by Dan Sherman
Will future automobiles be electric only? Currently we have hybrid vehicles, like the ubiquitous Prius, that we are told are an intermediate step toward a large-scale movement toward plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles (EVs) and range-extended electric vehicles (REEVs).
Tesla Motors is actually producing electric cars, Fisker promises a sexy REEV, the Chevy Volt REEV is set for a MY2011 launch, and EV startups seem to spawn twice daily. The question is; will my generation, raised by video games, Google, and Napster, make electric cars mainstream and the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) obsolete? Will our familiarity with technology and acceptance of “all things new” make the transition to EVs and REEVs a no-brainer? I did some grassroots research to find out.
I started with electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf. The proposed benefits of EVs are lower running costs, near-zero tailpipe pollution, and energy independence. An Environmental Alliance member here at Emory noted that EVs would be extremely environmentally friendly if more coal powerplants were replaced by nuclear/hydro/wind plants here in the U.S. Based on that feedback, it seems to me that we are simply displacing the pollution. I don’t see the U.S. changing from cheap coal anytime soon.
I know that from a performance perspective, EVs will crush the ICE’s beautiful crescendo with a soft whir, and that manual transmissions will be nowhere to be found. But I digress; I don’t represent the mainstream buying population. Only one of my car enthusiast friends repeats the old stereotype: “EVs are slow, right? I will not drive a slow car.” In reality, electric motors offer 100% of their torque throughout the rev range, so full-size EVs should be reasonably quick. The Tesla Roadster has helped change Generation Y’s attitudes toward EVs, showing that this new technology can indeed be fast and flashy.
And yet, not one young soul I polled was open to buying an EV. It seems that even with all the good intentions and environmental awareness that “we” supposedly have, if a technology isn’t convenient, “we” won’t adopt it. The biggest obstacles: range and recharging time. “We” don’t want limits and 100 miles range and 8-hours to recharge sound like roadblocks to spontaneity. “There’s a party at UGA? Oh, hold on, I have to wait 8 hours to recharge my car!”
So what about REEVs like the Chevy Volt with a 300+ mile range and a $40K price tag? “No way!” If you’re scratching your head, remember how much Gen Y loved Nelly. Hey, must be the money! Showy 20-somethings would rather spend $40K on a 3-Series/C-Class/A4 than on a Volt. More environmentalist college-age kids are also reluctant to throw down so much cash for a car that offers little tangible consumer benefits, especially compared to the number of cheap hybrid offerings available.
Given the hypothetical situation of a gasoline-powered car or otherwise-identical REEV, with higher upfront cost for the latter but identical lifecycle costs, Echo Boomers are split about 50/50 between the two choices. Those reluctant to consider a REEV are concerned with the higher upfront cost and perception that the new technology with be difficult to repair—the same two issues given by those reluctant to early hybrid cars just before hybrids became mainstream.
Improved battery technology and enormous government subsidies will slowly but surely overcome initial resistance. As long as reputable manufacturers begin producing/servicing EVs/REEVs, they will draw millions of my technology-insatiable peers over the next 5-10 years. For better or worse, the electrification of the automobile is not a question of if, but of when.