We keep waiting for that moment when the public goes from admiring electric vehicles to purchasing them in large numbers.
The past few weeks have seen the introduction of three new 2016 models of electric vehicles: the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model X crossover SUV.
Earlier this month the nation celebrated National Drive Electric Week, with events in 195 cities. Read more
Americans love their freedom to choose. Someone invents something, and competitors rush in with their own similar products to fight for a market that didn’t exist before.
This is what Tesla has done with the electric vehicle: The Model S is making cold-eyed journalists swoon, and the next few months are huge: The company will soon release its eagerly awaited crossover SUV, the Model X, followed by its more-eagerly awaited “affordable” sedan, the Model 3.
But Tesla shouldn’t get too comfortable, because the established auto-makers want to steal some of its quiet, zero-emission thunder with EVs of their own: In the past week, Toyota unveiled the new Prius, trying to assure everyone it can be cool as well as get 10 percent more miles out of a battery charge; Edmunds gave its blessing for the 2016 Chevy Volt; there was a possible sighting of the 2016 Nissan Leaf, the best-selling EV in the U.S.; and there were rumors that Mercedes-Benz is working on an electric car than has a range of 311 miles.
It’s a basic rule of economics: Competitive markets are good for consumers. Which is why drivers should be demanding fuel choice as well.
Gasoline is cheap now, but it doesn’t take much to cause a price spike: The threat of a supply constriction overseas; a refinery going down (and staying down, in California’s case); output quotas in OPEC nations. Anything can cause volatility in the global market. Businesses don’t like uncertainty, and it’s bad for consumers as well.
The only way to reduce the cost structure of fuels over the long term is to create fuel choice, something the United States has never known. To quote former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister: “We will never get past the volatility of oil until we get to alternatives to oil.”
We’re not advocating an end to fossil fuels. We just want fuel choice: Ethanol, methanol, CNG, LNG, biodiesel, hydrogen and, yes, electric batteries. Anything that reduces our dependence on oil is good for America.
If gasoline, the same fuel we’ve been stuck with for more than a century, is the superior fuel for vehicles, let it compete with other choices at the pump. If oil companies don’t want competition, what are they afraid of?
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People tend to think that Teslas and the Nissan Leaf are new developments, but in fact the electric car has a history stretching back to the 19th century.
The first electric car was built in 1884 by Thomas Parker, the man responsible for designing the London Underground, plus various overhead tramways in Liverpool and Birmingham, all running on electricity. Parker powered his independent vehicle with rechargeable batteries of his own design.
Soon variations on the EV began to appear across Europe and America. Gasoline engines were still loud and dirty and required a hand crank to get started. Steam cars were regarded as much cleaner and easier to use. Although they took a little while to get warmed up, they did not require long recharging periods, as did the electrics.
As a result, in the year 1900, 40 percent of American cars on the road were powered by steam, 38 percent by electricity and the remaining 22 percent by the infant gasoline engine. Henry Ford, then an employee at Detroit Edison, was as interested in electric cars as the internal combustion engine. In 1896 he was driving an electric “quadricycle” around Detroit. He met Edison, who was his employer, and showed him his plans for an internal combustion engine. Edison encouraged him to go ahead, even though he had his own plans for an electric vehicle.
Ford founded his own company in 1903 and introduced two revolutionary changes: the electric starter motor and the assembly line. Soon the Ford Model T, known as the Tin Lizzy, was going through the production process in 90 minutes. With the arm-twisting crank no longer necessary, the internal combustion engine took off, quickly replacing both the steamer and the electric.
Meanwhile, Edison had not lost interest in the electric car. He replaced the lead-acid battery with a more efficient nickel-iron version and announced the conversion of four touring cars from gasoline to electricity. He also wrote in favor of the technology:
Electricity is the thing. There are no whirring and grinding gears with their numerous levers to confuse. There is not that almost terrifying uncertain throb and whirr of the powerful combustion engine. There is no water-circulating system to get out of order — no dangerous and evil-smelling gasoline and no noise.
To this he could have added “no polluting exhaust and no carbon emissions,” but the advantages he mentions still remain today.
