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?
So, if hybrids still account for less than 3% of the market after a decade, it's very easy to forecast that EVs will not even come close to that in the same time frame. That means all this talk of EVs achieving 20% 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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