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According to some (e.g. the documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car?), car and oil companies have actively tried to suppress electric cars' development.

Electric cars seem to have technological benefits so indeed I wonder why they're virtually nonexistent. Is it due to a market conspiracy, normal "honest" competition, technical reasons or something else?

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    Please avoid tags like conspiracy, conspiracy-theory, urban-legend... Thanks. :-) – Sklivvz May 8 '11 at 9:23
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    At the moment the question feels too broad. I think it would be better to post questions about the truth of the specific claims that the documentary "Who killed the electric car makes". – Christian May 8 '11 at 12:09
  • @Christian: Maybe so. Currently this is a bit like the moon landing question, which many people seem to find a good one. I do agree broad questions are difficult to answer. – dancek May 9 '11 at 6:35
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    "Did X happen?" allows for a yes/no answer. "Why did X happen"? is more vague. – Christian May 9 '11 at 11:33
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    The historical answer is "range and recharging time". Each generation of new batteries gets a little better on this, but even now they are not competitive with gasoline or diesel IC. – dmckee Jun 10 '11 at 18:44
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It comes down to a few factors. I'll answer from a US perspective.

  1. Lack of infrastructure1. Could the US power grid sustain the charging of millions of electric cars? One article says so3, but this paper disagrees. Also, individual home electric systems simply aren't built to charge electric cars, which require massive currents (80 to 100 amps) to do so. Also, consider what incentive is there for a fuel station to provide a charging point which would directly compete with their own product. The answer is little to none.

  2. Battery technology is still behind the times. The average EV battery pack costs around $500/kWh2, typically more. The GM Volt has a 16 kWh battery pack, and that only goes 40 miles per charge; $8,000 for that isn't really much. Also, battery packs are almost always lithium ion, but this only has an energy density of 0.9 MJ/kg, compared to 44.4 MJ/kg for petrol/gasoline. (It's important to note though that electric motors are about 2-3x more efficient than internal combustion engines, but that still doesn't account for the massive shortfall in energy density.)

  3. Is it really good for the environment? It's debatable. About 55% of the power in the US is derived from coal; and burning coal puts CO2 into the atmosphere. Although it's likely to result in a reduction of CO2, it's still going to be putting a substantial amount into the atmosphere. One article cites only a 5% reduction3 from 180 million EVs being on the road.

Sources:

  1. A Discussion Paper from Scuderi Group July 2010 Electric Cars - see section "Impact of EVs on the US electric power grid", pages 4-5

  2. Plug-in Hybrid and Battery-Electric Vehicles... - page 12

  3. Report: U.S. Power Grid Can Fuel 180 Million Electric Cars

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    Nicely done. Some thoughts: 1. In the US, auto fuel is subsidized. 2. Battery or hydrogen power has the potential advantage of flexible energy sources, not limited to petroleum. 3. Limited-range vehicles might still be competitive for commuting-style use. – Mike Dunlavey May 8 '11 at 3:04
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    Also, consider what incentive is there for a fuel station to provide a charging point which would directly compete with their own product. The answer is money, a fuel station can sell charging points $x for y amps/joules, and that would be the incentive. What incentive do you think a fuel station had to sell fuel? – Lie Ryan May 8 '11 at 6:33
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    @Thomas O: nice points, though both Mike and Lie make some quite valid observations. Basically I can see the chicken-egg problem with infrastructure here, and certainly electric cars aren't the silver bullet. This just doesn't entirely explain why they've been so slow to take off. – dancek May 8 '11 at 8:00
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    @dancek: I agree with dancek; the reason alternative energy fuel is slow to take off is a chicken and egg problem. Unlike buying your lunch, buying an electric car is an expensive purchase for a "secondary need", not many people would buy an electric car if they have the perception that finding a recharge station would be difficult. On the other hand, energy companies does not see immediate profit from investing on a recharging station because practically nobody owned electric car. This is a failure of economy system to find the "best" path for humanity. – Lie Ryan May 8 '11 at 14:21
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    Re #2: Nissan Leaf had a 24 kWh battery. The Tesla Roadster had a 53 kWh battery, and the Tesla Model S (and the Model X scheduled for Q3 2015) has a 60 or 85 kWh battery. There are other examples that surpass the Volt, including cars available at the time this answer was posted, but comments have limited space. :) – Brian S Dec 12 '14 at 15:43
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Mostly, it's the cost of the car itself, not any externalities. High-density batteries cost a lot of money for the amount of energy they store - especially in comparison to gas - and cheap batteries have such low energy density that you may as well not even bother. Compare a Tesla Roadster at to a gasoline car of similar performance, which you can typically get at half that cost from premium brands like Porsche. Likewise, a Nissan Leaf costs around $32,780 (link includes original press release), while a comparatively equipped Toyota Matrix costs around $22,900.

