Current Electric Cars…And Why We Don’t Drive ‘Em

Everyone seems to have that one person in their life that seems to drive them up the wall by questioning everything commonly deemed logical. In my life this person is a nice 50-year-old boy named Danny.

Danny is actually easy to sum up: the favorite cars he has owned have been his Karmann Ghias, Maserati Biturbo sedan and his current Checker Marathon wagon. Danny has a degree from Harvard and served for many years as a telecommunications consultant. One might say that he’s smart, but just a tad eccentric.

Danny is a strong advocate of electric cars. He has bent my ear regarding this topic for years. Unfortunately, Danny just doesn’t “get it” when it comes to the reasons why electric cars haven’t yet caught on.

Every single time we discuss the acceptance of electric transport he questions why people don’t buy current electric-only cars. His rationale — since the average 40-mile range is fine for almost 90-percent of the average urban worker’s travel, everyone should own one.

My standard line is that people often purchase new vehicles to accommodate their perception of how they intend to use them, rather than the reality of how they indeed will. This explains why so many people bought SUVs and trucks despite using the cargo, hauling or 4WD capabilities.

The scary reality with the current electric cars is that if one needs to exceed 40 miles just once, then another car is needed. Unlike the move away from SUVs with an average consumer needing the capabilities less than once per year, a transition to electric-only is faced with an average user target that actually needs to exceed 40 miles in a day several times per month.

Danny’s follow-up is: when you need to do that, switch with your spouse or significant other. He doesn’t seem to understand that many people either aren’t married, don’t allow their spouses to drive their car (my wife can’t drive a stick), or have a spouse who also routinely drives beyond the range of a traditional electric vehicle.

So that leaves the option of owning two cars for one driver. Despite the low sub-$15,000 price point of many current electric car options, maintaining two cars can be quite expensive. Insurance is nasty and cars require maintenance even if they sit. Furthermore, for those in apartments and condos, additional parking can be a significant hurdle.

There is also no way around the fact that current electric cars are made to the standards of low-volume producers. Think Lotus in the 1950s, Lamborghini in the 1950s or De Lorean in the 1980s. This means inferior quality control, lack of available service and sub-standard safety. I’d hate to see what the pedal boxes and b-pillars look like after these little pieces of tin are subjected to front, offset and side impact testing.

I told Danny about my discussion with GM’s Bob Lutz about the future of plug-in hybrids that starts with the Chevy Volt in about 16 months. The Volt does the 40 miles on electric power, while providing the flexibility of running for another few-hundred miles on gas or E85. It also will meet federal crash standards and be built to the level of quality of a high-volume producer. (Chevy’s quality looks like Rolls Royce’s when compared to most boutique automakers.)

But Danny can’t see the justification for the $30,000-plus it will take to buy a Chevy Volt, when there are electric-only cars available for less than half. Chalk it up to heart over mind, because he still doesn’t see why anyone would view any of the aforementioned issues as non-starters for owning a pure electric vehicle.

This is case and point to the lack of traction current electric car manufacturers have in the contemporary market. Even though gas prices are high and interest is rising, the target is still made up of small vocal group whose members are quick to talk about how everyone should be driving electric cars by small volume producers, but slow to spend their own money following their own advice.

Maybe Danny will understand what it takes to succeed with an automotive product when the big automakers start selling millions of long-range plug-in electric/gas hybrids like the Volt, and the little oddities he loves so dearly (but still hasn’t purchased an example of) wind up as footnotes in automotive history books.

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14 Responses to Current Electric Cars…And Why We Don’t Drive ‘Em

  1. Daniel says:

    Maybe you can help me out. I’m wondering why there aren’t more electric only cars on the islands of the Caribbean. The distances are short, people are used to small cars, and fuel is expensive. Just wondering here at http://www.bentpage.wordpress.com.

  2. Don Scrampton says:

    They don’t go “Vroom” enough.

