If we view the automobile’s history of environmental improvement in modern times – say, from the 1990s to present day – there is an important perspective to be gained. It has never been just about electric vehicles. That’s simply where we’ve ended up at present due to an intriguing alignment of influences and agendas, from technology advances and environmental imperatives to gas prices and political will.
Over the years, auto manufacturers and their suppliers, technology companies, energy interests, and innovators of all stripes have been hard at work striving to define mobility’s future. Fuels in their crosshairs have included ethanol, methanol, hydrogen, natural gas, propane autogas, biofuels, synthetic fuels, and of course electricity. Lest we forget, cleaner-burning gasoline and diesel have been part of the evolution as well.
As a nation, we have always approached this challenge with an open mind and a determination to explore what’s possible, and what makes sense. Rather than declaring a winner, for decades the approach has been to keep our options open as we define the best road ahead for environmental progress. Now, by government fiat and funding, battery electric cars have essentially been declared the winner.
This is troubling. As a die-hard auto enthusiast and auto writer my entire adult life – and a member/supporter of the Sierra Club for decades – I have developed some strong and well-grounded perspectives on cars, their environmental impact, and the future of mobility. My advocacy for electric cars is genuine and well-documented over the 30 years I have been publishing Green Car Journal, and before that through my writing as feature editor at Motor Trend. Honestly, it’s hard not to be a fan of EVs after a year of test driving GM’s EV1 and then spending many tens of thousands of miles behind the wheel of other battery electric cars over the years. Yet, I now sit back and wonder at the ways things seem to be unfolding.
As expected, electric vehicles took a high profile at the increasingly important CES show in Las Vegas and this attention will certainly continue at upcoming auto shows. News of innovations, strategic alliances, and all-new electric models proliferate today, showing how dynamic this field has become and underscoring the nonstop media attention that EVs enjoy. But progress does not mean electric vehicles should be our singular focus.
There are significant risks with an all-in electric car strategy. Not the least of these is that by deemphasizing the importance of petroleum and the potential use of other alternative fuels in the near-term – crucial components in fueling the national fleet as we appear to be heading toward an electrified future – we risk the stability of our economy and our national security.
Yes, sales of electric vehicles have surged in the midst of extraordinarily high gas prices and heightened concern about climate change. However, history shows us that gas prices spike, drop, and then remain at levels that find drivers once again becoming complacent. This predictable script should provide incentive to make smart moves like diversifying our energy sources as we build the necessary infrastructure for an increasingly electrified world, rather than bet it all on EVs. So many of the elements for the EV’s success remain unclear or continue to pose significant challenges.
If interest in electric vehicles is decoupled from high gas prices and surging because of the urgent need to mitigate carbon emissions, then we will see electric vehicle sales continue to rise, perhaps dramatically. But if increased interest and sales is largely tied to the high cost of gas, then a lot of regulators, environmental interests, and EV-leaning consumers – plus of course automakers that have gone all-in with electrics – are set for a serious reckoning.
All this isn’t to diminish the importance of electric vehicles. Rather, it’s a call to be mindful of the challenges ahead and look at the bigger picture. We should encourage electric vehicles – whether powered exclusively by batteries, a combination of internal combustion and battery power, or perhaps hydrogen – in every reasonable way possible. In particular, hybrids and plug-in hybrids must play an increasingly larger role in the years ahead. We have come a long way over the past 30 years, and we have a long road ahead in the effort to decarbonize transportation and mitigate its impact on climate change. We need to keep at it, aggressively, and we need to prepare.
Let’s just not make assumptions that all will go according to plan. California’s decision to ban the sale of gasoline cars by 2035, in particular, will certainly find unexpected obstacles on the way to that aspirational milestone. It happened before with California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate more than two decades ago, which failed to realize its goal of 10 percent electric vehicle sales by 2001. Beyond California, similar hurdles will exist in other ‘green’ states like Oregon, Washington, and Vermont that have now adopted California’s 2035 gasoline vehicle sales ban, along with other ‘green’ states that will surely follow California’s lead.
There’s a lot going right for electric vehicles today. But there’s also a wide array of continuing challenges that face EV proliferation. These range from persistently expensive batteries, high vehicle prices, and sold out EV production runs to shortages of essential materials, a nascent nationwide charging infrastructure, and a national grid woefully unprepared to reliably charge tens of millions of electric cars. Then there’s the question of whether consumer EV purchases will continue to accelerate or weaken in tandem with lower gas prices.
It’s one thing to devise ambitious goals and quite another to make them law, especially when so many assumptions are in play. Given all this, is a wholesale shift to electric cars and a ban on the sale of gasoline vehicles even possible just a dozen years from now? As a long-time automotive analyst and EV enthusiast, I have serious doubts.
Like most everybody, I see an endless array of delivery vehicles passing by every day and at all hours. While the presence of delivery vans is not a new phenomenon, it’s one that now occurs with increasing regularity because of a preference for buying online and the need to deliver ordered goods to our homes and businesses. These expanded deliveries – largely made with what’s categorized as ‘last mile delivery’ trucks and vans – come at a time when there’s also great concern about carbon emissions, fossil fuels use, and climate change. Thus, the challenge.
The answer is emerging in real time, taking the form of electric last mile delivery vans of all types from standard vans like the electric Ford E-Transit and ELMS Urban Delivery Van , to somewhat larger electric vans like the BrightDrop EV600 and Rivian Electric Delivery Van. Each represents the leading edge of what is surely an emerging and strategically important class of electric vehicle, and they will be joined by many others in the short years ahead.
One high profile examples comes from Amazon, which is expanding its zero-emission operations through a new deal with Stellantis that will find thousands of RAM ProMaster electric vans entering its delivery fleet in 2023. This adds to the online giant’s options as Rivian ramps up to deliver the first 10,000 of the 100,000 Amazon electric delivery van order with the company this year. Other multinational delivery giants aim to decrease their carbon footprint. For instance, UPS has an agreement with Arrival, a European company with a U.S. headquarters and microfactory in North Carolina, for an initial 10,000 electric van order.
An electric Chevrolet van is coming to complement GM’s electric BrightDrop electric van offerings and Mercedes-Benz will be bringing its electric Sprinter, now available in Europe, to our shores. Other major automakers – from Nissan and Toyota to Fiat and Volkswagen – are either selling electric commercial vans in offshore markets or are preparing to do so, though plans for bringing these electric vans to the U.S. are as yet unknown.
Some companies seek early entry into important market segments long before automakers begin offering their own specialized products. Lightning eMotors is a prime example of this. The Colorado-based company, a certified Ford Quality eVehicle Modifier, has been electrifying a variety of new medium-duty fleet models for years. including the Ford Transit full-size van. Among this company’s many fleet customers for its electric Transit delivery van is the international delivery service DHL Express. While Ford began offering its own E-Transit electric van starting with the 2022 model year, the automaker makes these available in cargo versions only. Lightning eMotors offers fleet customers both cargo and passenger versions of its electric Transit Van in a variety of configurations.
There’s more electric activity unfolding in the commercial market. Electrified light- and medium-duty vans are but one part of the solution, with many of the companies in this space, or about to enter it, also offering or planning to introduce medium-duty electric trucks to augment local and regional zero-emission package deliveries.
What’s important to note is the near-ideal fit all of these electric commercial vehicles present for delivery services, or for that matter as service vehicles for companies with large fleets like cable companies, utilities, and food delivery services, or tradesmen ranging from carpenters and plumbers to painters and electricians. For the most part, all of these vehicles are tasked with operating within a defined region or along specific routes, thus enabling seamless zero-emission operation throughout the workday.
Electric delivery vehicles represent a positive environmental statement for companies integrating them in their operations. Importantly, they are crucial to decreasing carbon emissions on a truly significant scale. Clearly, their time has come.
