The government is pushing electric vehicles. Automakers are beginning to offer these EVs. But do we as automotive enthusiasts care?
I've talked to specialists in the field, surveyed our own resident sample of enthusiasts, driven just about every EV available to me and thought about this a lot. My view, taken in totality at the moment, is anything but one-dimensional. I'm nowhere near ready to give up my stringback driving gloves—nor my gasoline credit card—but I do enjoy EVs and suspect that before long I'll be piloting some exciting powered-by-electrons machinery indeed.
Read on, and maybe you'll come to share my optimism as well as learn my concerns.
The federal government is certainly pushing EVs in a big way, perhaps more than warranted by rationality. The Promoting Electric Vehicle Act of 2010 initially called for spending $11 billion, the goal being electrification of fully half our cars and trucks in the next 20 years. As later approved by the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, it commits $2 billion to establishing "EV deployment communities" around the country, their number and locations specified by the Department of Energy, as well as another $1.5 billion funding battery/grid research. Residents buying EVs will be eligible for special tax rebates; grants will provide for charging stations and other infrastructural benefits. This, note, is above and beyond the current $7500 federal tax credit for EVs.
This is an extremely ambitious plan—and not just a little controversial. Proponents say if half our vehicles were EVs, we could eliminate the entire amount of oil currently imported from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. To put this in perspective, note that month after month, year after year, our two biggest petroleum suppliers aren't OPEC, they're our neighbors Canada and Mexico, in that order. OPEC makes up something like 42 percent of our petroleum imports, 24 percent of our total consumption. Yes, energy independence is a laudable goal. However, in an international business world things aren't that simple.
Detractors also question such heavy government intervention into automobile marketing, both fiscally as well as philosophically. If EVs are such a good idea, why do they need subsidies? Nor are these federal spiffs sustainable. Indeed, that current $7500 tax credit per EV expires after the particular automaker produces 200,000 of them (by which time, this amounts to a $1.5 billion shortfall in federal tax revenue). As Sen. Everett Dirksen once said, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money."
Also, let's not forget synfuels of the Carter era nor more recently the mixed message of corn-based ethanol. When it comes to technology, government hasn't always picked the winner.
A Broader View of EVs
The discussion profits from a broader definition of the term "EV." And, in fact, the Promoting Electric Vehicle Act pertains to any "grid-enabled plug-in" vehicle. Here, though, let's have our alphabetical array include everything from conventional hybrids (HEVs) to plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) to battery electrics (BEVs) to fuel-cell electrics (FCEVs). Each of these involves electrical propulsion; each has its own unique set of operational characteristics, inherent challenges and potential appeal.
For example, BEVs are the most independent of fossil fuel. But don't forget the electric utility and its fuel sources. Also, note that BEVs have yet to prove their consumer appeal in extremes of climate. Will Duluth or Las Vegas be among those initial deployment communities? And if not, why would the entire country be expected to support what may ultimately be only niche markets? At opposite ends of the EV spectrum, both HEVs and FCEVs appear to handle temperature extremes just fine; the latter, albeit with other significant challenges of infrastructure.
Add to the lure of government money the laudable capitalist motive of profit-seeking. Plenty of people have formulated EV responses—many of them serious, others bordering on outright scams.
How to recognize the scams? They'll have a slick website, play up a search for dealers but never return calls when asked about matters of U.S. certification. Note, it's a real challenge to start with a car not designed for our market, electrified or not, and get it through the complex collection of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.
Ask the good folks of about the seemingly straightforward task of electrifying the , a car already available in the U.S. Having worked diligently to gain full FMVSS compliance, the company has now sold more than 1000 of its $100K- high-performance Roadsters and has plans to introduce its $50K Model S sedan sometime in 2012. Both are BEVs.
Ask Coda. This California startup has committed extensive resources to federalizing its Chinese-sourced Hafei Saibao platform. And after several years' development the Coda is coming to market in 2011 as a compact $40K BEV sedan.
Ask Henrik Fisker. He certainly knows his way around automotive design, and his company's $87K Karma promises high performance and luxury in a PHEV package satisfying all relevant regulations. Akin to the Tesla business model, Fisker also has plans for a second car, this one a mid-priced PHEV built at the company's ex-Saturn facility in Delaware.
And, of course, established automakers have EVs close to production as well. The $41K and $33K Nissan Leaf BEV both come to market literally any day now. Carlos Ghosn is particularly passionate in stating his goal of making the company preeminent among EV manufacturers. Our brief drive of the Leaf certainly indicates Nissan is off to an excellent start (see ).
Other automakers expressing near-term EV plans include (the e-Tron is anticipated in a year or so), (its Mini E is already in demonstration fleets), and .
I've driven the Mercedes/Smart electric (see "," March 2010) and actually prefer this version to its gasoline counterpart. And Ian Adcock's brief drive of the Mercedes SLS AMG E-Cell (see ) has us all primed for the production machine coming in late 2012.