Eco-conscious Americans not buying into EVs - NBC12.com - Richmond, VA News

Eco-conscious Americans not buying into electric cars

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Only a small number of vehicles on the road today are all-electric. (Source: MGN Online) Only a small number of vehicles on the road today are all-electric. (Source: MGN Online)

(RNN) – More automakers are adding an all-electric vehicle to their lineup, and U.S. consumers now have roughly a dozen or so EV options. But how many electric cars are actually out on the road?

Electric cars are touted as environmentally friendly, and though they are eligible for government tax credits, they are not catching on with the car-buying public. The recent growth in eco-friendly products is a testament to the potential power of the eco-conscious consumer, according to the New York Times. Environmentally conscious purchasing makes up approximately 1 to 5 percent of the green market. But only a small number of vehicles on the road today are all-electric.

History

Electric cars are not a brand new creation. They've been around, off and on, for well more than a century. In fact, the first electric vehicle is thought to have been invented in the mid 1800s by Scottish inventor Robert Anderson.

EVs had their heyday in the early 1900s when an estimated one third of cars in the US were powered by electricity.

Soon, however, gasoline became readily available and in 1908, Henry Ford introduced the gas powered Model T, which cost less than electric cars. A few years later, Charles Kettering invented the electric starter, which eliminated the need to hand crank vehicles. Those factors led to consumers choosing gas over electric vehicles and ultimately to the electric car's demise.

Electric cars had all but disappeared from U.S. streets by the 1920s.

Attempting a comeback

In 1966, Congress introduced a bill that would have increased the use of electric cars in cities as a way to reduce smog. The bill was defeated.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 set out to regulate emissions from stationary and mobile sources, then the Arab oil embargo of 1973 sent gas prices skyrocketing, and electric vehicles were promoted as a solution to the woes of the era.

In 1976, Congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act, which was intended to prompt the development of technologies, which included improved batteries, motors and other hybrid-electric components.

The 1980s saw abundant, cheap gas, as well as the smaller cars that flooded the US during the oil embargo. Interest in electric cars waned.

1990s

In 1990, the California Air Resource Board passed the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, which stated that 10 percent of the state's cars must produce zero emissions by 2003. In response to the mandate, GM introduced the EV1 in 1996. It was the first modern electric car produced by a major car company in almost a century. 

Other car makers developed prototypes in order to comply with the mandate, but only the EV1 became available for consumers during that time period. GM got the head start on their competitors, because years earlier, they had developed the Impact concept car, upon which GM based the EV1.

The futuristic-looking EV1 was popular among its drivers, getting approximately 80 miles per charge. 

Despite its popularity, GM halted production of the EV1 in 1999, but continued to lease the car to consumers until 2002. It was available through lease only, and GM began to take possession of the cars in 2002, as California's mandate was rolled back.

Citing lack of public demand, GM officially canceled the EV1 program in 2003. By 2004, there were no EV1s on the road. Only a few remain in museums, their drive trains deactivated by GM. The car was the subject of the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?

Electric cars again fell from the public's radar.

Electric cars today

Once again the public's desire to get away from rising gas prices and reliance on foreign oil, as well as the growing environmental movement, has led to a renewed interest in hybrid and electric cars.

Hybrids are currently faring much better than their all-electric counterparts. The number of registered hybrids on the streets in the US in 2012 grew to almost two million, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association. That adds up to about three percent of cars on US roads. Electric vehicles meanwhile, make up about half a percent of cars sold. 

Even though EVs are becoming increasingly available to consumers, they just aren't being embraced like their hybrid counterparts. But why?

The problems

Several problems, actual or perceived, have consumers reluctant to make the switch to electric.

One problem is infrastructure. Consumers fear being stranded if the car battery dies and right now in much of the country, that is a possibility. There are more than 7,000 public electric charging stations in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center. Compare that with the nearly 175,000 conventional service stations and the public's apprehension toward all-electric vehicles makes sense.

The vehicles can be charged at home, and for city and suburb dwellers, the average range for electric cars is sufficient. But Americans are accustomed to the idea of being able to take off on a thousand-mile road trip, even if they rarely do so.

Battery range is part of the infrastructure problem. Most of today's electric cars can go nearly 100 miles on a charge, except for the Tesla which can get around 250 miles per charge. Battery ranges are based on ideal conditions. Things like cold weather can shorten the battery's range.

Charge time is a factor as well. Many electric vehicles need to be plugged in overnight or for several hours in order to fully charge at the owner's home via domestic power. Charging stations do provide a more powerful and much faster charge. But again, the lack of infrastructure would leave many would-be electric car drivers stranded should they attempt to drive beyond their car's range.

Scientists are working on new battery technologies that could improve an EV's range. Innovations like graphene and solid-state batteries would enhance energy storage power and make batteries lighter, extending their range.  The problem is that these innovations may not be available for years, if at all.

Another problem is lack of choice. The electric car market is limited. Drivers in California have the most EVs to select from because some are only available in The Golden State. A few other EVs are available in select states on the west and east coasts. Just a few models are available to consumers nationwide.

Then there's cost. Consumers are reluctant to pay the premium to go gas-free. A few years ago, the cost of EV batteries were $10,000 to $15,000, which pushed up the price of the cars to nearly twice that of comparable gas-powered cars. Battery prices are falling, which will help lower the price of EVs and make them more attractive to some consumers.

Tax rebates can help ease EV sticker shock, but even with government tax rebates, many electric vehicles are still expensive. And consumers find that those credits don't do enough to help them break even within a reasonable amount of time.   

Electric cars are perceived as environmentally friendly. But are they as 'green' as they seem? That is a concern for some who are looking into purchasing EVs.

EVs are zero-emission vehicles, meaning they don't produce pollutants during their use. But the energy used to charge their batteries do. Many of the United States' electric plants run on coal or natural gas, both of which produce pollutants as they generate energy.

It's important to note that EVs more efficiently convert electrical power into power to drive the car. EVs convert from 59 to 62 percent of electrical energy into power, while gasoline engines only convert 17 to 21 percent of gasoline to power.

Batteries are another concern for the eco-conscious consumer. The lithium-ion batteries used in EVs, on their own, are considered non-hazardous and their elements can be recycled. Batteries, once they've outlived their usefulness, must be disposed of.  If done so improperly, they can pollute.

Finding the solution

In October 2013, eight states pledged to help boost the sales of electric and hydrogen-fueled vehicles. The goal is to have 3.3 million of those types of vehicles on the road by 2025. They hope to achieve this goal by setting national standards for charging stations and by offering financial incentives for the vehicles, as well as lowering electric rates. These measures could keep interest in EVs from waning as infrastructure develops and grows.

Working to change the way Americans think about how they fuel up should also be part of the solution. Americans love convenience. One way to make recharging EVs convenient is to place charging areas where Americans park their cars as they are out and about. Making it simple for consumers to charge their vehicles while they shop, eat or watch a movie could encourage more of them to purchase an EV.

Another solution is to promote EVs as a second vehicle; one that can be used as a daily commuter for work and short errands, with the gas vehicle used for long-distance driving.  

Getting away from reliance on gasoline as an energy source is probably the most attractive trait of EVs for most consumers. But more research and new innovations are going to be what makes electric vehicles a truly viable, green product in the years to come.

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