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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Electric Cars: Are We Ready or Not?

Policymakers and car builders have decided that battery-powered autos are the future of transportation in America. But what do the masses think? The answer might surprise you.

By Erik Sofge of MSN autos
Driving Into the Sunset (© Digital Vision/Getty Images)
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While policymakers and car builders are pushing hard for electric propulsion, gas and diesel vehicles still make up more than 97 percent of new automobiles sold today.

Is America ready for cars that run on electricity? The pollsters seem to think so — for years, surveys have found that a majority of drivers in the United States are interested in gas-electric hybrid vehicles. And in a J.D. Power and Associates poll conducted in the summer of 2008, 46 percent of those who responded would consider buying a hybrid, even after being informed that they can cost at least $5,000 more than equivalent gas-burning models. Fewer polls have been conducted for all-electric vehicles (EVs), but the lesson seems clear: Hybrids are in demand, and electric cars could be next in line for the national zeitgeist.

Get on the highway, however, and it's another story. Although hybrids have been available since 1997, and GM introduced its battery-powered EV1 in 1996, gas and diesel vehicles currently make up more than 97 percent of new automobile sales. There isn't a single reason for that — buried in those poll numbers are thousands of individual stories, with drivers picking a car or truck for reasons as pragmatic as cargo space, or as ephemeral as engine noise.

To get a more detailed snapshot of the nation's attitude toward hybrid and electric vehicles, we surveyed regular people from around the country, and asked them what they're looking for in a car and what it would take to put a battery-powered vehicle in their driveway. We were expecting to be surprised, and we weren't disappointed. Here are just some of their answers, but they all point to a country not ready or willing to make the leap to electricity.

Hybrids: Too Few, Too Much
It's no surprise that Americans are put off by the high price of hybrids, especially in today's economy. Almost no one we spoke with would be willing to pay a price premium of more than a few thousand dollars for a hybrid with roughly the same performance and features as a similar gas-guzzling vehicle. But for Christopher Manley, a general contractor who lives in Vinings Lake, Ga., with his wife and three sons, the problem is more complex.

When Manley was shopping for a new vehicle last year, hybrids were a serious consideration. "We recycle; we want to do our part," he says. "But we don't fit in a sedan anymore." So the Manleys bought a 2008 Chrysler Town & Country minivan, primarily because of family-friendly features like Stow 'N Go seats and a dual-monitor rear-seat entertainment system. "I've never heard of a minivan hybrid," Manley says. "The closest thing would have been a Chevy Tahoe Hybrid, but the price would have been outlandish — something like $20,000 more."

The same is true for the Ford F-150 pickup that Manley uses for work. Finding a hybrid with equivalent towing capacity would have meant upgrading up to a much more expensive model. "If there had been an F-150 in the lot, and a hybrid F-150 right next to it for $5,000 more, it would have been a done deal," he says. The hybrid would win hands down. But that option is not available.

For Paula Ridley, who co-owns an auto body shop in Brockton, Mass., the bigger deal-breaker for hybrids is maintenance. "The parts are big money," she says. "We serviced a hybrid that was vandalized, and the headlights were $1,000 each to replace. Another car would have been a couple hundred dollars. But these lights had computers in them." While stripping parts from the hybrid, the vandals snipped electrical cables, forcing the owner to replace the vehicle's entire wire harness — essentially its electrical nervous system — worth more than $1,000.

"It's just a complicated car," Ridley says. "Mechanics have to be schooled in them. If it's not something basic, like changing the oil or replacing an air filter, you're taking it to the dealership. And then you're really just at their mercy." Ridley's hands-on time has clinched it — even if there were no price difference between the gas and gas-electric versions of a given model (like the Toyota Camry she drives), she can't imagine switching to a hybrid or EV.

Mechanic working on car (© General Motors) Click picture to enlarge

Cost of ownership, especially maintenance, was another concern. Hybrids, EVs and EREVs, like this Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, are complicated and often can be worked on only by the dealer.