It seems we’re well past the tipping point for electric cars now, 25 years after GM’s groundbreaking but short-lived EV1 electric car made its way to the highway. Back then, after daily life with an EV1 during a year-long test and then watching it sadly leave on a flatbed for parts unknown, I knew well the future potential that modern electric vehicles would hold. In the decades since then, automakers have committed to huge investments in expanding their electric vehicle offerings, suppliers have stepped up with new innovations, and consumers are now interested like never before. Plus, of course, some serious government regulation and incentives are driving the electric car field ahead in ways that only government can.
But there are challenges ahead. It isn’t enough that far better electric cars are being built today with compelling features, attractive designs, and desirable performance and range. Many other elements must fall into place for electric vehicles to become the success story we all hope will come to pass, so addressing key inhibitors of an electric feature is crucial. Let’s take a look at the top 5 reality checks that are top-of-mind.
Back in the 1990s when there was great excitement at the prospect of electric cars, there were also big questions. There was no battery front-runner, though there were many technologies and chemistries at play including advanced lead-acid, nickel cadmium, nickel-metal-hydride, sodium-sulfur, sodium-bromine, zinc-air, lithium-ion, and more. Still, choices had to be made so EV programs could move forward. Ultimately, advanced lead-acid won out for small vehicle programs and the first generation of GM EV1s, followed by better and more energy-dense electric car batteries like nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion.
Today, nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion batteries are primarily used for hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and battery electric vehicles. Lithium-ion, or one of its cousins like lithium-polymer, is used for electric vehicles due to its greater energy density and thus longer driving range. However, lithium batteries are costly and additional challenges remain.
Of great concern are instances of thermal runaway issues and a limited number of spontaneous vehicle fires caused by lithium-ion batteries. Some Teslas have suffered from such battery fires, and GM can certainly attest to this unexpected challenge since it has been involved in a recall of all Chevy Bolt EVs made due to potential fire issues, to the tune of about $1.8 billion. Hyundai went through its own recall with the Kona EV for similar issues with its batteries.
Battery technology continues to improve and costs have gravitated downward in recent years, making the cost of building electric vehicles more reasonable, though still considerably higher than building internal combustion vehicles. Yes, there are substantial cost savings realized by owning and driving an electric vehicle. But to truly be a success, at some point there must be truly affordable electric vehicles for everyone to buy, and battery safety issues must be fully resolved.
The ideal location for electric vehicle charging is at home with a 220-volt Level 2 wall charger. All mainstream electric vehicles support this type of charging, plus significantly slower charging with a portable ‘convenience’ charger plugged in a standard 110-volt household outlet.
Charging up with a 220-volt wall charger is convenient and efficient, with a full charge typically coming in about 2 to 10 hours, depending on the vehicle being charged and the battery’s energy level when you plug in. Simply, if your battery shows 40 miles of range left, it will take considerably longer to fully charge than if 140 miles of range is shown. For convenience, electric vehicle owners typically plug in at home during the evening so there’s a fully-charged EV waiting for them in the morning.
EV owners living in apartments, condos, and elsewhere – including dense urban areas where there may be no garage – need other solutions. To a limited degree, this is being addressed with pay-for-use chargers in common areas or even dedicated outside chargers at assigned parking spaces. Public chargers are also being installed in increasing numbers in urban developments as part of a growing public charging network. In addition, the number of chargers provided at the workplace is seeing greater interest, allowing EV owners to energize their batteries while parked at work.
Charging away from home is becoming easier with a significant expansion of a public charging network by companies like Electrify America, ChargePoint, Blink Charging, EVgo, SemaCharge, Volta, and Tesla. Still, this is a relatively nascent effort with charging opportunities far eclipsed by the abundant and convenient opportunities to refuel gasoline vehicles. Plus, to offer the kind of charging most meaningful to drivers, public chargers must ultimately offer fast-charge capability that enables gaining an additional 80 or 100 miles of range in just 20 to 30 minutes, if an EV is fast-charge capable. This network is growing but far from adequate, especially if it’s to keep pace with the large number of electric vehicles coming to our highways. Building out a nationwide network of fast chargers is costly since the investment for each is in the neighborhood of $100,000.
Many electric vehicle enthusiasts and electric utilities are quick to point out that our existing electrical grid can adequately handle the charging needs of millions of EVs on the road. We’re not so sure. Plus, if the aspirations of EV enthusiasts come to fruition, there will be many more than just a few million EVs on the road in the future.
For years, certain areas of the country have experienced power outages as electricity demand outpaced grid capacity. Heat waves exacerbate this as air conditioning use soars, something made even worse in recent times with record-setting temperatures attributed to climate change. Given the trends pointed out by climate experts, these extraordinary heat waves are likely to increase.
To this point, the California Independent System Operator, which manages electricity delivered through California’s long-distance power lines, issued multiple Flex Alerts last summer. The Flex Alerts included a request for EV owners to charge in the morning and early daytime hours to avoid placing additional load on an already-overtaxed grid. While that request is counterintuitive to the long-held notion that charging EVs overnight is ideal since electrical demand lessens during overnight hours, it may make sense in a state like California that increasingly relies on renewable power as an important, zero-emission component of electrical generation. Simply, renewables like solar and wind-generated power wane at night.
Another challenge to a future of large-scale electric vehicle charging is the increasing frequency and scope that wildfires pose to the reliable delivery of electricity. In California, a long-time leader in encouraging electric vehicles, this could become a particularly vexing issue as the state continues to battle historic wildfires. Because downed powerlines have sparked numerous catastrophic fires here, the state’s electric utilities can – and have – preemptively initiated Public Safety Power Shutoffs that cut power to regions expected to experience high winds that could cause trees to damage electrical lines. No power, no charging.
Still, this doesn’t mean that an increasingly ‘smart’ grid can’t support large numbers of electric vehicles or that strategic, system-wide upgrades can’t be made to allow the grid to effectively deal with the challenges of wind, wildfires, and climate change. It does mean we should be aware of the potential for problems and make no assumptions, but rather plan far in advance to ensure that electric vehicle charging can be done consistently and won’t overwhelm the nation’s electrical grid in any way.
Electric vehicles remain a very small part of today’s new vehicle market – perhaps 3% or so and growing – for a multitude of reasons. Among these are cost, the perception that a battery electric vehicle may not fulfill a driver’s varying needs, and a general hesitation to embrace what many perceive as an unfamiliar and unproved propulsion technology. When enough of your friends and neighbors are driving electric and others see how well EVs fit their driving needs, that’s all likely to change. But we have a long way to go.
There are more people today than ever who have a decent grasp of electric cars and how they work because of the much greater exposure these vehicles have in the general media. That said, there is a greater percentage that really have no clue. That must change if electric cars are to increase market share to the degree that people want and expect. EV education must happen at all levels, and fast.
New car dealers have a unique opportunity to share knowledge of electric cars with would-be buyers, especially if a dealership is committed to the cause and there’s a knowledgeable EV specialist on hand. While a new generation of automakers aiming to exclusively sell EVs have their educational and outreach strategy down, legacy automakers largely do not. Those coming to dealerships are generally prospecting for a new car purchase or lease, now or later. They want to compare models and features, sit behind the wheel, and take a test drive.
While more electric vehicle product is being offered than in previous years, most buyers will not gravitate toward them naturally. What better opportunity than to encourage a first drive of a new electric model? The experience will be enlightening for those who have never been behind the wheel of an electric, with the seamless driving experience and unexpected performance a likely surprise. Leaving a dealership with a greater understanding of electric vehicles and how they work will return rewards, whether in the short- or long-term.
