• Jan 20, 2010
With all the attention being lavished on electric cars, you'd think the salvation of the planet is nigh at hand. But don't be duped by all the EV hype. It's going to take decades before they catch on – if ever.
I'm not anti-EV. Just the opposite. I am completely in favor of pursuing electric car technology. In fact, I'd even like to buy an electric.

But I don't let my enthusiasm for EVs cloud my analysis on how long it's going to take for them to sell in large numbers. And I would caution any automaker or supplier or dealer that wants to invest in the EV business to take all those enthusiastic sales projections with a grain of salt.

Why these words of caution? Because EV's face a mountain of problems: technical, social, economi, and environmental. And there are other emerging alternatives that could kill the electric car before it ever catches on. That's exactly what happened 100 years ago.


John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers.

The hybrid car provides a great comparison for how electric cars are likely to roll into the market. Hybrids have been around for over a decade. They are a proven technology that require no change in driver behavior. You just get in them and go.

And yet, even after a decade, with seven different brands selling 30 different hybrid models, they still account for less than 3% of all the vehicles sold in the U.S. Worse, just one car, the Toyota Prius, accounts for nearly half the entire hybrid market. None of this bodes well for EVs.

Electrics are going to cost substantially more than hybrids. They are going to have limited range, meaning drivers will suddenly experience a new experience: the dreaded "range anxiety." Plus, there is no charging infrastructure to make it convenient for customers to plug in when they're out and about. That means it's going to require a behavioral change on the part of drivers. Do you realize how hard it is to get people to change their driving habits?

Anyone who thinks EVs are going to suddenly grab big chunks of the market is just drinking the Kool-aid.
So, if hybrids still account for less than 3 or 25% of the vehicle mix by 2020 is pure fantasy. Even half of that forecast is crazy. One percent is probably more like it.

One of the key EV issues that keeps getting swept under the rug involves recycling. It takes more energy to recycle a lithium battery than it takes to mine virgin lithium. Will we ultimately see giant stacks of used lithium battery packs in junk yards or landfills? What kind of environmental progress would that represent?

And don't think that electric utilities are going to be buying those used EV battery packs. I've talked to the utilities. They are definitely interested in buying automotive-grade lithium batteries. But not used ones.

EVs are going to require big improvements to the electric infrastructure. Thousands of charging stations are going to have to be built all around the country. But most cities and municipalities, which are flat broke, are going to have a hard time coming up with the +$10,000 cost per fast-charging station.

In fact, most EV owners will be shocked to learn they're going to have to sink $1,500 into their garages to wire in a decent charging station. For wealthy EV buyers, costs like that won't phase them at all, but most people won't pay it.

None of these problems are insurmountable, but I keep coming back to the hybrid car comparison: EVs are just going to take a long time to catch on.

And that assumes every other alternative sits still. I keep looking at how the prices of bio-fuels derived from cellulose and algae keep dropping. And they can pretty much use the existing infrastructure.

The attributes that make EVs so attractive – clean and quiet and offering instant torque – could ultimately push aside all other contenders. But anyone who thinks EVs are going to suddenly grab big chunks of the market is just drinking the Kool-aid.

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  • 22 Comments
      • 5 Years Ago
      Well old man, you will be pushin up daisies eventually and we will all still be breathing your exhaust fumes.

      This "Oooooh my little tootsies won't be as warm as they are in my SUV" mentality is rotting this country from the inside out. We have chances to get rid of old stupid ways, and burning ancient sunlight is one of the worst things we can do, and all this "it just won't be as great as it is now so I won't change" is what will put us in line behind Britain as the next fallen Empire.

      How the heck do you know it won't be better? Ever kart at a K1? Electric is AWESOME.

      This country was once full of folks who put out new ideas and the market reacted. Now this country has a bunch of comfortable people who lost the spirit and now 'poo-hoo' change every bloody inch. The USA and China emit HALF the daily pollution into the atmosphere: 2 countries, one cesspool.

      Slams my stars all you want kiddies, I don't really care. This planet is still going to heck if I say it or not)
        • 5 Years Ago
        Electric is great at a track, where you are going in (essentially) a circle.

        Last summer I took a roadtrip that took my Miata and myself (as well as two nights worth of clothes and bedding) on a 10 hour drive the first day and 5 hours the next. How would an EV be great in that situation?
        • 5 Years Ago
        Great thanks for your input. If you RTFA you will note that he states he is an electric fan. The point of the article is that there are serious boundaries toward the adoption rate despite the growing market.

        You can turn blue wishing for something to happen but innovation needs funding, and thats only going to come from sales (and apparently vast amounts of government funding). If they don't come there simply is no push to advance the technology. If it's such a trivial task, surely someone would have solved all the problems in the last 100 years and made themselves a billionaire by now. But the fact of the matter is oil is just too cheap and convenient to be replaced at this moment in time.