Nevertheless, Americans learned to live with the roar of the ICE and the smell of gasoline. Ford’s interest in electricity did not die, however, and as late as 1914 he and Edison were rumored to be working together on an electric car. It was reported that the car would sell for somewhere between $500 and $750 and have a range of 100 miles. Edison wrote:
Mr. Henry Ford is making plans for the tools, special machinery, factory buildings and equipment for the production of this new electric. There is so much special work to be done that no date can be fixed now as to when the new electric can be put on the market. But Mr. Ford is working steadily on the details, and he knows his business so it will not be long.
I believe that ultimately the electric motor will be universally used for trucking in all large cities, and that the electric automobile will be the family carriage of the future. All trucking must come to electricity. I am convinced that it will not be long before all the trucking in New York City will be electric.
Ford even bought interest in a power plant at Niagara Falls to provide some of the electricity. But Edison’s nickel-iron battery proved to have internal resistance and was not powerful enough to propel the vehicle. So the lead-iron battery was re-substituted without Ford’s knowledge. When it proved to be too heavy to be carried by the vehicle, Ford was furious, and the project was abandoned.
So the electric car gradually faded from view. By the 1950s, the only person in America still driving an electric was Walt Disney’s Grandma Duck, who as the grandmother of Donald was a symbol of octogenarian irrelevancy. But the oil crisis of the 1970s changed all that. Once again there was widespread interest in finding a substitute for gasoline and foreign oil.
California got the ball rolling with a mandate that the car companies produce a zero-emissions vehicle or be banned from selling in the state. One result was GM’s EV1, an electric vehicle made in the late 1990s that won praise in the industry but was probably ahead of its time. Vijay Vaitheeswaran, energy writer for The Economist, described his experience when he rented an EV1 during a visit to California:
The vehicle proved to have a much shorter range than I thought it would – closer to 50 miles than a 100. The fact that I sped along at 80 mph in those empty HOV lanes might have drained the battery faster, but only certain highways had that lane; more often, I was crawling along in traffic like everyone else. And most of the time, I was going nowhere at all, since my vehicle kept running out of power. Charging proved the biggest nightmare. There were plenty of chargers around, but some were of the wrong sort; others were locked or nonfunctional. And rather than the “pretty quick” recharge, my useless battery took more than five hours for a full charge. As a result, my entire visit turned into a fiasco of delayed or missed appointments, apologetic cell-phone calls, and panicky exits from the highway to obscure malls and commuter-rail stations in search of a charger.
Most EV1’s ended up in the shredding machines. The story was then told in a bizarre documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, which found four people who said they would have liked to buy one and attributed the whole failure to a conspiracy by the oil companies.
But the ice was broken, and in 2006 PayPal founder Elon Musk introduced the Tesla, a high-end vehicle that he said would redefine the automobile industry. The $103,000 Tesla Model S P85D was named the “best car ever” by Consumer Reports last week (“on a scale of zero to 100, a 103”). Musk is currently planning to reach the average car buyer with the Model 3 that will sell for $35,000. Nissan’s Leaf, an urban run-around, has racked up 170,000 in sales worldwide.
The obstacles remain the same as those Thomas Edison and Henry Ford faced: limited driving range, long charging time, the weight of the battery and a scarcity of recharging stations. But Tesla and Nissan are working hard to overcome them.
So will the electric vehicle once again be consigned to the ranks of those novelties that never quite worked out? Or will it fulfill the long-lost dreams of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford as a legitimate alternative to the internal combustion engine? We’ll know in about two years when the Model 3 hits the market.
So, is everybody out there waiting for the spiffy new editions of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt? If EV-makers and proponents are waiting for those holdouts to show up, it could be a very long few months.
The website Inside EVs, which keeps track of monthly sales for all-electrics and plug-in hybrids in the U.S. and globally, has published its July numbers, and they’re abysmal: Only 7,102 were sold during the month, compared with 11,242 in July 2014. There are still six models for which numbers are not available — Ford’s Fusion Energi, C-Max Energi and Focus Electric; Porsche Cayenne S-E and Panamera S-E; and the Kia Soul EV — but even if those cars come in at the same level as this June, the overall sales tally will still be well under last year’s pace.
For the first six months of 2015, a total of 61,449 EVs have been sold domestically, compared with 123,049 during the same period last year. Meantime, the rest of the world continues to outsell the U.S., thanks in part to generous subsidies in many European countries.