Right now, that cost is almost at a point where it can be considered feasible. For example, you can reasonably expect to spend $10,000 in gas[1] (and much, much less on electricity for the Leaf) for that Matrix inside of about 8 years, but you will probably have to upgrade the battery in the Leaf after about 10 or 12 years (Nissan says they plan to produce a Leaf with twice the battery capacity by 2015). That said, you don't have to look far to find other examples of similarly-sized, gas powered hatchbacks at the $32,000 price point, either (the Audi A3 or Mercedes Benz B-class for example).

The fact that we are at this point is a testament to recent improvements in battery density and cost, and in the future we will very likely see electric cars that cost the same or only slightly more than gas-powered ones. In the past (say, in 1998), the idea was completely infeasible from an economic standpoint[2], which is why so few automakers are making electric cars today. Next year, that will change as several automakers that aren't already making electrics are bringing them to market, and several more also have plans in place to do so in the next two or three years.

So to say that there's a conspiracy among automakers to not make electric cars[3] is not true since at least 5 - GM, Nissan, Ford, Volvo, and VW are either now making them, or explicitly plan to in the near future. That oil companies are actively trying to suppress the technology may be true, but it doesn't seem to be in their hands anymore. Chevron may own the patent for NIMH battery chemistry, but it doesn't for the Lithium Ion batteries that are now favoured for electric cars.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Link shows my own analysis, showing the math to demonstrate how I got there. I adjusted downwards from $16,640 to $10,000 to reflect that my pricing is in Canadian dollars, with local gas prices being about 40% higher than most of the US, plus the fact that gasoline prices are anything but stable. If anything, $10,000 USD is a low estimate, but it certainly falls within the difference in purchase price between a Leaf and a Matrix. I used a Toyota Matrix in my comparison because the car's dimensions are almost exactly the same (the Leaf is 4cm longer but otherwise identical), and the features of the Matrix S are very similar to the Leaf's base model, with similar power output.

[2] Wikipedia references a Washington Post article that is no longer online, stating that each EV1 produced cost GM about $80,000. Another reference in book form states that they cost $100,000 each. This was far in excess of what GM was leasing the cars for, in any case.

[3] Yes, another Wikipedia reference, but they bring together many sources that do a better job of describing this phenomenon than I ever could in my short article, which is decidedly not about any such conspiracy anyway.

  • You can add Renault to that list; they're already building them. E.g Hertz has signed a contract for 500 electric Renaults. – MSalters Jun 17 '11 at 9:05
  • Seems like a good answer, but some references would come handy (e.g. some links confirming the prices). – Suma Aug 12 '11 at 19:02
  • Please add relevant sources for your many claims as per our guidelines: meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/5/… – Sklivvz Aug 14 '11 at 9:28
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I would say that EV are rare because mainstream electric vehicles have been on the market for a very short time.(1) Car manufacturers have wanted to fully evaluate the risks they're taking in developing a new technology, but several of them are definitely moving forward aggressively (2). The technology can improve, but it's good enough now for a lot of early adopters to jump on board. The current limiting factor is mainly consumer awareness.

