EVs and knees in the curve and bungee jumping naked

So, where are we with plug-in vehicles[1] in the US not quite 4.5 years after the first mass market models, the Volt and the Leaf, went on sale?[0]

The situation is more than a little reminiscent of the early days of the personal computer, when there was no shortage of companies leaping into the fray, as well as plenty who though it was a flash in the pan not worthy of their attention. There were quirky market entries, like the Texas Instruments 99/4a (the Mitsubishi i-MiEV?), endless debates about alternatives, like CP/M, DOS, or UNIX (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles?), and, above all, endless speculation and impatience on the part of enthusiasts.

One key difference between the PC and EVs is the areas that need improvement. Those paleo-PCs were mind-warpingly primitive by today’s standards. I had an Apple II+ with a whopping 48K of memory, a 9-inch B&W monitor and two (count ‘em, two) 137KB floppy disk drives. We microcomputer enthusiasts — the term “PC” didn’t exist until 1981 — were desperate for more CPU speed, more memory, more and faster disk storage, larger and higher resolution screens, and much better software, to name just the major things we lusted after.[2] Even with the rapid rate of advancement, we spent a lot of time frustrated, to be sure.

In the EV world, we already have everything we need except batteries cheap enough to let us buy, say, a $25,000 Leaf with a 200-mile-per-charge range. I’ve driven a Leaf for nearly two years, and I love it. It drives great, it’s delightfully quiet, and it’s stupid cheap to refuel compared to gasoline. And I most definitely don’t miss the experience of standing out in the elements while I put liquid fuel into my car’s tank and then wind up smelling like gasoline. Plugging my car in via an outlet in my garage is a gigantic improvement in both cost and convenience. The only thing keeping EVs out of nearly every garage in America (and elsewhere) is price/performance, which limits the applicability of EVs.

This is why I and so many of my fellow plug-heads are so focused on advances in batteries. The price of batteries, usually expressed in terms of dollars per kilowatt-hour of energy storage ($/kWh), has been declining steadily and fairly swiftly for years, and it’s set to to keep doing so, thanks in no small part to Tesla’s Gigafactory, currently under construction near Reno, NV. (But one word of caution: If you follow EV news, you’ll likely see about one article per week about some university or corporation making what sounds like an immense battery breakthrough, only to be disappointed when none of them make it to market. These things take years to develop, test, etc.)

Perhaps the surest sign that things are changing in a major way is the pair of recent announcements from GM and Ford. GM announced the Bolt, a 200-mile EV, and Ford seemingly had (and then tried to retract?) a quick “me too” announcement of their own 200-mile EV, both scheduled for shipment in 2017. Plus, it’s widely known that the next-generation Leaf, commonly called the Leaf 2.0, is coming around the same time frame, with a big increase in battery range. As I like to say, look around at the current EV and PHEV offerings and tell me which ones will make sense once those 200-mile EVs are shipping? They won’t all suddenly become obsolete, to be sure, but expect a fair amount of marketplace carnage and product repositioning and price adjustments.[3]

I also expect that it won’t be much longer before some of the holdout companies — yes, I’m looking at you, Toyota and Honda — cave in and ship, say, a Prius EV and a resurrected Fit EV, respectively. My guess is that it will take a bit longer for those two companies to give up their bizarre, compliance-credit-driven fetish with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, as good an example of an automotive technology looking for an application as one could imagine.

So, where does this leave us?

As batteries improve in price/performance, we will greatly expand the portion of the general public that can buy and use an EV. Once the up-front acquisition cost of the vehicle is close to parity with an equivalent gasoline vehicle, things will get very interesting, to say the least. Add up the total expenses of car ownership, including fuel and maintenance[4], and you quickly reach a point where even if you somehow dismiss the better driving experience of an EV, the brute-force economics become very persuasive.

I can’t tell you when we’ll hit this knee in the curve/tipping point, but I suspect it’s no more than a few years away. A large component of this looming phenomenon is nothing more than technology-driven economics — the battery thing — but there’s also a non-trivial portion that’s plain old ignorance and mule-headedness. I still run into many people who don’t even know that EVs are mainstream products that have been on the market for years. And many of the people who do know they exist have these weird notions that they’re not “real cars”; they think EVs have crippling limitations, like an inability to drive on highways or up hills or in snow, carry more than one or two adults, etc. They’re still mired in the “EV = golf cart” mentality.

That cognitive hurdle will also fall over time, and I’ll have more to say about the role we early adopters of electrified transportation can play in accelerating that process in this naked bungee jump in future posts.


[0] Yes, Tesla beat GM and Nissan to market, but I don’t count them simply because they sold in very small quantities and were not readily available across the entire US.

[1] As always, we have to get our terminology straight. Here’s how I refer to electrified cars:

Plug-in vehicles include plug-in hybrids and 100% electricity-fueled cars. This includes all EVs (I detest the term BEV as I think it’s pointless nitpicking) and any vehicle that can be propelled using electricity brought into the vehicle via a plug. It does not include the traditional hybrid, like the Prius and the Insight.

EVs are purely electricity driven, like the Leaf, Teslas, the Ford Focus EV, the VW e-Golf, etc.

[2] For most of us, a modem of any kind wasn’t even part of the mix, so we hadn’t progressed to the point of having connectivity and then wanting much faster hardware.

[3] This will extend into the market for things like the Leaf 1.0, and could make for some interesting times. As we approach the ship date for the Leaf 2.0, it will be quite difficult for Nissan dealers to move the older Leafs. And Nissan will have a problem with a large number of Leafs coming off lease deals (like mine) that will take a big hit if resale value. I think there’s a good chance Nissan will offer some sizable incentives to get people to buy their Leafs coming off lease.

[4] In very round terms, I save about 10 cents per mile on fuel costs, and the maintenance costs and hassles on an EVs are much lower than they are for a gasoline-powered vehicle, simply because the

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