This marks the third straight month that U.S. EV sales have lagged the same month in 2014, and there’s a running debate about why. The dominant argument is that consumers are waiting to push their hard-earned money toward the next-generation Leaf and Volt, both of which are due out in 2017.
According to Inside EVs, the 2016 model year of the Leaf will have a 30 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery, compared with the 24 kWh currently out there, giving the 2016 version an estimated range of 105-110 miles, up from the current 84. The range for the redesigned (and much more stylish) 2017 Leaf should be even better, and Nissan is testing battery technology it hopes will allow a future version of the Leaf to get 250 miles on a full charge.
The current iteration of the Volt can travel only 38 miles without recharging, but the 2016 model of the hybrid will be able to go 53 miles before the gasoline-engine kicks in, The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday. On a full charge and full tank of gas, the range is 420 miles. Details about the redesigned 2017 Volt are sketchy.
The Times notes that the all-electric Tesla Model S has a range of 265 miles, but it costs $100,000. The cheaper EVs are, the generally shorter their battery ranges are. The 2016 Volt’s MSRP is $33,170 (without incentives), and the last iteration of the Leaf, the 2014, starts at $28,980.
Tesla’s upcoming Model 3, which is supposed to retail at $35,000 and is slated to be released in early 2016, is expected to have a battery range of about 200 miles. Tesla expects big things from its first “mainstream” EV. The Model S already is the hottest-selling EV in the nation so far this year, with 13,200 units sold, although only 1,600 were sold in July, compared with 2,800 in June and 2,400 in May.
The other splashy new release is the $30,000 Chevy Bolt, an all-electric that’s supposed to go on sale in 2017 and also has a range of about 200 miles.
So there’s a bounty of high-tech, much-improved EVs and hybrids hitting the market in the next year or so. But if sales remain flat even then, the depressive effect of low gasoline prices could emerge as the true motivator.
With the 2014 gas-price spike long in the distance (a gallon of regular was $2.64 Tuesday, compared with $3.50 a year ago), there’s little incentive for consumers to buy or lease a new electric car now, especially if they’re not sure they’ll have a battery strong enough to get them to work and back.
Sales of conventional vehicles are going in the opposite direction as EVs: The big automakers are on track for their first year of 17 million units sold since before the Great Recession. SUVs, crossovers and pickups led a strong sales month in July. “That segment of vehicles continues to be smoking hot,” Mark LaNeve, Ford’s vice president of sales and marketing, told the Detroit Free Press.
For perspective, more Chevy Silverados were sold in July (56,380) than the eight top-selling EVs combined that were sold from January through July (55,365).
If you’re shopping for a new or used car and want the benefits of cleaner-burning, cheaper, American-made fuels, consider buying a flex-fuel vehicle that can use E85. Check out E85Vehicles.com to see which models are FFVs.
As oil prices have tumbled, one thing has become clear: Electric vehicles are making much greater headway in the rest of the world than they are in the United States.
U.S. sales have remained flat over the past year after increasing steadily over the last decade. But sales have actually accelerated in some European countries, and several now have a larger percentage of their fleet in EVs than America does.
The website InsideEVs estimated that 160,670 EVs were sold around the world through the month of May, 34 percent ahead of last year during the same period. But U.S. global market share is declining: Domestic sales totaled 43,973 through May, a fraction ahead of last year’s pace. But when the June numbers came out, the U.S. had sold only 10,365, off 16.2 percent from the same month in 2014.
Norway is emerging as the world leader in making the transition from gasoline to electric vehicles. An incredible 33 percent of new-car registrations in the first quarter of 2015 were for EVs. Volkswagen’s e-Golf, the electric model, now sells 71 percent of its cars worldwide in Norway, giving it 40 percent of the Norwegian market. Tesla is not far behind with 16 percent of the market. Oddly, the Toyota Prius, the pioneer in the hybrid field, is seeing almost no sales now. People are beginning to opt for all-electric rather than the halfway point of gas-electric hybrids.
