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Electric cars power needs hinder driver freedom, sales

When cost cannot be recovered with volume, it

When cost cannot be recovered with volume, it has to be recovered in unit price. Tesla's Model S electric cars are marketed as premium performance sedans, costing as much as $100,000. Photo Credit: Tesla

The message is out there: greener means greener pastures.

But all the marketing in the world, coupled with crushing fuel prices, and even massive government incentives, are carrying little weight. It's not the message, apparently, but the reality of electric-car ownership that's stalling their acceptance.

The reasons are many, well known, logical and perhaps painfully obvious. Most analysts point to high vehicle prices, tech phobia, mistrust of battery packs and a lack of recharging infrastructure as the main issues most undermining consumer confidence. And don't discount that internal-combustion vehicles and hybrids are getting better.

Any one of those issues could kill a sale, but all of them at once? That's not good in a market still run by consumer dollars and not by government will being dictated to automakers.

General Motors with its Volt, and Nissan with its Leaf, are just two automakers sweating the EV sales stall, especially in North America.
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn reportedly set a target to double Leaf sales during this current fiscal year that runs through March 2013.

But according to a story by FOX Business, the Leaf may need a shot of "Rapid Grow" if it's going to reach those lofty expectations, especially in the United States.

The Leaf is showing a slight sales increase in European markets. Yet, U.S. demand is down 56 percent from April 2011 through August of this year, compared to the same five-month timeframe of the 2011-'12 fiscal cycle.

Sagging sales numbers even caused Nissan North American spokesman David Reuter to deliver kind of an EV disclaimer.

"We know that the wide majority of U.S. drivers drive no more than 40 miles a day," Reuter said. "The Nissan Leaf is a perfect vehicle for those individuals. For those who drive more than that, it may not be."

To that end, Nissan is taking out some content to cut the price and make the Leaf more attractive. The scary part, perhaps, is that sales are soft despite huge government subsidies for buyers, which implies that whatever perceived value there is in electric cars is a false reading anyway.

Old driving habits die hard, and even the gas-greedy Nissan big-rig battleship known as the Armada (with an estimated 14 combined mpg) holds its own in sales comparisons with the greener Leaf, which might come as a shock.

But there's more. Lamborghini is expected to sell more $380,000 Aventador sports cars than Honda will sell of its Fit EV. Toyota also recently announced it was scrapping plans to mass produce its eQ plug-in model (based on the tiny Scion iQ) and moving its research-and-development dollars into a tiny 20-vehicle fleet of new gasoline-electric combo hybrids. Over at Fiat, the new 500e is considered no more than a compliance vehicle to appease California legislation.

Automakers know the market is too thin to justify the development dollars with infrastructure remaining the greatest hurdle for both manufactures and marketers. After all, having a plug-in vehicle without anywhere to plug it in while on the road. . . well, that would ruin a road trip in a big hurry.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy and the Census Bureau, there are currently about 5,000 EV charging stations throughout the United States compared to 130,000 gas stations with multiple pumps that can top up a car in a few minutes.

By contrast, using a standard 120-volt home outlet, the Chevrolet Volt needs all night to reach a full charge. And the fact that the Volt runs on gas, just in case, clearly show's that internal combustion is still the fuel drivers can count on.

The challenge for the industry is to build faster and readily available "refueling" stations where drivers can power up and move on in minutes, instead of hours.

"Without a network available to charge quickly, ownership of an electric vehicle is very limiting," said Shanna Hendricks from Tesla Motors, a car-builder solely focused on plug-ins.

In a story for the Detroit Free Press newspaper Hendricks explained that as long as vacation navigation requires a phone app to map charging stations, skepticism in this market rules. After all, it leaves little room for error, because when you're out of power, you're stuck.

"By putting down the infrastructure for fast charging, it opens up the possibilities and the destinations that you can travel in an electric vehicle," Hendricks said.

A recent study from Pike Research confirmed what automakers already knew: interest in the plug-in vehicle is fading throughout the United States and Canada. In a survey of 1,001 potential North American new-car buyers, Pike found the consumer ratings of "extremely interested" or "very interested" for purchasing an EV slipped four percent this year from 2011. This slide coming during an economic and fuel-price period where EV popularity was expected to reach record levels.

The survey indicated mileage-range dissatisfaction as the primary reason for growing consumer indifference. Battery safety and a fear of being stranded weren't far behind. Of course, the relatively high cost of an EV adds to consumer skittishness.

Although covered under warranty for many years, the battery in the Ford Focus Electric can cost more than $12,000, or nearly one third of the $39,000 sticker price. You can buy a new Fiesta for $13,200 plus destination charges.

Not unlike the chicken-or-the-egg debate, would an infrastructure investment help to spark EV sales? Or is increased EV demand necessary first (by making a better EV) to create investor interest?

The immediate future of the EV might be uncertain, but it's only just beginning.

Enthusiast magazine Motor Trend recently named the Tesla Model S its 2013 Car of the Year, which is the first all-electric winner.

"At its core, the Tesla Model S is simply a damned good car you happen to plug in to refuel," wrote Motor Trend editor-at-large Angus MacKenzie.

Whether another EV will ever again make that kind of industry spark remains to be seen. But if you trust consumer chatter and sales trends, until infrastructure grows and prices shrink, the EV will continue to look for its spark.


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