Are electric cars really a disappointment?

at 10:22 AM ET, 01/09/2012

Lately, much of the press coverage of electric cars has implied that the technology has been a huge letdown. See, for instance, USA Today’s story: “Are electric cars losing their spark?” The angst mostly centers around sales: In 2011, the first year they were available, the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt sold just 17,345 units in the United States — slightly below expectations.

Placed in perspective, though, those weak sales don’t look all that apocalyptic. Over at the Rocky Mountain Institute, Randy Essex and Ben Holland point out that when gas-electric hybrids first rolled out in 2000, the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius had sales of just 9,350. Those figures looked anemic at the time, too. But in the ensuing years, the technology caught on and more than 2 million hybrids have been sold in the United States. If that’s any prologue, it could bode well for future plug-ins.

But is this comparison apt? On the one hand, the new generation of electric vehicles enjoy a few advantages that Priuses didn’t. Gasoline prices sat below $2 per gallon back in 2000, considerably lower than today. What’s more, the latest round of fuel-economy standards, under which carmakers have to get their fleet averages up to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, should give the big auto companies incentive to roll out more plug-in vehicles in the coming years.

But then again, today’s electric cars also face special hurdles that the old hybrids didn’t. For one, there’s “range anxiety,” in which would-be buyers of electric cars sometimes fret that their batteries will run out of juice and leave them stranded. (The Chevy Volt, which is still more of a hybrid than a true all-electric, has a gas-powered back-up engine precisely in order to allay this fear, but that’s also added to the car’s price tag.)

What’s more, electric cars have recently had to endure panicky headlines over safety, after three separate Volt batteries caught fire in crash tests. On the technical merits, this wasn’t a huge worry: The batteries caught fire days or weeks after extreme crash testing in the laboratory, and even then the fires only broke out because post-crash procedures weren’t followed. As MSNBC’s Dan Carney snarks, “The lesson here is to get out of a crashed car within a few days, and be sure to turn off the lights when exiting.” There was also the little-noted fact that, as government statistics show (PDF), some 250,000 gas-powered vehicles catch fire in real-life settings every year.

Still, as a new technology, this sort of disproportionate attention was inevitable. GM has now resolved the Volt’s battery issues, with new casings that will reportedly cost $1,000 per car, and the government’s probe into the fires is set to wind down soon. But until electric cars break through, they’ll likely continue to face a barrage of special scrutiny.

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