        Do i think electric is good? You bet, there is a damn good reason electric motors are the workhorses of the world's industries. There is no doubt our grand kids look back and laugh at our oil powered cars, but its going to take time. Let someone else be the first on the block to fund tomorrow's tech.
      • 5 Years Ago
      @KA

      True but technology improvements should make that process easier in the future (I hope).

      Just wondering but is there anyway Nuclear fisson could give us any Hydrogen?
      • 5 Years Ago
      Methanol makes the most sense as a replacement for petroleum, which is too valuable as a chemical feedstock to burn for fuel. Methanol can be made from anything that is a feedstock for ethanol, plus a really wide variety of things, most importantly coal, of which we have a 600 year supply.

      As for used batteries, battery packs for EVs are made up of many, many cells. When the pack as a whole no longer meets specs, that means that only some of the cells are longer serviceable. I have no doubt that recyclers will process and remanufacture battery packs. My guess is that by the time a battery pack will become completely unusable it will have gone through this process a couple of times.

      Plus que ca change, plus que c'est la meme chose. Probably companies that remanufacture starters and alternators today will be doing the same with battery packs.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I think that one of the reasons, one of the big ones, is that gasoline is dirt cheap in the US. How were hybrid sales when gas hit $5/gallon? gas will go up, I think hybrids will have a bigger % in a few years when gas is expensive again.
      • 5 Years Ago
      John McElroy avoids talking about the Chevy Volt. But all the arguments he makes about EVs is also applicable to plug-in hybrid like the Volt.

      The problem with EVs, and plug-in hybrids is battery technology. Even if the electrical infrastructure existed (which it still doesn't), unless we can have a 16 kWh plug-in hybrid that can be sold for $20k or less, then its unreasonable to expect that it will make any real impact in the market or environmentally.

      The reality of course is that if its not a plug-in hybrid, 16 kWh is plain not enough, 32-60 kWh is more reasonable for a pure-EV, but event that is unacceptable for larger vehicles. How much battery power do you need to propel the best selling vehicle in America, the Ford F150 instead of a a sub-compact like the Volt or Prius? The reality of course is that most Americans don't drive small cars, and the batteries to power them will need to be equally larger and equally more powerful.

      Right now, the Prius has a paltry 1.8 kWh battery capacity, and the price premium is still a questionable on return on investment over the life of the car. The larger battery and electric motors that a plug-in hybrid and EV will require is an exponentially greater cost.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I read a little about recycling lithium here:

      http://www.technologyreview.com/energy/23215/page2/

      It looks like the truly valuable stuff is the cobalt, and other materials. Those can be recovered and recycled as well.

      Not bad.
      So you can make money recycling it, but not much.
      Maybe on a larger scale things will change though. At this point we're not recycling a hell of a lot of lithium batteries.
      • 5 Years Ago
      apparently you haven't heard that hybrid makers already recycle their own batteries?
        • 5 Years Ago
        Yup, good point. What's more, a NiMH pack in Priuses seems to last well into the 100K miles mark (with obviously a few exceptions here and there). That means that one battery pack lasts somewhere between 8-10 YEARS, therefore the initial environmental cost gets amortized over that time period.

        You know what's great about all of this? That recycling that John's talking about that is more expensive than mining? It still produces useful metals -- depleted lithium, for instance, is still a usable, valuable metal. It's harmful for the environment, yes, but it's not a recurring thing (such as combustion in a car engine).
      • 5 Years Ago
      Good point. I don't think EVs are the way to go. Hydrogen makes more sense in the long run IMO.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I meant Hydrogen ICEs. Fuel cells are too expensive and complex.

        Unless we develope a long distance travelling infrastructure (high speed trains?), we should not waste any time on an EV infrastructure. Pure EVs so far are obselete with thier limited ranges. And while technology improves, and the range problems that plague EVs may be fixed, you still have the inconvenience of having to wait for the vehicle to charge up.

        Now the Chevy Volt has has the right idea executed in the wrong way. You could have an engine take over after the battery dries up, but that extra powerplant tacks on thousands of dollars to the vehicle.

        Im not even going in to fuel cells because thats a bad idea in the first place. The Hydrogen ICE should cost no more than the conventional gasoline ICE although it would need a few changes to handle a completely new substance.

        Hydrogen is the way to go because it's virtually limitless (the total universese is 99% Hydrogen) and if it is given the public cheap, no one will have to worry about the cost of the fuel that gave us the idea of the modern EV in the first place.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Just pointing out that Hydrogen is limitless unlike oil.

