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Colliding with Reality

The problem with electric cars.

Oct 25, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 06 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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The age of the electric car is here. Everyone says so. There it is emblazoned on the cover of the latest Wired magazine: “The age of the electric car is here. CHARGE!” In the New York Times, Thomas Friedman laments that the Chinese are embracing the electric car while America (sigh) is again failing to keep pace with enlightened Chicom authoritarianism. Friedman calls electric cars their “moon shot” and frets that if we don’t get with the program, we might be reduced to importing millions of electric vehicles (EVs) from China. And then there are the ads. Sit down for a little Sunday football and you’re overwhelmed by commercials for the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt, primping and preening, intent on winning over even the SUV-driving troglodytes who watch the NFL.

Colliding with Reality


So make no mistake: The electric car is happening. Right now. 

Mind you, the electric car has been happening, in fits and starts, since before Henry Ford. Electric motors lost out to the internal combustion engine as the automobile was taking over America. They have raised intermittent challenges now and again. The last serious attempt at an electric car came from General Motors in 1990, when the company began work on a project that culminated in the EV1, a two-seater which could go 75 miles on a single charge. General Motors spent $1 billion on the car; 800 of them were eventually leased to customers. A couple years later they were all recalled and scrapped. This time, we are told, it will be different. It always is.

The latest EV boom originated with a Silicon Valley start-up called Tesla Motors. Under the direction of Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, Tesla built a sexy, no-compromise electric sports car—it goes from 0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds with a range of 244 miles. Tesla’s big innovation was replacing the heavy, lead-lined batteries previously used in EVs with the lighter, lithium-ion batteries commonly used in laptop computers. In 2008 the Tesla Roadster went into production and won rave reviews. At $109,000 a pop, it wasn’t a mass-market machine, but the automotive world was entranced nonetheless.

General Motors chief Bob Lutz used Tesla’s example as an argument to fast-track the recently released Chevy Volt, a four-seat sedan powered by an electric motor. General Motors markets the Volt as an EV that can go 40 miles on a single charge, but also has a “range extending” gas engine that kicks in to power the motor if you run out of juice. With the gas engine engaged, GM claims the Volt gets 50 mpg on the highway. Its sticker price is $41,000.

Nissan has just rolled out its own EV, a four-door hatchback called the Leaf. It lacks the Volt’s gasoline backup but boasts a 100-mile range and a low price of $32,780—practically free by EV standards.

These cars are just the tip of the EV iceberg. Later this year another startup, Coda Automotive—working in partnership with the Chinese!—will begin selling a $44,900 sedan that seats five and gets 100 miles per charge. (It achieves this extended range in part because its top speed is only 80 mph.) Over the next two years Mitsubishi, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Fiat, Renault, and Smart all plan on bringing an EV to market.

And Tesla is preparing to reinvent the EV again in 2012 when it moves the Model S into production. The Model S is a four-door sedan with three rows of seats. It will have a range of 160 miles and an expected base price of $57,400. In 2009 the company bought a 5.5 million-square-foot plant in Fremont, California, that had once been jointly operated by GM and Toyota. Elon Musk mused to Wired, “We could have 250,000 cars coming out of here in five years.” And that’s just the start. He told the New Yorker, “We could be selling a million cars a year in ten years. That seems doable.”

Soon, a network of stations for quick-charging electric cars will appear, letting you take your EV on long trips, just like a gas-guzzler. And we’ll need them, because President Obama has set a national goal of 1 million EVs on the road by 2015.

If only it were all true.

Let’s start with the Volt. Popular Mechanics has tested the Volt’s mileage claims and found that it gets 33 miles on its electric charge (not 40) and that its miles-per-gallon performance is 31.67 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway (not 50). Edward Niedermeyer, editor of the website The Truth About Cars, writes that it’s “a vehicle that costs $41,000 but offers the performance and interior space of a $15,000 economy car.” The Volt’s 2011 production run was originally slated to be 60,000 units; it’s been cut to 10,000.

By comparison, the Leaf is a world-beater, unless you look at the fine print. It might have a 100-mile range, but it takes 20 hours to charge on a standard 110V outlet. The good news is that you can charge the Leaf in just 8 hours if you have a 220V outlet—and even faster if you can find one of the “quick charge” stations that EV evangelists promise will mushroom across the country some day. There are currently 500 charging stations in the United States—400 of them are in Southern California.

