Politics & Policy

A Million Electric Vehicles

The president wants them by 2015, but 2064 is a more realistic estimate.

Back in January, during his State of the Union speech, President Obama said that he wanted the U.S. to “become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road,” and he wanted it to happen by 2015. Given current sales of the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, the president may hit his target . . . sometime in 2064.

In May, U.S. sales for the much-hyped Volt totaled 481. The Leaf did better, with 1,142 units sold. That’s a grand total of 1,623 electric cars sold for the month. At that torrid rate, it will take about 639 months, or a bit more than 53 years, for domestic sales of electric vehicles to reach 1 million.

Of course, none of this is surprising. Electric cars are the Next Big Thing, and they always will be. What is, ahem, shocking, is just how gullible the Obama administration, and much of the mainstream media, has been about the potential for electric cars to garner a significant share of the market.

Why would consumers buy a Volt, which gets 40 miles per gallon on the highway and costs $40,000, when they can buy a Chevy Cruze, which sells for less than half that amount, is nearly identical in size, and gets 42 miles per gallon? The answer is, they wouldn’t. In May, General Motors sold 22,711 Cruzes. Put another way, for every Chevy shopper who chose the Volt, 47 others decided the Cruze was a better value.

Johan de Nysschen, the president of Audi of America, predicted the Volt’s low-amperage future nearly two years ago when he said that “no one is going to pay a $15,000 premium for a car that competes with a Corolla . . . there are not enough idiots who will buy it.

One could say that comparing the Volt with the Cruze is unfair, because the two cars appeal to different demographics. Last year, Deloitte Consulting released a report on electric vehicles that found that the most likely buyers are people with household incomes “in excess of $200,000” and “who already own one or more vehicles.” But in May, GM sold 11,623 Cadillacs — 24 for every Volt it sold.

The Deloitte study concluded that the U.S. now has about 1.3 million consumers who “fit the demographic and psychographic profiles” of expected electric-vehicle buyers. It went on to say that mass adoption of electric cars “will be gradual” and that by 2020, perhaps 3 percent of the U.S. car market could be amenable to them. Think about that: Out of some 300 million Americans, perhaps 1.3 million of them are inclined to buy an electric vehicle today, and perhaps 9 million will be willing to consider it a decade from now. And as the lackluster sales of the Volt and the Leaf show, only a tiny fraction of that fraction are actually buying electric cars, even though they could get a $7,500 federal tax credit for doing so.

As de Nysschen made clear two years ago, all of this was easily predictable. Consider a New York Times report contending that the electric car “has long been recognized as the ideal solution” because it “is cleaner and quieter” and “much more economical” than gasoline-fueled cars. That’s from Nov. 12, 1911. Or consider this assessment by a believing reporter: “Prices on electric cars will continue to drop until they are within reach of the average family.” That line appeared in the Washington Post on Halloween, 1915.

Obama’s electric-vehicle fetish reflects much of the inanity of our discussions about energy. The idea that oil is bad, and that we must therefore throw vast sums of money at efforts to fuel our automotive fleet with something else — anything else — ignores both economic realities and the myriad problems inherent with electric vehicles.

Those problems were delineated in a 2009 report published by the Department of Energy’s Office of Vehicle Technologies, which said that despite the enormous investments being made in plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles and lithium-ion batteries, four key barriers stand in the way of their commercialization: cost, performance, abuse tolerance, and life. The key problem, according to these analysts: batteries. The report concludes that lithium-based batteries, which it calls “the most promising chemistry,” are three to five times too expensive, are lacking in energy density, and are “not intrinsically tolerant to abusive conditions.”

The energy density of batteries has been the biggest issue for electric cars for 100 years. By weight, gasoline contains about 80 times as much energy as even the best lithium-ion batteries. Of course, electric-car supporters will immediately retort that electric motors are about four times as efficient as internal-combustion engines. But even with that advantage, gasoline will still have 20 times the energy density of batteries. And that is an essential advantage when it comes to automobiles, where weight, storage space, and the distance one can travel without refueling are critical considerations.

Nevertheless, some true believers still contend that electric vehicles are for real. And some of those believers are writing unsigned editorials for the New York Times; just seven months ago, one such editorial proclaimed that “electric cars could eventually be a real game-changer.”

Um, yes, “could” and “eventually.” My advice: Don’t bother waiting by the wall socket in your garage.

— Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author, most recently, of Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.


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