The Norwegian government has given EVs a raft of advantages over traditional gasoline-powered engines. Here’s a brief list:
• EVs get access to bus lanes
• The government has provided free charging stations
• EVs get free access to all toll roads
• EVs get free rides on ferries
• EVs get free parking in municipal parking spaces
• EVs carry a low annual road fee
• EV buyers pay no tax on purchase
Some of these advantages will eventually have to be cut back as the number of EVs on the road grows. But for now the incentives are huge and are not costing the government a great deal of money.
Other European countries have also been successful in promoting the purchase of electric vehicles. EVs now make up 5.7 percent of new car registrations in the Netherlands and 1.2 percent in the United Kingdom. The U.S. counts only 0.8 percent of new registrants as EVs, a figure that is matched by France. Germany and Japan counted only 0.6 percent of new registrations during the first quarter.
The reason EVs are doing so well in Europe is easy to identify: Europe imports nearly all its oil, and gasoline prices are much higher, mainly because of the imposition of heavy taxes. Gasoline sells for $8 a gallon in much of Europe, while prices are generally below $3 per gallon in this country. But air pollution is also playing a role. Pollution in some European cities has gotten as bad as it is in China and other parts of Asia. Paris shut down all auto traffic for three days last year when air pollution reached the same levels of Beijing and Shanghai. Sales of the Nissan Leaf – now the best-selling electric vehicle in the world – skyrocketed during this period. It’s expected that if emergencies like the one in Paris become commonplace, electric vehicles will be exempted from the ban.
Meanwhile, it appears that electric vehicles are finally taking off in China, which is now the world’s largest auto market. Back in the early 2000s, the Chinese government promised it would have 500,000 EVs on the road by 2011. Officials publicly announced they would be challenging the American industry by then. But as late as 2014, China was selling only 600 EVs a month, at the same time the U.S. was selling 6,000.
All that has reversed over the past year. In December, China sold 27,000 electric vehicles, almost 30 times the number as the previous January, and surpassed the U.S. in monthly sales for the first time. In 2015 China will probably become the world’s largest buyer of EVs.
All this has happened while Tesla was failing in its attempt to break into the Chinese market. The reason is plain: Tesla is marketing a luxury vehicle, something that few Chinese can afford. Meanwhile, the Chinese manufacturers, BYD, Kandi, Chery Zotye and BAIC, are selling no-frills vehicles that can only reach about 35 miles per hour. But such utilitarian vehicles are perfect for Chinese families to buzz around their cities for shopping and short commutes. There is even speculation that the Chinese manufacturers may start marketing their vehicles in the United States, where they would compete with entries such as the Chevy Volt and the Ford Focus. There is even talk that such vehicles may be able to feed off the rise of Uber for short-term ride-sharing in an urban setting.
Tesla’s moment of truth will come with the expected 2017 release of its Model 3, the $35,000 version of its EV, aimed at the average car-buyer. Then we will see if Tesla can really meet its deadlines, and if it can sell its highly stylized car on the mid-market. If it can, Tesla will probably have oodles of customers in both Europe and America, giving it a shot at the 500,000 sales Elon Musk has declared as his 2020 goal.
One narrative for 2014 is that cheap gasoline reduced the incentive for energy-efficient vehicles.
Tell that to all the people who bought electric cars during the calendar year.
With sales data still coming in, it appears certain that U.S. sales of EVs, including both all-electric and plug-in hybrids, surpassed 100,000 units.
That marks the third straight year of sales increases, since the electric vehicles we know today first went on sale in December 2010, according to Green Car Reports. The growth rate won’t come close to 2013, however, when 97,000 EVs were sold, nearly doubling the 2012 total of 53,000.
Nissan is emerging as the sales champion for the year, having moved 30,200 all-electric Leafs, a new U.S. record for an EV. That’s up nearly 34 percent over 2013, when 22,610 Nissan Leafs were sold.
Compare that figure to the Chevy Volt, of which 18,805 were sold — down 19 percent from the previous year, when 23,094 were sold.
According to the Auto Blog, Volt sales really tailed off in December, with just 1,490 units, a 38 percent falloff from the same month in 2013. Nissan sold 3,102 units for the month, up 23 percent from December 2013. The federal government’s $7,500 sweetener might have played a role, as new-car buyers sought to grab that tax savings before the calendar turned.
More Auto Blog:
The Leaf outsold the Volt every month in 2014. The closest gap was 215 units, in February. The biggest was 1,612, in December.