If you bet everything on a decision that may drive you past the point of no return, is it the right choice? That depends on the outcome, of course. It worked for Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella in the film Field of Dreams, as he literally bet the farm on blind faith that forces beyond understanding would beckon folks to the baseball diamond in his Iowa cornfield. The movie was compelling and its emotional attraction undeniable. So, too, is the prospect of millions of zero-emission electric vehicles plying our nation’s highways.
We were able to relive Field of Dreams in 2021 as the Yankees and White Sox played a real-life game at a Major League Baseball stadium amid the cornfields, next to the Dyersville, Iowa diamond seen in Field of Dreams. And now we’re living with the very real prospect of an electric vehicle future, with many dedicated people, companies, and institutions focused on making it happen. Still, will that brand of faith work for electric cars?
Amid all the challenges, automakers new and old are betting their future – and possibly ours – that it will.
Here’s the thing about plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs): You get the benefits of a battery electric vehicle for driving a certain number of zero-emission miles, with the versatility of a gas-electric hybrid without range limitations. There’s no secret to it, and it’s that simple. But PHEV ownership does take some thought, and some effort.
The thought part is straightforward. If you’re in the market for a PHEV and your intent is to drive electric as much as possible, then part of the decision making is choosing a new plug-in hybrid model offering a battery electric range that fits your driving patterns. Some plug-in hybrids offer battery electric range as low as 14 to 19 miles, with a great many featuring electric range in the low to high 20s. Some raise that number up to 42 or 48 miles of battery electric driving, like the Toyota Prius Prime and Honda Clarity PHEV, before requiring a charge or the addition of combustion power. Many families find the electric range of Chrysler’s Pacifica Hybrid to be entirely workable at 32 miles, with its total 520 miles of driving range reassuring for any driving need.
The effort in owning a PHEV is that you need to install a 240-volt home wall charger and commit to using it to gain maximum benefit. Really, that’s no different than an all-electric vehicle, with the exception that an electric vehicle must be charged to function, while a PHEV will continue operating with the aid of combustion power once batteries are depleted. Both can be charged with a 120-volt convenience charger plugged into a standard household outlet, but that’s rarely a good option since the charging time at 120 volts is so long, while charging at 240 volts is comparatively short. The goal in achieving maximum benefit, of course, is to keep a PHEV charged in any event so you’re operating on battery power whenever possible.
What range do you really need? If your daily driving or commute is about 20 miles – as is the case for so many – then choose a PHEV with a battery electric range offering that capability, or more. Drivers with longer average daily drives should choose a PHEV with greater all-electric range. If you charge every night and wake up with a fully-charged battery ready for your day’s regular activities, you’ll likely find trips to the gas station unnecessary until longer drives are needed. In those cases, there’s nothing to think about because the transition from battery to combustion power happens seamlessly behind the scenes, with no driver action required. Yes, you’ll want to keep gas in the tank for those eventualities, but if your daily use fits within your rated electric range then fill-ups will be infrequent.
From my perspective, the ability to drive electric most of the time with the ability to motor on for hundreds of additional miles without thought is a win-win. I’ve been doing this for years with a variety of PHEV test cars, and more than a year-and-a-half now over 30,000 miles in a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. As much as possible, my driving is electric with zero localized emissions, as long as I’m consistent about plugging in at night and my charger isn’t required for another test car. I’m driven to do that not only because driving with zero emissions is the right thing to do, but also because electricity offers a cheaper cost-per-mile driving experience. If you’re on a utility’s electric vehicle rate plan and charge at off-peak hours, there’s even more money to be saved. And let’s not forget the blissful and effortless convenience of charging at home, right?
Any claim that PHEVs won’t deliver their desired environmental benefit is based on assumptions that drivers won’t plug in. That isn’t likely, given that PHEV drivers have paid, sometimes significantly, for the privilege of having a plug-in capability. The notion may have its roots in an unrelated alternative fuel story years ago, when we witnessed the phenomena of motorists driving flexible-fuel E85 ethanol/gasoline vehicles without ever fueling up with E85 alternative fuel. That occurred because of a loophole that allowed automakers to gain significant fuel economy credits by offering flexible-fuel vehicles without any consideration whether drivers would ever fuel up with E85 ethanol. Those vehicles were sold at no premium by the millions, with most drivers unaware their vehicle had an alternative fuel capability or whether E85 fueling stations were nearby.
But this is different. While you have the option to use public charging stations, and that’s a nice benefit enjoyed by many EV and PHEV owners, if you do this right there will be a plug in your garage that requires no effort at all to keep your PHEV charged up. Consider, too, that if a buyer spends the extra money for the plug-in hybrid variant of a popular model, there’s clearly an incentive to plug in most of the time to make the most of one’s PHEV investment.
PHEVs will be with us a long while because they are a sensible solution for many who wish to drive electric, and when used as intended they represent a logical pathway for the all-electric future many envision. There’s no doubt that the increasing number of plug-in hybrids coming now, and in the years ahead, will aim at greater electric driving range than the models that came before them. More choices and greater range will provide an even more compelling reason to step up to a plug-in hybrid for the daily drive.
Since the launch of Green Car Journal in 1992, it’s been clear to me that environmental compatibility isn’t just a passing phase. Today, the most forceful drivers of change are the need to mitigate carbon emissions and reduce mankind’s potential impacts on our global climate. But long before that, there were other imperatives already prompting a rethinking of mobility and how it was affecting our collective lives.
Urban areas were often choked with smog, the result of far too many vehicles on the road, with levels of tailpipe emissions that would be unthinkable today. Major cities across the country were in non-compliance with air quality standards. Smog alerts recommending limited outdoor activity were an unfortunate and regular occurrence in major cities and regions. I lived this growing up in the greater metropolitan L.A. area, as the smog from Los Angeles migrated some 50 miles eastward and stopped at the San Gabriel Mountains two miles from my home, causing the mountain range to magically disappear in the haze every summer.
Still, there were bright spots amid the haze. California launched its Low Emission Vehicle Program in 1990, mandating cleaner vehicles in the years ahead. Part of this landmark program was the Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate that helped accelerate electric vehicle research and development, and ultimately drove auto manufacturers to get serious about vehicle electrification.
An important part of Green Car Journal’s mission over the years has been to explain the benefits and characteristics of ‘green’ cars of all types, regardless of their approach to better environmental impact. In the end, the goal has always been to present an overview of the directions, technologies, and fuels being explored, dive down into specifics, and enable readers to make up their own minds on what’s important based on what they learn.
A complementary part of this has been the Green Car Awards, starting with the magazine’s annual Green Car of the Year® award first presented at the L.A. Auto Show in 2005. Green Car Journal editors conduct significant research every year to review the universe of new models to consider as the ‘best-of-the-best’ that exhibit commendable environment performance. Through an extensive vetting process, the field is narrowed down to five finalists for each award category. The goal has remained the same since that first award program in 2005 – recognize vehicles that significantly raise the bar in environmental performance and exhibit environmental leadership.
When it comes to positive change, leadership is important. A new direction acknowledging the automobile’s impact on our environment is important. New and better choices that speak to our future are important. These are among the compelling reasons why the Green Car Awards exist.
In the early years of the Green Car Awards, there were relatively few truly worthy vehicles to be considered. But change, though slow, has been ongoing. Now our cities and streets benefit from an ever-growing number of vastly more efficient, lower emission, and environmentally positive vehicle choices powered by advanced or electrified powerplants. Today, ‘green’ cars have come into their own through design, innovation, and consumer desire. That last part is crucial. Auto manufacturers have done a good job of bringing an increasing number of advanced and electrified vehicles to market. They have invested heavily, even subsidizing some models’ real cost along the way, to make them approachable to buyers. But a serious and sustained desire for these vehicles had been lacking…until now.
