Will the timing ever be right for the electric car? The first mass-produced model, General Motors’ EV1, released in 1996, was said to have been “killed” three years later by oil companies, the automotive industry, the US government and regulatory bodies such as the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Even lack of interest by consumers was blamed for its death in the Martin Sheen-voiced 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?
But while filmmakers and EV1 devotees such as Mel Gibson and Tom Hanks were picking over the facts of that case – which concluded with GM scrapping 5000 near-new EV1s – the part car/part cadaver was preparing for a second coming.
This year sees the electric car alive and running again in a range of new, curiously unadvanced iterations that offer similar levels of performance to the 1996 model.
In short, that’s approximately 160 kilometres of range, electricity cost of about $2.50 per full charge, a top speed of 130-150km/h and not much change out of $50,000 for the cheapest model, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV.
“There hasn’t been a major leap forward in electric-car technology since the late ’90s,” says The Age’s Saturday Drive motoring editor Steve Colquhoun. “And that’s surprising, given the technological breakthroughs we’ve made in other areas around mobility and communications. 2012 is a real litmus-test year for the electric car, with the arrival this year of the all-electric Nissan LEAF and the Holden (GM) Volt, which also has the petrol engine to extend its range to 500 kilometres.
“Those two cars in particular are going to really test whether people will be persuaded to move to electric vehicles. So far the experience in the US is tending towards being a bit of a flop in terms of the sales expectations not being met.”
Indeed, despite renewed efforts by car companies in the US to hit only modest annual sales targets of 10,000 for the Volt and the LEAF, both fell short in 2011.
Currently, less than 1 per cent of cars on the road in the US are electric. China, too, has attempted to cash in on demand for clean vehicles, calling in 2009 for annual electric-car sales of 500,000 by 2015. Two years on, there are expected to be fewer than 2000 electric car sales in China this year, and most of those will be taxis; it’s what Gen Y calls an “epic fail”.
Chastened by technological issues and lack of interest from buyers, Beijing has done exactly what the CARB did in 2003: scaled back its mandated targets from bold to barely there.
So, yes, the electric car might be alive, but rather than driving smoothly towards a clean-energy future with buyers onboard, it’s lurching forward with a faint smell of lemon in the air vents and Shirley Bassey’s History Repeating playing on the stereo.
But this time it’s Nissan assessing whether potential Aussie buyers “qualify” to drive its LEAF. So far, some buyers have been deemed “unsuitable” for ownership, the majority because “they don’t have off-street parking available to them,” Nissan Australia model line manager James Staveley recently told Fairfax publication Drive.
Seems the perfect time to ask Plug-In America, the vigilant electric and hybrid-car organisation featured in Who Killed the Electric Car?, whether this whole high barrier to entry thing is another self-sabotaging move by car companies in cahoots with oil companies and spare-parts manufacturers. Surprisingly, co-founder Paul Scott could not disagree more.
“I believe Nissan wants to confirm that people are well prepared for charging the car,” he says, in Nissan’s defence. He then points out that he “wears two hats” and is also a LEAF salesperson in the Los Angeles area. “I read the requirements, and they are very similar to what Nissan did in the US. If you drive long distances a lot, you’ll find the 160-kilometre range a limitation. If you don’t have off-street parking available, you’ll have a hard time charging the car.
Colquhoun says: “It’s just not practical or feasible to have power cords draped over Melbourne’s inner-city footpaths.”
“Once the first wave of cars is delivered, Nissan will loosen up these requirements,” says Scott. “But until then, it’s smart to limit the car to those for whom it will work the best.”
The need for off-street parking locks out many inner-city potential buyers of the LEAF.
Meanwhile, BMW has named outer suburbanites as its electric-car consumers, saying the electric i3 model, to be launched in 2014, is a better fit as a second car for commuting than as a primary city vehicle. Potential inner-city buyers “don’t need” the electric car because they already have “good access to public transport”, spokesman Scott Croaker says.
While the immediate future of the electric car is clearly troubled and the car companies are confused about their target market, a slightly longer view, say 20-25 years from now, shows a very different picture indeed.
“Electric cars won’t replace internal combustion engines in this generation, but I think a lot of car companies are working in their back rooms on something that they can throw straight out there when the tipping point is reached,” Colquhoun says. “They don’t want to be caught flat-footed when the peak oil runs out, which it is predicted to do in 2045. And when that happens, the change to alternative-fuel cars will happen very quickly.”
“Governments must get on board with incentives to make electric cars more attractive,” Colquhoun says, “whether that’s discounts like reduced registration, subsidised pricing or cheaper parking for alternative-fuel cars.”
Electric cars are currently priced between $48,000 and $65,000, the same as lower-level premium vehicles, but without the premium performance, auxiliaries and all-important badge.
Suitability for Australian drivers
Aussies drive a rough average of 20,000 kilometres a year, and, according to Colquhoun, the electric car “does not work with the desire among most Australians to get out there and explore and to
have a car that can potentially take you from one capital city to another”.
“Part of the problem with electric cars is psychological,” according to Colquhoun. “It’s that barrier of knowing that if you run out (of power), you truly are stuffed. When the range drops and it drops quicker than you’re anticipating, suddenly you’ve got a big problem because you currently don’t have anywhere that you can go to get that quick fill that you need.”
With a lack of an Australian standard, there are currently three different versions of the same recharge plug used by electric cars, which is “going to create a problem once electric cars get onto the road”, Colquhoun says. “This points to a lack of a co-ordinated approach from the car companies. They’re all developing their own systems.”