One theory for the Volt slowdown is that potential buyers are waiting for the redesigned 2016 model. Although the car won’t be officially unveiled until the Detroit Auto Show next week, Chevrolet opened the kimono to allow journalists a peek Sunday night at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Check out stories here, here and here.
What about sales of the Tesla Model S, you ask? The company doesn’t post monthly sales reports, so we’ll have to wait until later in the winter for its annual report. But Inside EVs mentions both Nissan and Tesla “hitting it out of the park” in December.
Inside EVs also has a breakdown of how other anticipated models sold during the year. For instance, Cadillac moved 1,310 units of its plug-in ELR. And BMW moved 6,092 units of the i3, “not bad considering it was only available for 7 full months in the US.”
Current owners got some good news this month as earlier, long standing issues surrounding the onboard chargers being muted to avoid failure incidents has now been rectified and BMW has a recall/repair bulletin out for owners to now get new units installed. 7.4 kW charges again for everyone!
Everyone is saying that falling gas prices will ruin the market for alternative fuels and vehicles. But it isn’t time to give up on them now.
Ethanol and methanol are still two liquid fuels that will easily substitute for gasoline in our current infrastructure. Ethanol is making headway, particularly in the Midwest, where it is still cheaper than gasoline and has a lot of support in the farm economy. The big decision will come when the EPA finally sets the quota for ethanol consumption for 2015 – if the agency ever gets around to making a decision. (The decision has been postponed since last spring.) A high number should guarantee the sale of ethanol no matter what the price of gasoline.
That leaves methanol, the fuel that has the most potential to replace gasoline and would it fit right into our present infrastructure but must still run the gamut of EPA approval and would require a change in habits among motorists. Methanol is still relatively unknown among car owners and is hindered by people’s reluctance to try new things. But the six methanol plants that the Chinese are building in the Texas and Louisiana region could break the ice on methanol. The Chinese have 100,000 methanol cars on the road now and are shooting for 500,000 by 2015. Some of that methanol might end up in American engines as well.
Another alternative that is still in play is the electric car. In theory, electric cars should not be affected much by gas prices because that is an entirely different infrastructure. The appeal is not based on price so such as the idea of freeing yourself from the oil companies completely and relying on a source of energy.
The Nissan Leaf has not been badly hit by oil prices. Tesla’s cars, of course, have not gone mass market yet, but the company is relying on a new breed of consumer who does not worry too much about the price and will appreciate the car for its style and performance. Elon Musk has shown no indication of backing down on his great Gigafactory, and Tesla is still aiming to have the Model III (its third-generation vehicle, which will come at a much lower expected price point of $35,000) ready by 2017.
This leaves natural-gas-powered vehicles as the only group that might be hurt by falling gas prices, and here the news is not too good. Sales of vehicles that have compressed natural gas as their fuel declined 7.2 percent in November. As David Whiston, an analyst at Morningstar, told the Houston Chronicle’s Ryan Holeywell: “I hear all the time from dealers: As soon as gas starts to go down, people look at light trucks.”
CNG’s appeal has always been that it will be cheaper than regular gasoline, so plunging gas prices make it lose much of its appeal. It costs $5,000 to install a tank for CNG fuel, and that is not likely to attract a lot of takers with oil prices low. For a gas-electric hybrid, there is similar math. For the Toyota Corolla, the electric portion adds another $7,000 to the price. That’s why the CNG-based solutions never caught up with the light-duty vehicle. They are still attractive for high-mileage vehicles like buses and garbage trucks. “For the consumers doing the math, if gas goes below $3 per gallon, the payback period goes out a number of years,” Whiston told Holeywell. “And the break-even point makes sense for fewer people.”
The collapse in gas prices is not the end of the road for alternative fuels. In a couple of months, the price may be up again, and all those people who have rushed out to buy light trucks will be stuck with them. The changeover to alternative fuels is a slow process, fraught with false starts and misleading signals. But in the end, it will be well worth it to reduce our dependence on imported oil and achieve some kind of energy independence. Car buyers have very short memories and an inability to look very far into the future. Remember, it’s always a passing parade. Consequently, their reaction has been only short-term. But once people buy those trucks, they’re stuck with them for the next 5 to 10 years. If the price of gas goes up again, they may live to regret it.