  3. jimmythekipper says:

    i dont think electric cars have the kudos of a petrol one if i turned up to pick up my friend in an electric car i would proberbaly get laughed at and it refered to as a golf cart! i agree with Don Scrampton when he says
    “They don’t go “Vroom” enough.” because no one want to go around in a car that emits a whiring noise like a clapped out dodgem,

  4. Daniel says:

    I once read that the very first NYC taxicab fleet was entirely electric, designed and implemented with help from Edison in the 19th Century. Pity that they were later abandoned because the research that would have driven the improvement of the technology never really took place

    I think your uncle’s arguments are good but most people just don’t think like that. Americans buy things with more capacity/capability/etc.than they will need 95% of the time because they fear the inconvenience caused by that other 5%. It’s also fashionable to do so, as evidenced by the trend towards stainless steel, industrial-quality appliances, for example, or by the fascination with Sam’s Club.

    A real pity as perhaps rental services for pickup trucks and utility vehicles could become a niche market with lower prices to serve drivers of small, compact, efficient cars (electric or not).

    Electric cars have an easy market: parents of teen drivers. Parents don’t want their kids going all over the place and with a 40-mile daily limit, they are essentially tethered close to home. Electric cars could be the new no-contract phone in terms of teen-friendliness.

  5. pidgit says:

    They are clean (physically and environmentally), they are lighter, they use NO expensive fossil fuels whatsoever and they make no noise.

    General Motors’ EV-1 in the mid 90’s was supposed to be the new next beginning of the electric car age, and would have been if it weren’t for the oil industry that quickly squashed it and got GM and California to do away with it before it really ever had a chance.

    The new GM Chevy Volt, or something similar is on it’s way, and with the ridiculous and rising cost of gasoline, the Volt should be a big thing. Unfortunately, it is still in the prototype phase.

    As far as an average 40 mile charge limit, a good switching system from drained batteries to backup batteries, which would get smaller in future designs, could solve that problem. Let’s all hope.

  6. Bob says:

    I can’t believe that with all this talk about electric cars, someone has yet to mention the Tesla Roadster. It goes 220 miles on one charge, 0 to 60mph in 3.9 seconds (there’s your Vroom for ya). In a small number of years (less than 4 I know for sure, but probably more like 1 or 2) they will be releasing a sedan version of their car. This will have a much, much lower price than the Roadster currently has.

  7. Great comments all — allow me to respond:

    Daniel #1: The reasons electric cars haven’t taken off on small island locations are simple: availability of parts and service. It is also expensive to ship vehicles, so the cost would go up for vehicles and parts as well. It obviously would make sense for electric vehicles to be used, but until someone can provide reliable parts and service, the status quo will be the status quo.

    Don: This came up in my dinner meeting with Bob Lutz. The fact of the matter is that if that really is important, fake exhaust note can be piped in to the car. We all chuckled that it is an easy feature to add to an electric car — and interesting. You want V12 Ferrari? Air-cooled Porsche? F1 engine? Ford 302 with H-pipe? There could even be a huge aftermarket source for sampled sounds.

    If this seems far-fetched, remember that Porsche spent unfathomable sums making the 996-series 911’s water-cooled engine sound air-cooled!

    Jimmy: Electric car image is low because the current offerings are nothing an enthusiast would love. Bob brought up the Tesla roadster, and certainly any enthusiast would love one of these — provided that they can afford the hugh asking price. There are huge downsides to Tesla, though. The first is the complete lack of service, unless you live in California. Imagine having to truck your car to CA (at your expense) anytime your car needs fixing. Furthermore, when I first was made aware of the Tesla (a couple years ago, by none-other than Danny), I noted that based on the company’s own tech sheets, the battery packs would only last roughly 18 months of regular driving! This is a huge issue!!!

    Tesla might also have some issues continuing with production of its future cars, because it is in a nice legal food fight with Fisker.

    Pidgit: I sat next to GM’s Communications head for the EV-1 during dinner. If you believe that the EV-1 was killed because of Big Oil, then you probably believe that Jim Morrison and Elvis are alive. In all seriousness, the EV-1 was a test of concept. It proved what it needed to prove, which was that the market for electric cars was extremely small in a world with cheap fuel. It also showed that electric cars required a dealer service network and electric-charging infrastructure that didn’t exist at the time.

