and are an incredible technical achievement.

That being said, at this stage of their technical development, and given other issues related to the production of electricity in this and in many other countries, I don't think they are even close to being ready for prime time.

volt-collision
Image: General Motors

In the last year we've seen various aspects of the EV ecosystem self-destruct. GM's Volt sales have been so awful that the company decided to temporarily suspend production of the car in the spring of last year for over a month and had to issue heavy discounts to move inventory.

To be kind as well as factually correct, GM sold over 23,000 Volts in 2012, which is triple what it did in 2011, but that isn't saying an awful lot.

If you compare the total sales of the Volt to date with the vehicle that shares its platform, the top-selling compact car in North America --  the Chevy Cruze -- it's so small that it's practically a rounding error. Approximately 237,000 Cruzes were sold in 2012, and 231,000 in 2011.

Yes, there have been about 14 Chevy Cruzes sold for every Volt sold to date. Even if you factor in that about a quarter of all Cruzes go to rental car agencies, the consumer sales gap between GM's electric vehicle sales and comparable gasoline-based car sales is staggering.

And it's not just GM that can't seem to make significant headway with EVs. Nissan's Leaf failed to make even 10,000 deliveries in the US in 2012. The company is doing a bit better this year, but these numbers are certainly not significant by any means. The company hit the total US sales milestone of 25,000 cars this month, again after over a $6000 price cut before federal incentives.

And those are the electric cars that are doing well-ish.

Just in the last few months, both CODA Automotive, an electric car company and EV battery manufacturer, as well as A123 Systems, another battery manufacturer have filed for bankruptcy protection.

Fisker Automotive, the producer of the exotic Karma plug-in electric hybrid sports car who hired the former head of GM's Volt division, Tony Posawatz, to be its CEO, just fired almost all of its staff and is preparing for total asset liquidation after producing about 2,000 vehicles total.

Better Place, which was a Palo Alto and Israeli-based startup that tried to create an international subscriber network of charging stations for EVs ceased operations this week, after burning through approximately $700 millon of capital from multiple seed investors since beginning their venture funding in 2010.

I'm sure you Elon Musk fans are just raring at the bit to tell me that Tesla has exceeded Wall Street expectations for Q1 in 2013. True, the company is doing well, but it's the only maker of electric vehicles and related products that is doing well.

If anything, Tesla has simply validated its place as the automotive equivalent of Apple, as a high-end luxury products maker for the eco-savvy nouveau riche. The company has sold about 5,000 of its $70,000+ cars to date.  It also has an extremely wealthy benefactor, who has diversified into other industries such as commercial space vehicles, and can treat the business like an expensive hobby. 

I'm going to treat Tesla as an exception to the rule. As a whole, people don't want electric cars. Oh, don't get me wrong, they like the idea and the philosophy behind electric cars, but push comes to shove, your average middle class person who can afford to buy a new car doesn't want to own an EV.

It's also true that hybrids have gotten quite a bit of success in the last decade, such as the (regular) Toyota Prius and Honda's various hybrid offerings.

I don't consider hybrids true EVs, though, as they employ regenerative methods using their gasoline engines and braking systems to power a relatively small battery pack, which is only used a fraction of the time, and they still have mechanical linkages to the drivetrain from the gasoline motor.

The Volt, Fisker and one of the latest variations of the Prius are "Plug-in" hybrid EVs, in the sense that they rely on their battery packs first, and then kick in their gasoline engines to power the electric drivetrain when the batteries completely expend their range, which for the Volt is about 50 miles.

The Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model S are pure EVs -- they only rely on their batteries to run and require the use of charging stations on extended trips. The Leaf can go for about 75-100 miles between charges and the Tesla Model S can go up to (an impressive) 265 miles before a recharge.

Let's summarize why these cars don't make sense. First, they cost a lot of money. Not only is your average middle class family unable to afford a $70,000 Tesla Model S, but they also can't afford to buy a $38,000 Chevy Volt, or a $35,000 Nissan Leaf, even after government incentives, when a comparable Cruze or a Sentra costs half the amount of money.

GM will shortly be releasing the Spark EV, a sub-compact, lower priced pure electric vehicle with an 82-mile range that will cost about $27,500 before federal tax credits. This is still probably too much money for an EV, especially such a small one with such limited range.