Thankfully, the tipping point for ‘green’ cars is now behind us. While not all new car buyers are in the market for a high efficiency, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or electric vehicle, the numbers are no longer small, and they’re growing significantly. Interest and demand are up. Consumers are eager to know more and they want to understand which vehicles, and manufacturers, are leading the field. And we’re proud that our annual Green Car Awards help deliver this critical information.
It’s no surprise that the move toward electrics is also being driven by growing consumer interest in vehicles that address the challenges of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Those who don’t see this this transition aren’t paying attention. However, taking this as a sign that the imminent end of the internal combustion vehicle is upon us assumes too much. The numbers and trends do not bear this out.
While our focus here is on all ‘greener’ vehicles offering lower emissions, higher efficiency, and greater environmental performance, we give significant focus to electrification on GreenCarJournal.com because, to a large degree, this represents our driving future. There are many electrified vehicles now on the market that have met with notable success, particularly gasoline-electric hybrids. In fact, hybrids have become so mainstream after 20 years that most people don’t look at them differently. They simply embrace these vehicles as a normal part of their daily lives, enjoying a familiar driving experience as their hybrids deliver higher fuel efficiency and fewer carbon emissions.
Less transparent are electric vehicles of all types because they have a plug, something that’s not familiar to most drivers. This includes plug-in hybrids that really are seamless since they offer both electric and internal combustion drive. The challenge is especially pronounced for all-electric vehicles that drive exclusively on batteries.
A recent survey of consumers and industry experts by JD Power underscores this. Even as the overall survey indicated most respondents had neutral confidence in battery electric vehicles, many said their prospect for buying an electric vehicle was low. They also had concerns about the reliability of battery electric vehicles compared to conventionally powered models. Clearly, there’s work to be done in educating people about electric vehicles, and it will take time.
Overall, automakers do a good job of providing media with the latest information on their electrification efforts, new electric models, and electrified vehicles under development. That’s why you’ll read so much about electric vehicles in mainstream media and learn about them on the news.
What’s less evident is that consumers truly learn what they need to know about plug-in vehicles at new car showrooms. Car dealerships are critical even in an era where online car buying is starting to gain traction. Showrooms are still where the vast majority of new car buyers shop for their next car, and the influence salespeople have on a consumer’s purchase decision is huge.
The JD Power study illustrates consumers’ lack of understanding about the reliability of electric vehicles…even though reliability is a given since electrics have far fewer moving parts to wear and break than conventional vehicles. Dealer showrooms can help resolve this lack of understanding with readily-available materials about electric car ownership, a sales force willing to present ‘green’ options to conventional vehicles, plus adequate stock of electrified vehicles – hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and battery electric – to test drive.
Sales trends tell us that conventional internal combustion vehicles will represent the majority of new car sales for quite some time. More efficient electrified vehicles will continue to make inroads, but not at the pace many would like, even at a time when greater numbers of electric models are coming to market. In the absence of forward-thinking dealerships willing to invest in change, an enthusiastic sales force eager to share the benefits of electrics, and auto manufacturers willing to incentivize dealers to sell electric, this promises to be a long road. It’s time to change this dynamic.
First thing: Have you driven an electric car? If you’ve lived with one for a time, then you likely have some solid ideas of your EV’s best features. Those who have just done a few test drives or haven’t driven electric at all could use some illumination. So here you go.
1. Hey, speed racer! Most electric cars boast pretty impressive acceleration from a stop. Unlike an internal combustion engine, electric motors generate 100 percent of their torque right out of the gate, which means your launch from standing still can be much more aggressive than you would imagine. We’re not saying you should do this as a matter of course…just that it’s kinda fun to know that capability exists.
2. Charging is way cool. Really. There’s nothing like parking your car for the night, plugging in, and starting the next day with a full ‘tank’ of energy on board. Just imagine life without the need to stop at a gas station. If you’re able to sign up for an electric vehicle rate plan from your electric utility, then set your charging to take place at non-peak hours overnight. You’ll have a full charge in the morning at the least possible cost. Plus, an ever-expanding network of public chargers is available for charging away from home, and while many now require a fee, a great many still provide energy for free. So, benefit from the kindness of strangers.
3. Electric vehicles are quiet, so enjoy your solitude. In the early days of EV development during the 1990s, there were unexpected noises to contend with like gear whine, high frequency noise from motor controllers, and such mundane things as the sound of tires contacting pavement and wind rushing past the windshield. Really. The familiar sound of internal combustion that normally masks the everyday sounds of motoring was notably absent. Over the years electrics have been engineered with better and quieter controllers, additional soundproofing, and other engineering measures to create the quiet EVs we have today. Experience the Zen.
4. EVs are extraordinarily efficient so you’ll be saving money every mile you drive, compared to driving on gas. The exact amount varies since gasoline and electricity costs differ by state, region, and city. A recent analysis by the Department of Energy indicated the national average for a gallon of gas was $2.74 compared to $1.21 for an ‘eGallon.’ DOE’s calculations factor the cost of fueling with gas compared to a similar vehicle that runs on electricity. The difference is even more dramatic in California, where I recently fueled up with standard grade gas at $4.59 per gallon. I was glad to get behind the wheel of an electric at the earliest possible opportunity.
5. Driving electric is like being in an immersive game. You have an extraordinary level of influence over your car’s efficiency with instrumentation providing continuous feedback on your driving and how this is affecting range. That’s not as critical in an EV with a 250-mile range capability as it is in one that can go only 90 miles on a charge, but that doesn’t matter. You’ll find yourself intrigued by your car’s instant feedback on energy usage, battery status, and distance-to-empty. There will be times when you will consciously (or unconsciously) adjust acceleration, speed, and downhill coasting to eke out more miles on that constantly recalculating distance readout, since more efficient use of on-board energy adds miles in real-time. Backing off the accelerator early and coasting up to a red light to maximize regenerative braking that feeds energy to the batteries is also human nature for an EV driver. Game on!
When Tesla began selling its long-awaited $35,000 Model 3 early this year, there was no doubt a collective sigh of relief on the part of Tesla fans who had waited three years for this to happen.
This price tag is important since the Model 3 has been widely-promoted as a $35,000 ‘everyman’s electric vehicle’ affordable to the masses, even as the cheapest models available were uplevel, higher content variants initially priced at $49,000. That cost moved down to $46,000 and ultimately $43,000 before Tesla made the leap to its latest $35,000, slightly decontented base model. At that price it’s doubtful that Tesla makes a profit, and in fact it wasn’t long ago when Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company would lose money on the Model 3 at that price point.
Still, the promised base model is here and we can celebrate that. But it’s not an entirely happy story for some – no doubt many, many thousands – who were expecting something more.
When the Model 3 was introduced in April 2016, anticipation had been building a long time already for an affordable long-range electric car from Tesla. For fans of the marque who couldn’t pony up the substantial bucks for a premium-priced Model S or Model X, the $35,000 Model 3 was their answer. The problem is, a great many buyers understandably assumed that the bottom-line cost would be much lower.
Until recently, the federal tax credit for a Tesla was $7,500. Add in state incentives that could vary from $1,000 to $5,000 or more, and buyers were looking at an all-electric Tesla Model 3 they could acquire for a very approachable, conventional vehicle-like price as low as net $25,000. While the cost of a typical Tesla has always been beyond the reach of most buyers, a bottom line transaction of 25 grand was considered do-able by many.
There were an estimated 200,000 reservations for the Model 3 within a day of its unveiling accompanied by $200 million or so in deposits, a number that has continued to grow to surpass 400,000 reservations over time. Deliveries of higher-priced, uplevel Model 3s began in mid-2017, with qualified buyers enjoying the generous $7,500 tax credit. However, it has taken so long to get to a deliverable $35,000 Model 3 that the federal tax credit for Teslas has been a reduced $3,750 for the first half of 2019, then $1,875 for the second half, then at year’s end…done.