Charging infrastructure is increasingly not an issue. There are several companies competing to build electric car charging networks: Ecotality, Coulomb, eVgo are major players (3). You can search for "electric vehicle charging stations" on Google Maps and get a pretty good idea of how rapidly they're all expanding. Furthermore, as an EV owner, you only really care about the charging network in your home city. You don't care about it anywhere else because your EV can only go 100 miles max (3), assuming you don't own a $100k Tesla (4). For the Volt, which is EV-gasoline (3), you can always switch to gasoline if you're low on battery, so having infrastructure is really only an added bonus.

Home charging is also not a problem. It's easy to have a home EV charger installed, and it costs around $1,500 (5).

The main drawback is the 100 mile range of an all-electric car, which is a limitation of battery technology. But rarely do people drive more than 100 miles a day, and an EV makes a lot of sense as a second car to have in the home (6). The gasoline one can be used for long car trips, and the EV can be used for everything else.

Electricity is significantly cheaper than gasoline. Expect to spend $90/month on fuel max. eVgo has an unlimited refueling package for EV's for $89/month that includes a leased home charger. (7) (sorry, haven't done an ROI or break-even calculation yet).

The two major mainstream electric vehicles, the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt, have both been sold out since their release, and their companies are marketing them hard (8). Other car manufacturers are coming out with competing models in the next year or so (2). Supply will outstrip demand soon. After that, it's a matter of more and more people hearing about EVs and being willing to give them a try.

Disclosure: eVgo is a subsidiary of the company I work for. I don't work directly on electric vehicles, and everything I've posted is publicly available industry data.

Sources

(1) Nissan Leaf roll-out plan: http://theirearth.com/index.php/news/nissan-electric-car-2011-leaf Chevy Volt roll-out plan: http://gm-volt.com/2011/01/27/gm-announces-nationwide-chevy-volt-rollout-plan/

Both have been released in select cities this year.

(2) EV Range Comparison Chart, 3rd column: http://gigaom.com/cleantech/battle-of-the-batteries-comparing-electric-car-range-charge-times/

(3) EV infrastructure market analysis by Pike Research: http://gm-volt.com/2011/05/20/coulomb-technologies-and-ecotality-ranked-top-charging-equipment-suppliers/ Note: Aeroenvironment is the company that makes eVgo branded chargers (Aeroenvironment and eVgo are the same network). Elektromotive, the other top player listed in the report, is building infrastructure in the U.K. I'm going to focus my answer on just the U.S.

(4) "The base price for the 2010 models, which began shipping to customers in July 2009, was US$109,000." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tesla_Roadster

(5) Charger price quoted here: http://www.autoobserver.com/2010/07/general-electric-says-its-home-ev-charger-will-cost-between-1000-and-1500.html as well as here: http://www.solarcity.com/pressreleases/95/SolarCity-to-Make-Solar-Powered-Electric-Vehicle-Charging-Available-Across-its-Service-Territory-.aspx

(6) Bureau of Transportation Statistics http://www.bts.gov/programs/national_household_travel_survey/daily_travel.html

(7) www.evgo.com

(8) Volt is sold out: http://green.autoblog.com/2011/08/02/electric-superiority-nissan-leaf-sales-hit-931-chevy-volt-at-1/ Nissan leaf is sold out: http://green.autoblog.com/2010/05/25/carlos-ghosn-2011-nissan-leaf-sold-out/

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    Please add relevant sources for your many claims as per our guidelines: meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/5/… – Sklivvz Aug 14 '11 at 9:27
  • That's some pretty thorough referencing. Nice. – John Lyon Aug 30 '11 at 22:59
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    "mainstream electric vehicles have been on the market for a very short time" IIRC some of the very first cars were electric - might be worth looking into. – NPSF3000 Dec 16 '14 at 10:44

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