        No im not Tankdog and Im leaving here before I risk becoming the new Sea Urchin...
        • 5 Years Ago
        @Tdogg:

        Are you talking about running conventional ICEs with Hydrogen like BMW can do, or using hydrogen-fuelled fuel cells to generate electricity for electric cars?

        Either way, we still need to create the infrastructure for average car owners to be able to refill their car with hydrogen, or electricity, or whatever. The only refill infrastructure we currently have is for liquids like gasoline, diesel, ethanol, etc.

        I don't mind if my future car uses electric motors for propulsion or an ICE and a transmission. The critical question is how do I recharge it when it runs out of its power source.

        We're at a serious chicken and egg crossroads here.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I think one of largest issues regarding the average consumer's perception of the EV is how the hybrid and current EVs have been marketed.

        Start with the standard gas-powered vehicles first --- most innovations have come to market in the most expensive vehicles in an automaker's lineup. And once the company has perfected their newest tech, they usually find ways to include it "down" the lineup --- over time --- as more consumers get used to their new tech gadget or system.

        With hybrids, the industry has, for the most part, tried to sell this new tech wizardry to consumers purchasing vehicles on the lower end of their lineup. Tough sell, he!! yeah. Initially, hybrid tech was indeed sold as way to boost power over their highest level ICE powertrain. And that didn't work so much and that only one automaker was really interested in doing it at the time. Now that every major global automaker has re-thought their position on hybrid & EV tech, the average consumer only sees it as a way to boost the economic factor of driving and not valuable tech that they'd be willing to buy a really expensive car for.
        • 5 Years Ago
        It's good to see a piece like this that's written realistically and without damning any technologies. Adoption will take time. Changing behavior will take time. The more aggressively we can get hydrogen vehicles and battery vehicles out on the roads now in much larger numbers, the faster that we'll be able to see that there's a place for both technologies and that it's when you put them together that you're likeliest to create the best vehicles.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Unfortunately, there is literally no feasible way to do hydrogen and have a net positive result, either through ICE or fuel cells. The 2nd law of thermodynamics states that you will not get more energy out a system than you put into it. The reason gasoline works now is because there's been years of compression and solar energy put into a very efficient chemical storage element (oil), and we're simply converting that chemical energy into mechanical energy.

        We have no natural source of raw hydrogen, so you have to separate the hydrogen atoms from whatever they're attached to. This requires a tremendous amount of energy, meaning you're going to put way more energy (which has to come from *somewhere*) into just making the fuel. Couple that with all the distribution losses, and the math can literally never work out.

        Well, except for one case -- using solar to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. But in that case you're using hydrogen as an energy carrier, and you may as well use the much more efficient battery system we have now.
        • 5 Years Ago
        @ Tdogg:

        "(the total universese is 99% Hydrogen)"


        How is that relevant to why we should move to Hydrogen?

        The totat universe could be 99%110 octane race fuel and we still wouldn't have a way to mine it and use it in our vehicles.


        (On a side note, are you the former Tankdog by chance?)
      • 5 Years Ago
      "In fact, most EV owners will be shocked to learn they're going to have to sink $1,500 into their garages to wire in a decent charging station."

      Unless you are actually including the cost of the charging station, (I don't think you are.) this price is way off. If we are talking about a Volt-like charger, all you need to do is run a 220 line off your electrical panel. A lot of people can do that without even hiring an electrician.

      The wire would be the most expensive part.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Finally someone got the guts to say sound words to the crazies. I only can that EVs will be usable in a very narrow temperature range, batteries will need to be replaced every 2-3 years - those who don't believe it just think about your laptop battery - how long does it last?
      • 5 Years Ago
      I think the future will def be Hydrogen...eventually we will reach an efficient way of getting Hydrogen when we reach an efficient way of generating electricity through solar when our grid becomes advance enough in generating electricity effecient......EV are not the answer as they take too long to fill up with energy and not to mention the added cost and weight gains plus not capable of driving at least 400 miles on a full charge...plus cold weather climates EV's are even less useful....EV are just the stepping stone for now b4 we reach hydrogen, but EV are def not the future......Everyone has tunnel vision, all this talk about electric cars paving the way to move away from big oil, We are going to need to replace fuels period has anybody even thought about air planes?, batteries are no were near capable of flying a Jumbo jet from coast to coast...We are in a society where we want things done yesterday, quick fill ups at the pump hydrogen is the fuel of the future..
      • 5 Years Ago
      In a static world what he says is the gospel, but we all know it is not a static world. Events will surely radically change the evolution. Hydrogen is just a non starter and will be unlikely to ever go into full production because it takes so much energy to produce it and we would have to start from scratch to provide the infrastructure to support it.
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