Electric cars and plug-in hybrids are a fail

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?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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.

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.

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