Cost estimates for expanding this imaginary infrastructure run to the hundreds of billions of dollars. But using one of those fast-charge stations could adversely impact the car’s battery life in the long term. And you have to be careful, because in a world where gas cars often carry a 10-year/100,000-mile warranty, the Leaf’s warranty is 3 years/36,000 miles.

The market for high-price, low-performance vehicles is finite. To get a sense of scale, there are about 250 million cars, SUVs, and light trucks on the road today. Somewhere between 10 million and 17 million new vehicles are sold each year depending on gas prices, the economy, etc. The Volt, meanwhile, will offer 10,000 units for sale next year. The Coda will have 14,000 this year. And Tesla, for all its hoopla, has manufactured about 1,300 cars to date.

A number of studies have examined people’s willingness to buy EVs in the near and medium term. Most analysts predict that about 400,000 EVs will be sold annually by 2020. But to get to even this modest number we must stipulate that gas prices sharply increase, battery costs significantly decline, and that—this is the niftiest part of all—EV sales from 2017 to 2020 magically increase by 300 percent.

Still, if you grant all of those assumptions, the total number of EVs on the road in 2020 will be in the neighborhood of 1.1 million. Which means that the sales of all electric cars in America will combine to average 110,000 units a year for the next decade. Last month Ford sold 47,433 of its F-series pick-up trucks.

The principal problem for EVs is cost. The Boston Consulting Group figures that the exorbitant prices of EVs won’t be attractive to the average consumer until oil goes above $280 a barrel. Oil has never approached even half that price. And if EVs were to take off, they would create a problematic loop for themselves: The more electric cars, the less demand for oil, and the lower the price of gas—making EVs even less competitive. Any way you look at it, the electric car is a lousy business to be in, which probably explains why the federal government is elbow-deep in that business. 

In an attempt to fulfill President Obama’s EV goal, the government has been doing everything it can to get electric cars on the road. It started by goosing the supply side of the equation: Ford was given a $5.9 billion loan through the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program while Nissan was given $1.6 billion. Another $2.4 billion in outright grants was doled out to component makers from the stimulus package.

The government is backing up its bet by tinkering with the demand side, too. If you buy an EV, the feds give you $7,500 and rebates for purchasing home charging kits. Some states have their own incentives to sweeten the pot. California, for instance, adds another $5,000 in cash back. The Golden State even throws in a carpool sticker so that EV drivers can use the HOV lanes whenever they want.

In individual cases, the government is in even deeper. The Volt, for instance, received $240 million in Department of Energy grants; part of a $14 billion loan given to GM to retool production facilities; $150 million in stimulus to the Korean company that makes the Volt’s battery; and $1.5 billion in incentives earmarked for consumers. (All of which leaves out the $50 billion bailout of General Motors.) Just to be clear: The feds were not a bunch of sap investors. When the government took over GM in 2009, a task force reported that the Volt “will likely be too expensive to be commercially successful in the short term.” The green-eyeshades at the White House kept it anyway.

At Tesla it’s even worse. Musk made his fortune the Internet way. He didn’t create a product he could sell to consumers at a profit. Rather, he founded two websites which were bought out by bigger websites, minting him $22 million, and then $160 million, in rapid succession. And he’s brought the Internet ethos to the car business. The production costs of a Tesla Roadster are reportedly $95,000. Many of the cars were pre-sold at $92,000. But Musk never planned to make a profit selling the Roadster: The cars were a bridge to the real money. In 2009, the government loaned Tesla $465 million. At the time, the entire company was valued at $500 million. That year Tesla produced 800 cars.

Tesla used the government’s loan to purchase and prepare the Fremont facility—which once produced 450,000 cars per year. Which is more than the entire projected EV demand in 2020.

But that’s the sort of fantasy world in which electric cars exist. In 2004, Tesla said it would develop its Roadster in two years for $25 million. It took four years and $140 million. In 2007, GM’s Bob Lutz told Newsweek he envisioned selling hundreds of thousands of Volts a year, probably priced below $30,000. The company will make 10,000 Volts next year and sell them for $41,000 each. In 2009, Chrysler claimed it would have 500,000 electric cars on the road by 2013 under a new brand, ENVI. The ENVI group was shut down before it could even muster a single production design.

The great irony is that there probably is a niche for the EV. Cars have always been badges and the electric car is no different. But instead of saying “I’m richer than you are” or “I’m cooler than you are,” the electric car says “I’m a better person than you are.” In Barack Obama’s America, surely there’s a market for that. If only the rest of us weren’t forced to subsidize it.


Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard



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