Born before the Model T, revived and then extinguished a decade ago by GM, the electric vehicle is poised to dominate the global car industry, according to a panel of transportation experts convened by Climate One on January 13.
“The demand for these vehicles is greater than the supply,” said Marc Geller, Co-Founder, Plug In America. “Certainly through this year it would appear that Nissan and Chevrolet have all but sold out of their first 35,000 vehicles, with the Leaf and the Volt. The customer is ready. There are customers who are ready for electric and plug-in hybrids for many different reasons, but it’s really an issue of getting the cars to market.”
Manufacturers are responding, said Diarmuid O’Connell, Vice President of Business Development, Tesla Motors, because this time there is a market, and money to be made. “This is hardly a philanthropic endeavor that we’ve taken on,” he said. “We’re brutally business-like in the way we’re going about doing this. Developing a high-end car [the Roadster], was a way of capturing some margin, and making something that would attract investors.”
One potential obstacle to widespread adoption of EVs is their (for now) higher upfront cost. Anthony Eggert, former Commissioner at the California Energy Commission, stressed the low lifetime cost of owning an EV. “You really want to look at total cost of ownership. It’s not just the initial purchase price of the vehicle, which is going to be higher,” he said. “Rough numbers are that we have $3 gallon gasoline, going up, and about $0.10/kWh for electricity, it’s about $1 gallon equivalent. When you factor all that in, and get the total cost of ownership, I think this can be a very competitive technology.”
Diane Wittenberg, Executive Director, California EV Strategic Plan, agreed. “An average conventional vehicle, to drive 100 miles, costs about $6 in fuel; with pure electric, it would be about $2. Most people don’t know that off the top of their heads. It’s an education challenge,” she said.
Manufacturers must also contend with customer fears that EVs will leave them stranded. “We should be clear when we’re speaking about charge time,” said Marc Geller. “We act as if these vehicles are actually driving 24/7, as if they’re all in taxi fleets. Most people’s cars sit 22 hours a day” – plenty of time to charge your EV before tomorrow’s commute, even if using a slower, standard 110V outlet.
He added that for most commuters a 100-mile battery may be all they need. “Eight or ten years ago, it was suggested that until we have a 300-mile range battery that costs the same as a gasoline car, these cars would not be useful. In fact, what we’re finding is, no, that a 100-, 125-, even 75-mile range is useful for consumers and will lower the cost.”
During the Q&A, a member of the audience asked how policymakers plan to replace sales tax revenue lost when drivers fill up with electricity rather than gas. “These vehicles will eventually have to pay their fair share of road taxes, to be able to use the system,” said Anthony Eggert, “but the actual impact to the collection of road taxes is likely to be negligible for the next 5 plus years. So we have time to figure this out.”
“That would be a high-class problem, as far as I’m concerned,” responded Tesla’s O’Connell. “Let’s hope that we’ll be solving that problem within five years.”
– Justin Gerdes
January 13, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California