Conscious, But Not Ready to Change
Ridley's 22-year-old son, Daniel, is much more enthusiastic about hybrids, however. Looking ahead, he can't imagine a future where hybrids and electric vehicles aren't dominating the road. "Gas has to run out," he says. "All the gas cars are going to be converted or junked. There's no other choice."

But of the three cars Daniel Ridley owns — a 1997 Corolla for daily driving, a 1996 Camaro SS for special occasions and an unregistered 1986 Trans Am GTA that he displays at car shows — none is a hybrid. "Gas is working for me right now," he says. "If gas was $4 a gallon consistently, and hybrids or electric vehicles were only a few thousand dollars more, I'd seriously think about it."

There's a catch, though. He might be willing to buy a hybrid or EV to deal with rising gas costs, but that would replace his Corolla, not his high-performance jones. Muscle-car enthusiasts, he says, are a market that hybrids will never touch: "I don't care about going fast. I'd rather show my Camaro off than get a ticket in it. But people know it goes fast. You can hear it. People turn their heads when I drive past them. People like me take pride in the sound a muscle car makes. You'll never get that with a hybrid."

Car editors might bemoan the death of high performance in a hybridized world, but for most Americans, burning through the twisties isn't a major concern. The right car is often the one with the best price for the features, or the one that fits into your corner of the larger car culture. It's obvious that hybrids need to be more affordable and that there must be more of a selection if they are to have a chance of overtaking traditional vehicles. But carmakers and the "Wisemen" from Washington might also have to accept that some customers simply don't want to be convinced.

Electric Vehicles: An Uncertain Future
We expected a wide variety of opinions about hybrids, but the real surprise was the reaction we got toward EVs — a veritable flat line of disinterest. Most participants said they didn't know specifics about EV range, performance or recharging. Andrea Tomita, an architect and interior designer in Honolulu, says that hybrids "fall short on aesthetics, and they're pricey," but would be willing to sacrifice cargo space if hybrids fell in line with standard vehicles in terms of both looks and cost. But she says that EVs are not only ugly, but unsafe: "The jaws of life can't cut through those cars." This is a myth, of course. But how many other people believe it? Similar claims have been floated on the Internet about hybrids, and while there isn't much data from emergency responders to support these fears, a myth can be just as damaging as the truth.

For "Kyle," a lawyer who lives in the San Francisco area and would prefer to remain anonymous, the economics and logistics of EVs are still too complex, even for people willing to spend more to reduce their carbon footprint. By comparison, when Kyle was shopping for a new car last year, the advantages of a hybrid were clear. "Gas was $4.50 a gallon," he says. "I think it hit $5 at one point. With a hybrid, it was very easy to quantify the savings you'd be getting. If you're getting double the mileage, you're paying half as much for gas. With EVs, how do you convert electricity to gallons? How much does 20 kilowatts cost to produce?"

Although Kyle grew up in the Bay Area, where the BART transit system had parking spaces reserved for electric vehicles, the state of EV infrastructure seems like a major obstacle. "It's not just that the cars are expensive," he says. "I'm already paying a premium for a hybrid. What happens when you're running low on the road? Can you plug it in at a gas station? Do you have to convert your garage to charge it at home?"

A decade ago, Marisa Osorio, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two children, was willing to deal with the relative lack of electric vehicle infrastructure, as well as the short driving range. At the time, Osorio and her fiancé had two incomes, two cars and no children, and were living in Southern California. They considered trading in his Ford Escort for one of the newly released GM EV1s. With one standard vehicle (a Saturn sedan) and one battery-driven car, they'd be able to run errands around town without burning a drop of gas, and still take longer trips without worrying about running out of electricity. Unfortunately, GM was only leasing the EV1. "We figured EVs were the future," Osorio says. "Other automakers would have to come with them. So we decided to wait until we could buy one."