And we're not even getting into pre-owned vehicles as potential competition here. New car sales, as a whole, pretty much suck.

You could make the argument that charging these cars with electricity from your home is cheaper than filling the tank, but how long is that going to take you to make up twice the cost of a comparable gasoline vehicle?

Second is the issue of range. While the Tesla is indeed an impressive performer at a luxury price, the Volt (if you treat it strictly as an EV) and the Leaf essentially are only good for local driving.

Then there is the issue of long-term reliability and safety. We don't really know, long-term, how these exotic batteries and other parts in EVs are going to perform as these vehicles age, and what the longer-term maintenance costs will be.

We understand what to expect from fossil fuel engines because they've been around for over 100 years, and there's a hugely established parts and repair infrastructure industry surrounding it. Not so for EVs. 

Now, you could also make the argument that EVs aren't all about saving money, it's about making yourself feel good, knowing you can live a greener lifestyle. I dig that.

But the only way you're really going to live a greener lifestyle is to go completely off the grid, which means investing in (expensive) solar panels, wind and water turbines, and collecting an energy surplus using big capacitive batteries and power inverters to juice your EV with.

Otherwise, all that you are doing is juicing your car with electricity that is created largely by fossil fuel-burning power plants from your metropolitan power infrastructure. 

So if we really want to get rid of non-renewable fuel sources, not only do we have to get it out of our cars, but we have to get it out of our municipal power plants.

And guess what -- the best alternative to this is nuclear energy. Which is the greenest, most efficient electric power producing system of all. Don't beleive me? You might want to catch Pandora's Promise, a new film which hits selected theatres next month.

I'm not going to get into the political ramifications and NIMBYism of nuclear energy. Nor will I lay out an economic model which would prove that building out large scale nuclear power infrastructure would result in the creation of millions of new jobs.

Instead, let's talk about other forms of renewable, sustainable fuel sources for cars.

The modern hybrid vehicle, be it a conventional regenerative design like a Prius or a plug-in like a Chevy Volt still uses gasoline for the conventional part of its powertrain. If we want to be independent from the oil-producing nations, then we need to start thinking creatively.

We have a potential fuel source and propulsion technology that will solve our sustainability as well as greatly reduce our dependence on oil producing countries for automotive fuel and other petroleum needs.

It's proven, with over 100 years of maturity, and its use would not require a major re-tooling of our automotive manufacturing capabilities.

That fuel is Diesel. Specifically, Biodiesel and Biomass to Liquid (BTL) diesel fuel.

Today, most diesel cars run on fuel that comes from petroleum derivatives. But they can also run on fuels based on vegetable and plant oils. I drive a Chattanooga, Tennesee-built 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI that in a pinch, could actually run on pure vegetable oil if I needed it to, Volkswagen's warranty terms notwithstanding.

My Passat TDI gets on the average of about 600 miles to the tank with mixed city and highway driving in Florida with the A/C system running whenever I drive. In various driving scenarios the car can actually achieve over 800 miles per tank, especially if you are doing mostly highway driving.

There have even been verified stories of people getting 1600 miles to a tank with this car, under careful driving conditions.

What if we reallocated much of the farmland that is producing corn -- that is being used to produce the very same high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which is permeating virtualy every processed food product sold today and that is creating an obesity and diabetes epedemic in this country?

What if we used most of those corn fields to produce, say, marijuana or industrial hemp instead? Or grow it in areas where food crops cannot thrive?

Without getting into cannabis's psychoactive and medicinal properties and also as a potential taxable revenue source if legalized for recreational use, the industrial variants of hemp would be excellent renewable sources for biodiesel/BTL production.

And as a by-products of a large biodiesel industry, hemp would yield extremely durable fibers for all sorts of applications (including apparel and plastics) as well as excellent and healthy cooking oils and food protein. And think about the jobs these industries would create.

Pure electric vehicles might be viable someday. Unfortunately, that day may be a decade or more away. But before we even attempt to popularize them we need to figure out how to solve the overall sustainable energy problem using conventional technology, while keeping vehicle and fuel costs down.

Are the current crop of electric cars simply feel-good toys for the eco-conscious nouveau riche? Talk back and let me know.