Why is this happening? To its credit, Tesla has cumulatively sold over 200,000 electric vehicles (Models S, X, and 3). This number triggers a federal tax credit phase-out according to a predefined schedule set for all makers of electric vehicles. The federal incentive’s strategy is that once an automaker has momentum for its electric vehicles by achieving greater than a 200,000 sales volume, there is no further need for a subsidy.
To those who lament the loss of federal EV subsidies and feel it unfair, consider this: The program was never intended to last forever, but rather help more environment-friendly electric vehicles gain traction in a market that has been dominated by internal combustion for well over a century.
Tesla surpassed 200,000 electric car sales and has achieved impressive momentum. Its electric Model 3 became the best-selling luxury car in the U.S last year. By all measures, for Tesla the federal tax subsidy’s story is ‘mission accomplished.’
I drive an electric vehicle every day as part of my job testing cars. It’s not a new thing. In fact, this has been part of the drill here at Green Car Journal since the publication’s launch in 1992…way ahead of the electric car curve.
Back then I was testing electrics like the Honda EV Plus, Nissan Altra EV, Toyota RAV4 EV, Ford Ranger EV, and many more electrics from automakers and wanna-be specialty companies with their eye on a developing electric car market. I was also driving electric prototypes, some that never came to fruition and others, like the GM Impact, that did.
At the time I had the memorable experience of driving GM’s EV1 electric sports car for a year. I’ll never forget it. It was sleek, bright red, and fast. It seemed to coast forever when you lifted off the accelerator. Being a Gen 1 car equipped with advanced lead-acid batteries rather than the nickel-metal-hydride batteries that came in Gen 2, mine was also pretty range limited. In fact, it delivered about 50 real-world miles of driving between charges, less than the 60 to 95-mile range capability projected at the time. I didn’t care. The EV1 was amazing to drive and served my needs commuting to work and running errands around town. If I needed to travel farther than its range capability, well…I took another car.
And that’s the thing about electric cars some 20 years later. While the latest crop of battery electric vehicles here or coming soon offer 200-plus miles of all-electric driving – which many consider the number needed for EVs to effectively compete in the mass market – most offer far less. At the low range of sub-200 mile electric cars you have the Smart EV at 58 miles and at the upper end the new Nissan LEAF at 150 miles, with all the rest falling somewhere in between. Does offering less than 200 miles of driving range mean some electrics are no longer relevant in an evolving world where range is the next Big Thing?
Not at all. In fact, the decision making for buying/leasing an electric car is no different than when buying any new car. The bottom line is: Does it fit your needs? There are the usual considerations like cost, performance, safety, quality, and passenger capacity. Once those cuts are made, in the electric world it comes down to driving range. If your daily commute and around-town driving is about the average at 30 miles or so and you charge daily, then any electric model is suitable for the job. Charging at home overnight and getting an additional charge at work or from a public charger while shopping works all the better for extending your overall range. Occasional longer distance drives aren’t an issue if there are multiple cars in your household, which is the norm.
If your daily needs are closer to the limits of an electric model’s range, then opting for a range extended electric car might make sense, rather than one operating exclusively on batteries. The Chevrolet Volt and BMW i3 REx are two such examples that lend range flexibility.
Don’t get me wrong. Longer-range electric cars are wondrous things, and they’re coming. But EVs with more modest range can also be a good fit depending on need and circumstance.
Charging your electric vehicle used to be an easy thing, at least in many areas where electrification has long been promoted. Public chargers were installed in high-profile areas like shopping centers, parking garages, and at the workplace. For the longest time, it wasn’t unusual to see these chargers go unused for long periods of time. Green Car Journal editors experienced this first-hand for many years during our daily travels with plug-in test cars.
Often enough, ours was the only electric vehicle plugged in at a bank of four chargers at a local commercial center in our city. It was the same story in the parking garage downtown. But that’s changed, signifying both the positives and the challenges of a plug-in vehicle market that’s gathering momentum, and numbers. These days those chargers are often occupied when we pull up. Like most places, there simply don’t seem to be enough chargers to go around.
Many have heard about incidents at Tesla Supercharger sites, places where you can top off 80 percent of your battery charge in 30 minutes and then be on your way. The problem is, not everyone plugs in and then moves on. Superchargers, and chargers in general, are often located in areas where businesses are nearby so the experience is convenient and there’s something to do while charging. Tesla, in fact, has hinted that it’s taking this further and exploring Supercharger sites with food and amenities for those charging up their cars.
To be sure, not everyone stops for a 30 minute cup of coffee while charging. Shopping experiences in nearby stores can take much longer than that, and if all chargers are being used with others waiting to top off before continuing their journey, long waits are a problem. At times that leaves EV drivers frustrated with those who leave their car plugged in long after their needed charge is complete. The result? An interesting phenomenon in recent years called ‘charge rage.’
This isn’t unique to Superchargers or to public charging sites. Workplaces can have similar experiences as employees in increasing numbers step up to battery electric and plug-in hybrids. They’re encouraged to do so not only to drive ‘greener,’ but also to benefit from shorter commutes in states that allow solo EV drivers in high occupancy vehicle (carpool) lanes. That privilege alone has spurred many commuters to go electric. Time isn’t just money. It’s also…time. Spending a half-hour less each way during the daily commute is worth more than money in many respects. And once the commute is done, it’s time to charge.
Most companies offering chargers have limited numbers and often site these in favorable parking areas close to the workplace, further encouraging employees to go electric. It’s good for a company’s image and it’s the right thing to do. That said, expecting employees to free up a charger after a few hours and move their car farther out in an expansive parking lot is asking a lot, human nature being what it is.
Consider, too, charging sites at public parking garages adjacent to convention centers and other venues. Those who plug in while attending a conference of expo aren’t likely to return after an hour or two to unplug and move to another less convenient parking spot. With a limited number of charging spots available, other EV drivers counting on a range-extending charge aren’t likely to be pleased if all charging spots are taken.
Yes, there’s change afoot. Charging companies, automakers, utilities, and both state and local governments are striving to install an exponentially larger number of public chargers to alleviate the problem and keep pace with the growing number of plug-in vehicles on the road. But it hasn’t been fast enough…certainly not at a pace that’s keeping up with the larger number of electric vehicles on the road today.
Drivers have long been promised perks like free public charging, access to carpool lanes with a single occupant in an electric vehicle, and favorable parking with charging available, all to encourage them to go step up to a battery electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle. While not disappearing, these perks are getting harder to realize. And that’s not a good thing for the electric vehicles and the industry as a whole.
Will electrified vehicles dominate our highways in the future? It’s a question on the minds of many these days as an increasing number of battery electric and plug-in hybrid models come to new car showrooms. The answer is not an easy one, especially since there’s the potential that future CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) requirements could be modified. CAFE has been a driving force in the accelerated research and development in plug-in vehicles and new model introductions.
Automakers as a whole have said the current CAFE requirement of 54.5 mpg by 2025 cannot be achieved without a serious emphasis on electrification and the efficiencies these models bring. Thus, there has been an undeniable momentum for plug-ins underway as witnessed by the 39 battery electric and plug-in hybrid models from 20 automotive brands available in the U.S. market during calendar year 2017.
It has been a long path to get to this point since modern electrics emerged in the early 1990s. Along the way, early battery electric vehicles have been constrained by the limitations imposed by the very nature of battery electric propulsion. Simply, batteries are very heavy and costly, which result in two distinct penalties – greater weight that saps overall efficiency and high production costs that either make these vehicles expensive to buy, or require automakers to absorb much of these costs.