2010 Fisker Karma (© Robert J. Pennington) Click picture to enlarge

Looks are also a major detriment to the acceptance of EVs and EREVs. But, as some people pointed out in this survey, this 2010 Fisker Karma is a step in the right direction. But the cost is prohibitive.

Ten years later, the EV1 is still a sore subject — both for its owners, who were forced to return them, and for Osorio, who recently bought a Pontiac Vibe station wagon, primarily because of the cargo space and safety features. "The only thing that stopped us from buying an electric car back in the day was that they wouldn't sell it to us," she says. "We could have had one 10 years ago. And a lot of other people might have, too. It's a missed opportunity." Now, with two children and a single income, any sort of price premium for a hybrid or electric vehicle is simply too much.

As with hybrids, enthusiasts simply won't sacrifice on performance, even those who believe that electricity has potential. Daniel Dror, a real-estate entrepreneur, avid car collector and ex-race car driver from Houston, is a concerned enthusiast. "Alternative fuel sources are a must," he says. "We need to integrate them into our energy strategy going forward." However, he isn't quite ready to sacrifice looks, handling or power to drive one. "The way a car looks and feels is important to me," he says. "I recently looked at the Fisker Karma, and almost put down a deposit. But I just couldn't justify it financially. The technology needs to evolve more to get me behind the wheel of one of these cars." Unfortunately, that's far into the future.

There Is a Silver Lining
It would be misleading to leave out the general — albeit limited — sense of optimism among the participants in this survey. Some believed that a full transition to hybrid or electric automobiles would never happen, or that it might take centuries. But most thought it was either inevitable, or a strong possibility. If there was a consensus, it was that a wave of cheap, versatile hybrids would be snapped up with little hesitation.

And carmakers and governmental types can't blame sluggish hybrid and EV penetration on a lack of education. Having spent six years in the fuel-cell business, Adam Calihman, a Boulder, Colo.-based entrepreneur, is the definition of an informed consumer — which, he says, is why he still drives a 1998 Saab 900. "For both these technologies, we're at the trailing edge of a big step-change," Calihman says. "There's going to be a huge leap in quality very soon. People buying these cars right now are jumping in at a point when it's still a crude device. Hybrids work only slightly better than a combustion engine alone. And EVs, even if you can afford the investment of rewiring your garage, or you can convince your landlord or co-op board to install an 80 amp line in the parking lot, just for you, the quality of the batteries and the capacitors still has to be improved."

For Calihman, who describes himself as an aggressive driver ("A lot of people don't like driving with me," he jokes), performance isn't a factor, since engineers are already using ultracapacitors to quickly discharge power to electric motors, boosting off-the-line acceleration. He's waiting for the cost-benefit analysis to add up, which he sees happening only when the current hybrids and EVs become obsolete, and the market is flooded with the best of both worlds — plug-in hybrids or extended-range electric vehicles (EREVs). "It's an EV plus a gas generator," he explains, "so you fill it up with gas, and maybe you won't go out of electric range for months, but if you need to take a long trip, you can. There's no switching between your EV and your hydrogen car. You don't need a four-car garage. And you don't have to think about it."

Bottom Line
The public seems primed for a seamless hybridization of this country's fleet of automobiles — with an emphasis on seamlessness. For EVs, though, there's still no sense of how long it will take to educate drivers about their potential benefits, and to build up an infrastructure that rivals the nation's ubiquitous gas and diesel stations. The one glimmer of hope for EVs: Daniel Ridley, the muscle-car driver, really wants a GM Volt, the plug-in vehicle that the company plans to start selling as early as 2010. Not as a tooling-around-town car, but as a show-stopper. "It looks great," he says. "And it doesn't matter that it runs on batteries, because it doesn't look like it's supposed to have a lot of engine noise — you know, like a European car." Backhanded compliment or not, any interest in EVs — or GM, for that matter — is good news.



Based out of the Boston area, Erik Sofge is frequent contributor to Popular Mechanics and Slate.com. He specializes in everything scientific and technical.

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