Topics: Emerging Tech, Tech Industry

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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237 comments
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  • In meantime, in Europe....

    PSA (Peugeot & Citroen) are producing the first hybrid diesel engine (Hybrid4), with several models already in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PSA_HYbrid4.

    I drive the Peugeot 508 RXH and like all Peugeot cars this one is absolute joy to drive. It's 200HP 4WD and consumes only 4l/100km.... If you stay under 50km/h stays silent too for few km, no noise when stopped etc. The car has 2.0l 163HP start&stop diesel engine on the front wheels and 27HP electric engine on the rear wheels. I believe an future model with their smaller 1.6l engine (which is more elastic) might be even better. The car is also not much more expensive than the regular diesel or petrol models (granted, the RXH is top of the line).

    Since diesel is much more widespread in Europe, there are plenty of fans who drive their cars with various vegetable oils. At some point a liter of sunflower oil at the supermarket was actually cheaper than a lite of fossil derived diesel... You only risk attracting all the gods in the neighborhood. :)
    danbi
    • There is a downside to Bio-Diesel

      It sounds so simple but there is a great price to pay if we begin valuing crops for fuel instead of crops for food. Using our fertile land to power vehicles is a 1st World Issue. Using our fertile lands to feed an undernourished or starving 20% of the world population is both a 3rd World and 1st World Issue... where is the morality in taking the land to grow plants to power cars when people are starving. I don't want to be "preachy" but there is a long term consequence if governments dedicate resources to bio-fuels and tip the profit proposition to crops for the purpose of fuel.
      LasPaled
      • I agree

        I think it is an insult to the poor and starving to use food for vehicle fuel.
        P. Douglas
        • One other thing

          Using crops for vehicle fuel would likely lead to higher food prices, affecting ordinary people, but having greater impact on the poor.
          P. Douglas
          • It's already happening with ethanol production from corn

            More here:

            "The Cost to Mexico of U.S. Corn Ethanol Expansion
            Ethanol added $1.5-$3.2 billion to Mexico’s import bills from 2006-11
            http://www.ase.tufts.edu/gdae/policy_research/EthanolCostMexico.html
            Rabid Howler Monkey
          • RE: the last 3 replies ...

            Crops are already being used for vehicle fuel - more every year. And there is no connection between the crops used for fuel and the starving people, unfortunately. There is more than enough food produced every year to feed everyone on the planet. The issue is with money.

            First, the food has to be sent from where it is produced to where the starving people are.

            Second, those starving people have to somehow have the funds to buy the food.

            Neither of those issues are affected by biodiesel. It's the usual story where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the poorest have difficulty getting the help they need. Even when money is donated to feed the poor, and food is sent to feed them, too often the government of the country where they are located and/or the people in charge of the distribution of said money and food keep most of it to themselves. Very little gets to the intended recipients.

            That said, yes, biodiesel is the best answer we have at this time to reducing our use of petroleum from the Middle East and other sources. Huge amounts of corn are currently used to make ethanol. It would not be difficult or costly to convert some of that acreage over to biodiesel-making crops instead. It just needs the will to do it.
            Unusual1
          • Food prices

            When food was commoditized on the stock market, as is oil, speculation began increasing food prices. While it is true that there is enough food to feed everyone in the world it is so politically manipulated it clearly is not making it to everyone.

            While I don't blame using corn for fuel as the cause of starvation, it does affect availability, in the context of demand and supply, and therefore does contribute to increased food costs which could push those living marginally over the edge.
            Astringent
          • Not taking sides either way...

            But if you are referring to US food production, vs. other parts of the world, you really should consider the amount of federal subsidies supporting this food cartel.

            As for food shortages in other parts of the world, the largest barrier is safe logistics. Either by terrain/region or political discourse, the distribution of the food is the issue, not the availability or cost. The amount of food donated every day/week/year is staggering and the amount not distributed is far too high.
            QAonCall
          • moral questions aside

            You guys are right about the ethanol driving up our food prices. It 100% did, and continues to do so. The issue isn't about foreign 3rd world countries starving though. As it has been said, that's a geopolitical problem. The heart of why this is the worst idea since Ryan wanted to privatize social security (2 years before the stock market crashed btw) is that it will drive the working class in to poverty.
            The liberal and conservative elites want to think they have a bead on this country, but the truth is the working class and they're buying habits run this economy. Just like the hit we all took when fuel went to $4 a gallon, food doubling, tripling, or quadrupling in cost will run them dry again.
            A strong working class, like in the post WW2 era, is the proven path to America's greatness.
            copracr
          • Working Class?

