New York City should be an ideal market for
- Apr 2nd 2013 at 5:00AM
In New York, A Push For Electric Cars Meets A Tepid Response
Sluggish demand for EVs leaves future up in air, analysts say
"Each may develop its own unique needs for fueling and technology," said Ford's director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure Mike Tinskey. "The world has moved from cities designed around cars to mobility designed around megacities."
City is unique, but the problem is not
Outside the Jacob Javits Center, where the New York Auto Show is held, Ford, Nissan and Honda were among the automakers displaying hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric cars. There, employees answered basic questions about alternate powertrains for curious onlookers.
The most common questions received, The New York Times reported, were about range. And for the past 100 years, since electric cars first were popularized at the turn of the 20th century, that's been the problem: Battery-powered cars provide finite range. That's, obviously, not a problem confined to New York City.
"We still see range as the main issue," says Michael Omotoso of LMC Automotive, a global automotive forecasting company. Because of that, consumers see electric cars as a second- or third-car option in their family fleets.
Range anxiety isn't the only concern. Charging time is another major roadblock. Automakers are finding even green-curious customers who do almost all of their driving within the car's range limit still like the option of a road trip -- one unencumbered by stops for charging.
In recent months, it's become clear that electric cars aren't going to sell as well as people initially hoped. And there is growing skepticism that they'll ever reach the numbers that were first projected. Earlier this year, President Obama backtracked from a stated goal of putting 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015. The U.S. won't reach that number until 2017 – and that's only including plug-in hybrids – according to an estimate from LMC Automotive.
Analysts see cause for both long-term optimism and concern over EV sales.
When Toyota first launched its hybrid Prius in the U.S., the car faced similar skepticism and sluggish sales numbers. Hybrids, as a whole, took eight years to gain 2 percent of the U.S. market. Between October 2011 and October 2012, that number rose 60.6 percent to 3 percent of the overall market. Tinskey says the same pattern could replicate for mainstream acceptance of EVs.
"It's a marathon and not a sprint, and our numbers show that," Tinskey said.
During the first 18 months hybrids were on sale in the U.S. in the late 1990s, gas prices averaged $1.53 per gallon – not providing much motivation for consumers to try an alternative. Today, the national average retail price of $3.62 per gallon could provide more of an incentive.
But there are just as many reasons other analysts believe the EV momentum has already been squandered. One big one the Prius didn't face? Competition from hybrids themselves.
Omotoso projected that it would take at least a decade for electric cars to reach 1 percent of market share. Tom Stricker, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for Toyota, is even more pessimistic.
"There may not be a resuscitation," he said. "And that would be a second black eye to this kind of technology."
Planning for the future
Although New York already has approximately 100 public charging stations, including 30 in Manhattan, Bloomberg isn't hesitating to invest in an infrastructure that, at least for now, serves a niche market.
He intends to make New York a national leader in green-driving technology.
The city boasts an official website, Drive Electric NYC, that encourages motorists to drive electric cars. This year, the city will pilot a program that allows motorists to recharge their batteries in as little as half an hour. He wants to add 50 more electric cars to the city's fleet in 2013.
This year, the city will pilot a program that allows electric-car drivers to recharge their batteries in as little as a half hour. He's attempting to make one-third of the city's taxi fleet electric by 2020 and has signed New York up to pioneer the country's largest bike-share program in the country this summer. Last month, Bloomberg joined fellow billionaire T. Boone Pickens and unveiled the city's first food truck powered by compressed natural gas.
Of all his green-driving initiatives, adding 10,000 electric charging stations in a seven-year span would by his most ambitious by a long shot. But Bloomberg can't answer the biggest question looming: If he builds them, will drivers come?
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.