Those were the issues in the 1990s and, not coincidentally, these remain the issues today. Battery electric cars in 2017 are an order of magnitude better than those of a few decades back. But driving range and cost remain significant challenges. Plug-in hybrids are another matter.
Since these offer both all-electric driving and hybrid operation after batteries are depleted, there is no ‘range anxiety’ – the concern that a battery electric vehicle’s battery power could be insufficient for daily driving needs. Automakers are into plug-in hybrids in a big way and this has become a very competitive part of the automotive landscape.
So what does our driving future hold? There are nearly 40 plug-in vehicles for sale this year and that’s a big statement. Most major automakers have thriving electric research and development programs underway with electric model launches of one type or another in the pipeline. We will see an expanding offering of plug-in hybrids with battery electric models featuring greater driving range, as witnessed by the benchmarks being set by Chevrolet and Tesla and the new commitment to electrics by Volvo.
One wild card is that internal combustion continues to achieve surprising efficiency gains, at reasonable cost compared to electrics. That means the combustion vehicles we’ve had on our roads for more than a century will continue to ply our highways for some time to come, at approachable cost and without the need for the federal and state incentives that now help motivate buyers to go electric.
Still, there’s a growing desire for the emissions and inherent efficiencies of electric drive so there’s every reason to expect this interest to increase. We don’t yet know if plug-in vehicles of one stripe or another will dominate the market in the years ahead. But what is clear is that electrification is poised to play a major role moving forward.
Like most kids growing up in the 1960s, my first experience with an electric race car was at a slot car track as a teenager. They were fast…really fast if you used a hopped-up rewind motor capable of smoking competitors off the track.
This was followed decades later with the full-scale, real-life electric cars I witnessed competing in the APS Solar & Electric 500 at Phoenix International Raceway in 1991. They were electric conversions of one type or another, using commercially- available batteries or experimental ones with exotic chemistries, once again reinforcing that racing is where automotive technology is proved on the track, then evolved and adapted for cars on the road.
Segue to 2017, where the process continues in full force. Not only are electrics competing in FIA Formula E racing, but automakers are now signing on in a big way. Audi, Jaguar Land Rover, and Mahindra are competing with factory teams during the 2017 Formula E season and others are sponsoring race teams. It’s no mystery why auto companies are involved in Formula E since electrification is playing an increasingly important role in the automobile’s future.
Now there’s a new twist that combines electric racing with the high-profile competition in developing autonomous cars: the Roborace. Ten teams will use identical autonomous electric race cars with an eye toward earning the checkered flag exclusively through the prowess of artificial intelligence (AI) and their programming skills. No driver required.
The application of increasingly sophisticated AI in our cars is evident in the advanced driver-assist systems being integrated in new models, creating ‘smart’ cars that can respond to emergency situations faster than most drivers. In fact, the processing speed of machines versus humans was recently on the mind of Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk, when he recently shared that the processing speed of machines is so superior to humans that “over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.”
What does that mean? Apparently, being human in a future world of AI is not enough because we are so slow. “It’s mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output,” says Musk. His reasoning is that “some high bandwidth interface to the brain will be something that helps achieve a symbiosis between human and machine intelligence and maybe solves the control problem and the usefulness problem.” Yikes. I’m not the first to think ‘cyborg’ after hearing this. I’ll pass…although I will enjoy the benefits of connectivity and driver assistance systems in the meantime.
In a different and certainly more comforting look ahead, we know that plug-in vehicles are a hot item. Would you be surprised to know there are now 39 plug-in models - battery electrics and plug-in hybrids - being sold now or coming during the 2017 calendar year? That's a huge statement for electric drive and that number will certainly grow in the years ahead.
While Tesla models presently claim the greatest battery electric range at an entry point of $84,700, the new $37,495 Chevy Bolt EV stands out as the first battery electric car affordable to the masses with a driving range over 200 miles. Tesla has promised its coming Model 3 will also have a driving range greater than 200 miles at a base price of $35,000.
Without a doubt, the integration of semi-autonomous features and ‘green’ technologies will continue to grow. Welcome to your driving future!
When it comes to chips, automakers are all-in. That is, the silicon variety and not those with which you can gamble away a fortune, something auto companies are loathe to do. Traditionally, the risks auto manufacturers undertake are carefully calculated and always rooted in the world of profit and market share. As they look to the future, their chips are increasingly riding on ‘green’ and ‘connectivity.’
Key to this is Silicon Valley, which for decades has been synonymous with the high tech world of consumer electronics, encompassing everything from computers and cellphones to software and apps. Today this storied list has expanded in important and unexpected ways to include technology that’s at the heart of the auto industry’s future. It’s here that auto manufacturers have forged strategic alliances with Silicon Valley icons like Google and Apple, plus noted tech companies like NVIDIA and an array of Silicon Valley start-ups that promise to bring new and exciting functionality to our vehicles.
Striking alliances with tech companies is an important direction for an industry that has been entrenched in its own world for well over a century. It’s so important, in fact, that many auto manufacturers have gone beyond just alliances, establishing dedicated research and development centers in Silicon Valley to tap the undeniable expertise here. We have seen surprising moves in recent times, like Toyota’s short-lived alliance with Tesla to develop the excellent, though quite expensive, battery electric RAV4 crossover a few years back. Sometimes things work out, sometimes not. But ventures like this are important to the journey as a future unfolds that will certainly find advanced electronics playing a major role in the cars we drive, or perhaps, to cars that drive themselves.
This is happening already with an increasingly sophisticated array of on-board electronics incorporated into new car models. As you might expect, much of this is showing up in higher-end vehicles first as technology costs are absorbed into the price of aspirational vehicles already expected to command a higher point of entry. As technology costs decrease, advanced systems like these tend to move down-market to more affordable vehicles. We’re already seeing this happening in real time.
In addition to the on-board systems we tend to take for granted today – such as navigation, back-up display, satellite radio, and Bluetooth cellphone integration – there’s a new generation of sought-after features that use a vehicle’s integrated cameras and sensors to perform wondrous tasks. Adaptive cruise control that automatically maintains a safe distance from the car ahead is one of these.
Beyond that is the latest generation of such systems with a stop-and-go function capable of automating the boring task of driving in urban gridlock. Lane minder systems that warn if you stray outside your lane are being enhanced with automated features that nudge you back where you belong. Automated parking is yet another popular feature in electronics-rich models. This is just the start as technologies like pedestrian avoidance systems make their way into new models, plus technology that automatically brakes or slows your car at intersections if another vehicle comes into your path.
All this is coming together to make our vehicles more fuel efficient, convenient, and safer as we drive toward a more connected future. Strap in because big changes are ahead.
There are many outspoken and polarizing proponents of the various fuels and technologies at play today. This has been the case for several decades now and isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. Many electric car enthusiasts do not see a future for internal combustion or even hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Hydrogen proponents point out that fuel cell vehicles make more sense than battery electrics since hydrogen generally offers greater driving range and fuel cell vehicles can be refueled in under five minutes, while battery electrics cannot. Biodiesel enthusiasts point out the obvious benefits of this biofuel and even as this fuel gains momentum, wonder why support isn’t stronger. Natural gas advocates see huge and stable supplies of this clean-burning fuel now and in our future, without the truly significant commitment to natural gas vehicles this should bring. And those behind internal combustion vehicles achieving ever-higher efficiency simply wonder what the fuss is all about when conventional answers are here today.
So in the midst of all this, where are we headed? Simple. In the right direction, of course.
As I was writing about these very fuels and technologies some 25 years ago, it wasn’t lost on me that the competition for dominance in the ‘green’ automotive world of the future would be hard-fought and long, with many twists and turns. As our decades-long focus on the ‘green car’ field has shown us, the state-of-the-art of advanced vehicles in any time frame is ever-changing, which simply means that what may seem to make the most sense now is likely to shift, and at times, shift suddenly. This is a field in flux today, as it was back then.
