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Seven Barriers to the Electric Car

By the end of the year, at least six battery electric and plug-in hybrid cars could be on the road. But will they find buyers? No matter how much environmentalists may like to see zero-emission cars and trucks in every driveway, there's no guarantee that the EV will ever power the auto market.

Here are seven barriers that EVs will have to overcome.

  • Unreasonable expectations. A March survey from Accenture shows that 65 percent of those queried would buy a hybrid or electric car as long as it doesn't sacrifice any of the benefits of the conventional cars they're used to. In fact, they want them to surpass gas vehicles in reliability, performance and affordability. Some 55 percent of respondents said they wouldn't pay a price premium for hybrid cars or battery EVs. When it comes to the first generation of battery cars, this is not going to happen. They will cost more (maybe $40,000 for a Honda Civic-sized EV) and, in many ways, deliver less.
  • Range anxiety. Most EVs will travel 100 miles between charges, and it's unclear if people will accept that. (General Motors cits statistics claiming that most U.S. motorists drive less than 40 miles in their daily commutes.) The few people who have driven battery EVs on a regular basis say that they soon adjust to range limitations, but it remains a hurdle for making a purchase.
  • Unfamiliarity. GM's Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf will get national advertising campaigns but the other players (such as Coda, Wheego and Fisker) are start-ups without such resources. They will be in no position to match the dealer networks of the established players, and Coda is planning to do without dealerships entirely. Customers will be brought in via the internet, then invited to try the cars out at "drive centers" - local businesses that will keep test cars on hand.
  • Availability. Although it isn't well-publicized, few battery EVs will be available nationwide from the outset. The Chevrolet Volt, which also has a gas engine, will be a national car, but the initial markets are California, Michigan and Washington, D.C. Although the Nissan Leaf went on a 24-city national tour, it figures that nationwide distribution could take two years. There will be specific markets that Nissan can support with charging infrastructure. At last count, these were Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Nashville and the Phoenix/Tucson area. The same is true of the Coda (California only initially).
  • Fear. Hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius are not a huge leap from business-as-usual, since they run on pump gasoline and need no special care and feeding. Still, the idea that hybrids needed to be plugged in was oddly persistent. Plug-in hybrids and battery cars do need to connect to wall sockets, and that is a task few Americans have accomplished since the first generation of EVs disappeared in the 1920s. The five-pin EV plug has been standardized (it's called J1772), and carmakers are gearing up education campaigns to familiarize consumers with this new way of driving. Fear of electric shock (either when charging or when the car is in an accident) is one hurdle to get over. Another is cost, since the average home charging installation will be around $2,000 (though there are tax credits to help).
  • Image. The Toyota Prius set an interesting precedent, because its unique styling allowed it to catch on with car buyers who wanted a green image. A Prius in the driveway made a statement in a way that, say, a Honda Civic Hybrid (with identical styling to the conventional Civic) did not. This is actually encouraging for EV sales, since almost all of them are distinctly styled--some, such as the plane-like Aptera, radically so.
  • Uncertain government support. Goosing along initial EV purchases will be a $7,500 federal tax credit, plus a separate credit of up to $2,000 for installing a home charging unit. But the charging credit expires at the end of the year, and the purchase credit might not be renewed. Department of Energy funding was a great help in locating many battery and car manufacturing plants in the U.S., but EV advocates want the government to go much further, not only expanding those grant and loan programs but also buying large numbers of cars for federal fleets. State incentives are a big help, too--California just approved a $5,000 state rebate. But such incentives will not be available across the country, and might be vulnerable to cuts as governments seek ways to reduce costs.
These are big challenges, albiet not impossible ones. But it's important to take them seriously, because as the history of the car industry has shown, nothing is inevitable. There are parallels now to the early 1900s, when gas, electric and steam vied for market share, and people went broke betting on the wrong technology. Hartford-based manufacturer Colonel Albert A. Pope famously said back then, "You can't get people to sit over an explosion," and invested heavily in electric cars. That's why Hartford didn't become Detroit.

So don't take any of this as definitive. I could be as wrong as Colonel Pope.

Photo: Jim Motavalli