    Big oil was too busy trying to influence foreign policy to increase the price of oil to get involved with little things like niche-market electric cars! 😉

  8. The current problem with electric cars remains the same from the original problem with electric cars: range. You can’t bring electricity with you in a lightweight, portable fashion. Nor can you “fill up” in a reasonable time. Batteries are heavy, so carrying them onboard makes for a bad hp:w situation. Increase your battery capacity to extend your range and it takes that much more power to move the weight, which being so heavy spas the power so you lose the range. Us regular folks call that spiral “circling the bowl.”

    Then you have the issue of recharge. Drivers have come to expect latency of 5-10 minutes to “recharge” the power supply of their internal combustion engines. They will not except multi-hour delays when they run our of “gas” for their electric car.

    Funny somebody always mentions the Telsa. That car is vapor-ware, plain and simple. The range and speed claims come with big fat asterisks attached.. they are speculation, not verifiable fact. Tesla has not delivered any actual models to actual customers, despite the fact they announced the “start of production” over three months ago… with much fanfare. It seems the entire automotive press has given these guys a complete pass: no scrutiny, no hard questions, nothing but sunshine and puppy dogs. Coming from the technology sector, I see them as a hopeless case. All hype, no product.

    –chuck
    http://chuck.goolsbee.org

  9. Neville Ross says:

    I wish that the environmentalists and others that have a mad hate-on for cars would listen to people like you and not whoever they listen to all of the time. They might have a better case.

  10. amigaboy says:

    I agree with Chuck, it’s range. At our biodiesel events here in Seattle, there are many electric guys there too with their Corbin sparrows, etc. and while those cars are interesting and in some cases, tech showcases, they are also most times not practical when compared with 1) a bicycle, provided you can provide the oomph to power it; or 2) a modern diesel for nearly every other situation (rain, lack of fitness, need to drive to the mountains, etc.) – Now if we could just continue the momentum of late towards a local (meaning PNW-based) veggie oil dist. system – great work has been done but still much more awaits….

    Ideally, one would ride a bike or bus locally, drive a car for a bit longer range or between states, camping, etc. and call it good. While electric cars solve noise and pollution problems (the latter depends on your perspective of where it occurs – at the car or powerplant), they don’t necessarily resolve congestion, waste, or road proliferation issues – the time honored bike and bus do most of those in most if not quite all cases….

    amigaboy

  11. Miss Green says:

    You are an idiot. A smart car is not more than $15k and drives on the freeway. No, it isn’t an SUV – sure some ppl need them for whatever personal purpose. However, there is a majority of us who drive compact cars and don’t need SUV’s. There are options far more flexible then you represent.

  12. Miss Green,
    An idiot, eh? I suppose I’ll rip up those Dean’s List awards I received in college.

    If I might be so bold, I’d like to point out that this was a story on electric cars. A Smart car isn’t electric — at least no more than any other vehicle relying on internal combustion for primary power.

    A base Smart Pure Coupe is $12,635. With tax in most states (excluding OR, NH), it puts it at around $13,500 — in WA, it would be $14,000 with tax, docs and fees. Of course, this is without a radio, air conditioning or daytime running lamps. To add these basic features, the cost goes to $13,635…with tax and fees, it’s almost exactly $15,000. Of course, I’m not sure why this is even being discussed, because the comment in the story was about the cost of keeping two cars — one electric and one standard.

    And I’ve always thought of myself more as a moron than as an idiot.

  13. Sean says:

    HYBRIDS WILL BE THE FOOTNOTES IN AUTOMOTIVE HISTORY…

    …when electric battery charge improves ten fold. And they already have; Stanford has already made them, they just haven’t gone into production. So we might have to wait several years.

    say goodbye to oil, and especially hybrids. And because of BP’s rediculous blunder, goodbye to the saying, “drill baby drill.”

    Hybrids are way to complicated. do you realize how simple and reliable electric motors are, and no more transmissions either. Hybrids are popular right now for two reasons ONLY:

    1. They fix the TEMPORARY range problem.
    2. It’s a good enough compromise from corporate america, who have to battle common sense being fed up with oil, which is too costly and poluting.

  14. cramer says:

    Why don’t we drive electric cars?
    According to wikipedia: Renewable energy accounted for 14.3 percent of the domestically produced electricity in the United States in the first six months of 2011
    It is because seven out of eight people’s Ipod is still running on oil

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