When Nissan powered its Altra EV back in 1998 as an answer to California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, it turned heads with the first use of a lithium-ion battery in a limited production vehicle, rather than the advanced lead-acid and nickel-metal-hydride batteries used by others. Lithium-ion is now the battery of choice, but will it remain so as breakthrough battery technologies and chemistries are being explored?
Gasoline-electric hybrids currently sell in ever-greater numbers, with plug-in hybrids increasingly joining their ranks. Conventionally-powered vehicles are also evolving with new technologies and strategies eking levels of fuel efficiency that were only thought possible with hybrid powerplants just a few years ago.
What drives efficiency – and by extension determines our future path to the high efficiency, low emission, and more sustainable vehicles desired by consumers and government alike – is textbook evolution. Cars are adapting to meet the changing needs of future mobility and the imperative of improved environmental performance. Some of these evolutionary changes are predictable like lightweighting, improved aerodynamics, friction reduction, and enhanced powertrain efficiencies. Other answers, including the fuels that will ultimately power a new generation of vehicles, will be revealed over time.
So here’s to the cheerleaders who tell us quite vocally that their fuel, technology, or strategy is the answer to our driving future. One of them may be right. But the fact is, the evolutionary winner has yet to be determined.
I was changed by the 1990 introduction of the GM Impact electric car prototype at the Los Angeles Auto Show, then again by the amazing array of electric, hydrogen, and ‘green’ vehicles I witnessed at the 1991 Tokyo Motor Show. I knew that 'green' cars would be important. So, for 25 years now, this has been my focus at Green Car Journal and also at GreenCarJournal.com, plus an additional six years while feature editor at Motor Trend.
Covering this field for 25 years lends an invaluable perspective that’s important to understanding not only where we’ve been, but where we’re headed. There’s plenty of ‘green’ car news to share these days so it’s important to place it in context…and yes, that comes again with perspective and having been there while this all unfolded.
It has been enlightening to document the early research and development of the vehicles we take for granted today. While there is no crystal ball for predicting the automobile’s future, I’ve long been fascinated by researching patents for advanced and alternative fuel vehicle technologies because this does reveal what automakers and their technology suppliers have in mind for the years ahead.
Several decades ago, many of these vehicles and technologies were but ideas to potentially pursue, the subject of technology deep dives I attended, or opportunities that allowed driving advanced technology test mules on the track at automakers’ proving grounds.
Two of these experiences in the 1990s come readily to mind – driving a Japanese-market Toyota Crown sedan outfitted with an early gasoline-electric hybrid drive and a Geo Storm equipped with a prototype battery electric powertrain. These powerplants evolved to become the Hybrid Synergy Drive powering Toyota’s Prius and the electric drivetrain powering the GM EV1. The production versions were worlds better than the early prototype powertrains, lending the perspective to see just how far the technology had come.
Early developmental electric drive vehicles were often quirky and unexpectedly noisy in myriad ways, with high-pitched motor controller frequency noise and gear whine very apparent against a near-silent background devoid of internal combustion. The first natural gas vehicle prototypes often suffered from an annoying high-volume gaseous fuel injector clatter. Developmental hydrogen fuel cell vehicles sacrificed loads of space for large and cumbersome fuel cells and hydrogen storage. High efficiency diesel vehicles of decades past were unacceptably loud and emitted soot. Gasoline cars with high fuel economy were small, often lacking the creature comforts consumers expect and an illustration that sacrifice was required to achieve efficiency. Accomplishing extremely low tailpipe emissions often came at the expense of performance.
Drive an electric, natural gas, hydrogen fuel cell, high mpg gasoline, or high efficiency diesel personal-use vehicle today and they are quiet, usually quick, and ‘normal’ in all respects. A great many conventional internal combustion vehicles are now near-zero emission…not that you’d know it because they achieve this so seamlessly. We have great ‘green’ vehicles today because a lot has transpired over the past 25 years. Perspective.
I am confident that all of these vehicles, technologies, and fuels will play an important part in our motoring future. If the past 25 years are any indication, the vehicles we’ll be driving in the years ahead will be just amazing.
Electric drive vehicles of all types are increasingly in the news, often led by a near-nonstop focus on Tesla and its Model S, Model X, and planned Model 3 battery electric vehicles. People want electric cars. Some feel they need them, or more accurately, that we all need them. It has been so for quite some time.
I was one of those pushing hard for electric vehicles in the 1990s, driving prototypes on test tracks and limited production models on the highway as I shared their benefits on the pages of Green Car Journal and Motor Trend before that. It was an exciting time filled with hope that battery breakthroughs would come, bringing full-function EVs offering the same driving range as conventional vehicles.
Expectations were high that a public charging infrastructure would expand to make topping off batteries convenient. New ideas like 15-minute rapid charging and battery swap stations would allow drivers of all model EVs the ability to renew on-board energy in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee, enabling them to head back on the road in short order with a full battery charge. Importantly, there was an expectation that EVs would be affordable, both to manufacture and to buy.
If only this unfolded as expected, automakers would commit to developing battery electric vehicles of all types to meet the needs of an emerging market. But things have not unfolded as expected.
California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate drove the electric car surge in the 1990s and it’s a huge influence today. While less refined than electric models we have now, electrics of the 1990s like the Toyota RAV4 EV, Nissan Altra minivan, and Honda EV Plus were quite well engineered. Then there was GM’s EV1. Sleek, sexy, and fun, it provided a daily driving experience unparalleled in the field, something I came to appreciate well during the year I drove an EV1.
The challenge then was the same as now: cost. The EV1 was so costly to build with such massive losses there was no business case for it to continue, and so it ended, as all other electric vehicle programs of the 1990s ended, for the same reason.
Early on, Volvo had the foresight to challenge the status quo. While evaluating ways to meet California’s impending ZEV mandate, the automaker concluded there was no way to do this realistically with a vehicle powered exclusively by batteries. In 1993, I test drove Volvo’s answer – its high-tech Environmental Concept Car (ECC) that added a high-speed turbine-generator to an electric drivetrain, thus creating what we now call a range-extended electric vehicle (think Chevy Volt). Sadly, the ECC’s high cost turbine-generator meant this innovative car never saw production. But it was at the leading edge of a movement that brought us hybrids and range-extended electric cars. Today, even BMW – a high-profile champion of electrics with its innovative i3 – understands the importance of offering a range-extended variant with a gas engine-generator for those who prefer the convenience of longer range.
In answer to the chorus of Tesla enthusiasts sure to raise their voices, I am aware that Tesla is committed to all-electric vehicles and the range of the $70,000-$95,000 Model S (before the addition of popular options) is substantially greater than its competitors. The coming Model X electric crossover is expected to be in the same aspirational category as the Model S with a price suitable for premium buyers. The company's planned Model 3, presumably a vehicle accessible to the masses at a price Tesla says will be about $35,000, is said to be three years away. That's a good thing since significant battery cost reductions will be required to make this Tesla-for-the-masses electric an affordable reality. Will three years be enough? Achieving battery cost reductions of the magnitude required is no sure bet and, as history has proved, battery technology advances move at their own pace.
One stock analyst recently quoted in a major newspaper article shared that Tesla has the ability to reduce battery costs by nearly half in the coming three to five years. Of course, the backstory is that this ‘ability’ is really but a ‘potential’ based on batteries that do not yet commercially exist. The past 25 years are replete with examples of major government and industry efforts aimed at developing energy-dense, safe, and affordable electric car batteries that deliver the range and cost expectations of auto manufacturers and consumers. Over these years there have been many incremental improvements in battery design and chemistry, a slew of failures, and pending ‘breakthroughs’ that have often been promoted only to have expectations and actual production sidelined for a plethora of reasons du jour.
