Posted Feb 6th 2013 3:59PM
Recent news about the price cuts on the Ford Focus EV and Nissan Leaf are proof positive that despite all their eco-goodness, pure electrics as well as plug-in hybrids remain a tough sell to the North American mass market.
There's no doubt automakers are committed to electrifying an increasing portion of their product offerings. The problem is that no one needs to buy an EV or plug-in hybrid. But with American CAFE standards doubling to 54.5 miles per gallon (4.3 L/100km) by 2025 and California's mandate that major manufacturers sell zero-emission vehicles as a percentage of their overall fleets (a measure also adopted by 13 other US states), carmakers have to sell EVs and plug-in hybrids to avoid costly penalties or face caps on the number of vehicles they are allowed to sell.
While there is much back-and-forth on the pros and cons of owning an EV or plug-in hybrid, from the costs versus payback in higher fuel economy, political squabbles over tax incentives and the like, perhaps the most basic obstacle to EV or plug-in ownership may be the simple fact that you have the plug the damn thing in.
The most basic obstacle to EV or plug-in ownership may be the simple fact that you have the plug the damn thing in.
Granted, the industry has done much with standardized plugs and quick charge systems to make recharging these vehicles as painless as possible. Still, the difference is that with a conventional vehicle you only have to worry about refueling once a week or so. When you get home, you park the car and that's it. Even if you're coming home and the low fuel light comes on, you don't necessarily have to stop at a corner gas station if you are tired and just want to get home – you can easily fill up the next morning on your way into work.
For good or ill, one of the hallmarks of North American culture is that we prize convenience. Most drivers view their cars as transportation appliances designed to get them to their destinations with minimal muss and fuss. So, if there is an alternative that is less expensive, trouble free and gets decent mileage, there is little incentive to opt for a car that costs more, comes with range anxiety and needs to be plugged in every night.
One of the hallmarks of North American culture is that we prize convenience.
While there are some advantages to having your refueling/recharging station in your home and quick chargers may make topping off your battery as easy as refilling the tank, the range limitations of most EVs still entails more trips to the plug than the pump. Only Tesla offers the promise of range that just about equals a tank of gas in conventional cars, but that particular model starts at $85,900, and it still takes longer to reenergize than its gasoline equivalent. It may be some time before that sort of enabling technology becomes cost effective enough to be used in cars that can compete with the average gasoline-powered family car, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of $30-40k, or less than half the cost of the range-enhanced Tesla.
So until that happens, perhaps the single biggest advancement that can be made in the short term would be for EVs and plug-in hybrids to go wireless. Last fall, a company called Evatran announced that beginning this April, SPX Service Solutions would begin installing its Plugless Power inductive charging stations for Leaf and Volt owners. The setups, which cost between US$3,500 and US$4,000, very well could open the door to virtually hands-free recharging.
The biggest advancement that can be made in the short term would be for EVs and plug-in hybrids to go wireless.
If the price of inductive charging comes down, the increase in the convenience factor may just give EVs and plug-in hybrids a much-needed boost in popularity.