Critics Say EVs Aren't Ready, but They're Missing the Big Picture

Last Updated May 11, 2010 2:23 PM EDT

There's no shortage of skepticism about battery-powered cars out there. After all these vehicles, available here by the end of the year from at least five companies, will have many challenges. There won't be many charging stations, the cars will be limited to 100 miles of range, and they'll be, well, shockingly expensive.

But none of that means they'll ultimately fail in the marketplace, though the rate of adoption will inevitably be slow. By straightforward comparison with internal-combustion cars, EVs don't fare well -- they don't offer as much value or utility. But if you believe, as I do, that there are big and unstoppable international drivers out there -- including global warming and peak oil -- then you can see the cars in perspective.

The critics say EVs aren't viable without subsidies, and that's inarguable -- but it doesn't mean the subsidies are a bad idea. It's how you jump-start a movement.

Here's the unvarnished negativity, though. Janney Capital Markets, in a March 31 report written by John Roy and Nicholas Cavallo, says that EVs "underperform on almost all fronts," and won't be fully viable for "at least 10 years." The analysts conclude, "We believe electric vehicle battery stocks will pull back this year as the timeline for electric vehicles lengthens."

Of course, both things could be right: The cars could ultimately succeed, but still be a bad short-term investment prospect. In an interview, Roy said he agrees that EVs could be a hit in the long term. "We want this stuff to work," he said. "It's just that the stocks are expensive, and it's going to be a while." But Janney did upgrade its assessment of independent battery company Ener1 this week from "sell" to "neutral" because of positive developments with its ongoing work as a supplier to Volvo.

The key points of the Janney report:

  1. Not even green. According to a National Academy of Sciences projection, even by 2030 internal-combustion cars will be nine percent cleaner than full battery cars, and 17 percent cleaner than plug-in hybrids.
  2. Cost is prohibitive. Both battery cars and plug-in hybrids will have a $9,000 to $20,000 premium over cars today.
  3. Range will create "anxiety." The 100-mile range might suit some city dwellers, but when the average car goes 400 miles between fill-ups it will be a big problem. And cold weather can further compromise battery performance.
Again, these are all valid points. But in a sense the world has noted them and moved on. Whether you agree or not, the car industry has decided to electrify the automobile, and has accepted that it will take a process of continuous improvement to bring the cars up to standards.

The industry, after actively embracing the opposition, has now concluded that global warming is real. And it believes that oil has or will soon peak. We don't have an indefinite IC option. We don't even have a clear path to meeting the global oil demand that is right now being predicted for just a few years hence.

A few quibbles about the report: Nissan had 115,000 Leaf pre-orders when it started taking reservations, double the 56,000 cited in the report. And the conclusions of the National Academy of Sciences report were rigorously disputed, with critics charging that it was prepared by fuel-cell advocates at war with the battery electric.

According to Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.org, which promotes plug-in hybrids, "This report is an incendiary tool that others are using to undermine support for PHEVs and EVs. Its science and economics need to be refuted -- and its implications need to be responded to publicly and politically."

Photo: Flickr/Cliff1066