As just one recent example, Panasonic's 2009 announcement of a lithium-ion battery breakthrough using a silicon alloy cathode was accompanied with a claim it would be manufactured in 2012. Many positive reports on electric vehicles take into account this very ‘breakthrough’ and others like it, with the considerable cost reductions that would follow. Yet, Panasonic did not begin mass production of this battery technology in 2012. According to a Panasonic spokesman, the company’s work on developing high-capacity battery cells using a silicon-based negative electrode is ongoing. Hopefully, developments like these will lead to the kind of mass production that could bring long-hoped-for battery performance and cost reductions. Perhaps this will come to pass with a mass effort by Tesla through its proposed $5 billion battery ‘Giga Factory,’ and perhaps not. But after 25 years of following battery development I have learned not to count on claims or development, but rather actual production and availability in the real world.
Tesla continues to develop its Supercharger quick-charge network and has potential plans for a battery swap system, both exclusively compatible with its own vehicles. An innovative and expanding infrastructure for battery electrics will be required for their ultimate success and these are very positive moves, although only for those with a Tesla product and not electric vehicle owners as a whole.
Battery electric vehicles priced at levels accessible to everyday buyers will continue to grapple with cost and marketing challenges until a battery breakthrough comes. This is illustrated by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne's comment earlier this year that the company is losing $14,000 on every one of the Fiat 500e electric cars it sells. Is it so different for other automakers also selling EVs in limited numbers and in constrained geographic locations? Not inconsequentially, to bolster the market battery electric cars will also require continuing federal and state incentives that combined typically total $10,000 or more. Hopefully, innovative thinking and real technology and cost breakthroughs will emerge in the years ahead.
In the meantime, gasoline-electric hybrids and plug-in hybrid models, plus range-extended electric vehicles that combine all-electric drive with an on-board electric generator, are providing functionality for everyone even as battery-only electric cars fight hard to establish their place in the automotive market. Let's hope that mass-market, nationally-available models like BMW's innovative i3 electric car change this dynamic sooner than later.
The evolution of the auto industry has been no less than amazing. I have witnessed this first-hand while documenting the advent of ‘green’ cars over two decades at Green Car Journal and at Motor Trend before that. We had electric cars back in the 1990s as we do now, battling for acceptance, with other alternative fuels also jockeying for position amid an expansive field of conventional vehicles. Things change, things stay the same…although the numbers have improved for electrics.
While not particularly ‘green’ in earlier years, the automotive field did show early inclinations toward efficiency, particularly after the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s and oil disruptions of the 1980s. That was short lived as gasoline disruptions eased and gas was again plentiful and cheap. It was the 1990s, though, when industry and consumer interest in ‘green’ kicked into high gear.
The advancement of ‘green’ vehicles has largely been driven by the State of California, which has long required new vehicles to run cleaner than those meeting federal standards, a nod to the state’s epic half-century battle with urban smog. California has led the way in recent times with its milestone low emission vehicle program and its requirements for ever-cleaner running cars meeting seemingly impossible emissions goals. All this led to more stringent federal standards and, along the way, internal combustion vehicles with near-zero tailpipe emissions. It also hastened the introduction of hybrids and battery electric cars.
Early on, interest in greener cars was primarily driven by concerns such as tailpipe emissions, air quality, and petroleum dependence, the latter focused on resource depletion, the environmental cost of petroleum production, and significant dependence on imported oil. But that has evolved. The release of multiple studies singling out CO2 emissions as a major contributor to climate change added yet another reason to demand cleaner cars, with carbon emissions now a focal point. New regulations requiring much higher fuel economy in the years ahead – accomplishing the multiple goals of reducing petroleum use and lowering CO2 emissions through higher efficiency – have helped change the dynamic as well, as have the shockingly high gas prices seen late last decade. Together, they created the perfect storm for ‘green’ cars.
The cumulative result of regulations and incentives – plus an auto industry increasingly looking at ‘green’ not only as a requirement but as a market advantage – is a field of greener choices at new car showrooms. We now have internal combustion vehicles with near-zero emissions. A growing number of vehicle models are hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery electric cars with a few gaseous fuel models as well. The vast majority, however, are conventional vehicles that are worlds better than those of the past – gasoline and clean diesel models that achieve 35, 40, and 45 mpg or better with 50+ mpg clearly on the horizon.
While electric vehicles are often the topic du jour, it’s evident that new car buyers want the ability to pick their path to a greener driving future, choosing the vehicle, powertrain, and fuel that make them comfortable in their daily journeys. It has been satisfying to witness the auto industry’s decades-long evolution that’s now enabling consumers to do just that.
We are all enamored by the advanced technologies at work in vehicles today. And why wouldn’t we be? The incredibly efficient cars we have today, and the even more efficient models coming in the years ahead, are testament to a process that combines ingenuity, market competitiveness, and government mandate in bringing ever more efficient vehicles to our highways.
It’s been a long and evolutionary process. I remember clearly when PZEV (Partial Zero Emission Vehicle) technology was first introduced in the early 1990s, a breakthrough that brought near-zero tailpipe emissions from gasoline internal combustion engine vehicles. That move was led by Honda and Nissan, with others quickly following. Then there were the first hybrids – Honda’s Insight and Toyota’s Prius – that arrived on our shores at the end of that decade. Both technologies brought incredible operating efficiencies that drastically reduced a vehicle’s emissions, increased fuel economy to unexpected levels, or both.
Of course, there were first-generation battery electric vehicles in the mid-1990s that foretold what would become possible years later. That first foray into EV marketing was deemed by many a failure, yet it set the stage for the advanced and truly impressive EVs we have today. Those vehicles may not yet be cost-competitive with conventionally powered vehicles due to very high battery costs, but that doesn’t diminish the genius engineering that’s brought them to today’s highways.
Even conventionally-powered cars today are achieving fuel efficiency levels approaching that of more technologically complex hybrids. Who would have imagined popular cars getting 40 mpg or better, like the Dodge Dart, Chevy Cruze, Mazda3, Ford Fiesta, and many more in a field that’s growing ever larger each year?
VW and Audi have proven that clean diesel technology can also achieve 40+ mpg fuel efficiency while providing press-you-back-in-your-seat performance, and importantly, doing this while meeting 50 state emissions criteria. That’s saying something considering diesel has historically had a tough go of it meeting increasingly stringent emissions standards in California and elsewhere. Yet, with elegant engineering by these automakers and their diesel technology supplier Bosch – plus this country’s move to low-sulfur diesel fuel late last decade – ‘clean’ diesel was born.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention natural gas vehicles. There was a time when quite a few automakers were exploring natural gas power in the U.S., but that faded and left Honda as the lone player in this market with its Civic Natural Gas sedan. Now others are joining in with dual-fuel natural gas pickups and vans, benefitting from advanced engine technologies, better natural gas tanks, and a sense that with increasing natural gas reserves in the U.S., demand for natural gas vehicles will grow. As Honda has shown with its Civic, it’s possible to operate on this alternative fuel while also netting admirable fuel efficiency.
All this advanced powertrain technology is important. It makes air quality and petroleum reduction goals achievable, even ones like the ethereal 54.5 mpg fleet fuel economy average requirement that looms for automakers by 2025. There’s no doubt that advanced technologies come at a cost and reaching a 54.5 mpg average will require the full range of efficiency technologies available, from better powerplants and transmissions to greater use of lightweight materials, aerodynamic design, and answers not yet apparent. But I’m betting we’ll get there in the most efficient way possible.
Ron Cogan is editor and publisher of Green Car Journal and editor of CarsOfChange.com