            What does that definition even mean? Does a 80K/yr GM machinist qualify? or a 150K/yr operator of a drilling rig? What about a 25K/yr part-time PhD college lecturer in English? Social worker? Walmart (or maybe Porsche) sales person? Person on welfare? Or maybe it's your voting behavior that qualifies you? Marx would be confused but not modern Marxists, I guess.
            citicrab
        • What else do you expect

          from the Europeans? lol
          Zami90
      • So true

        The corn in our US cars is causing high prices for food in Mexico.
        Scatcatpdx
        • Mexico?

          I don't make Mexico my first concern. What everyone is missing is the incredible increase in food prices in the last 18 months. If you don't do the grocery shopping, don't even think you know what is going on. Food has at least doubled and some foods have gone up by 4 times. This will hurt the people who are barely making it now. Add in the increase in fuel costs (also driving up food prices) and you have people really getting hurt. We convert our food crops to fuel, raising food prices and yet fuel costs don't go down. All we have done is add another burden on people.
          DKFlorida
          • Agreed: It is a vicious cycle domestically

            That being said raising prices by 60% in 6 years on a primary food source for our neighbor to the south is very dangerous. Revolutions are born when the attitude of "let the eat cake" is the response to their plight.
            LasPaled
        • m

          Mexico our parasitic neighbor
          preferred user
          • Riiiight.....

            Meanwhile, we subsidize their drug cartels while they mow our lawns, trim our hedges, build our stone walls...and we hire them under-the-table for cash....who is the parasite again?
            bobjones2007
  • Uniformly?

    The one aspect of global warming or climate change that both skeptics and lay readers of the research ignore is that it is NOT a uniform warming process. Depending on other environmental phenomena such as ocean currents, ice melting at the poles, etc., It may make some places warmer, others colder, and make the weather in general more extreme. In some places that get snow now, it may make blizzards more likely to be once-a-century events but once a year, while warming up the summer enough to make the AVERAGE in a given place lower for the year. Another likely effect is turning arable crop land to desert, while making hurricanes and tornados, on the average, more violent.
    jallan32
  • Not a pollutant?

    This is true in the sense that you can inhale air with lots more CO2 than the atmosphere has had in millions of years and still get enough oxygen. However, the "pollutant" effect is in the greenhouse effect. Notice how hot a closed car gets in the summer? Much hotter than the outside, because sunlight comes in through the windows, heats up the car interior, which radiates infrared to cool off, but the infrared is reflected back inside by the glass.

    We have known for some time about the greenhouse effect of CO2 and CH4 (methane), and it HAS gotten worse since the Victorian era when coal was first used. Skeptics point to the times in the past when it was even higher, but the point is, those transitions took thousands of years, so life forms evolved or migrated to adapt. THIS change is taking place with a lifetime, and technology (which will not be available to everyone in all countries) will be needed to cope with it -- the most obvious one, air conditioning, is ADDING to the problem with current energy sources.
    jallan32
    • Problem with Logic

      CO2 makes up too little of the atmosphere to effect tempurature this way. and we only add a small percentage of the CO2 to the already small amount. Third if there is no CO@ would not the plants all suffocate as CO2 is what they breath. We are only in an warming cycle which last 500 yrs we have still 90 yrs in this sycle. After that we will be heading into an ICE age Cycle of 500 yrs.
      Ken Vereb
  • Proven?

    Quite the contrary, except for a few scientists working for fossil fuel companies and right-wing political organizations, the other scientists agree that it IS happening, and faster than anyone ever expected. Glaciers are disappearing in high elevation non-polar places. The portion of the Arctic Ocean that is permanently ice covered in summer is reducing in size, leading to feedback that speeds up the warming.

    The "lies" cited by skeptics only pertain to some scientists raising questions about the exact DETAILS; that is like arguing if the train is going to hit you in two minutes or three minutes. Either way you have to get off the track soon.
    jallan32