Electric cars: Lagging, despite a strong push

Sales have been lower than what politicians had hoped for under 1 per cent of new vehicles
Last Updated 11 February 2013, 18:59 IST

When Patrick Langevoort’s company issued him an electric vehicle two years ago, the first months were filled with misadventure: He found himself far from Amsterdam, with only a 25 percent charge remaining, unable to find the charging point listed on a map. Though the car was supposed to travel 140 km on a full battery, he discovered that cold weather and fast driving decreased that range.

But electric vehicles have improved, the network of charging stations in the Netherlands has expanded and drivers like Langevoort are getting used to the particularities of electric driving.

“I used to be a real petrol head,” said Langevoort, who works for a company that manages electricity networks. “Now, I’ve sold my petrol car.”

Although a number of European countries and a few US states are aggressively promoting the use of electric vehicles to reduce planet-warming emissions and pollution, the Netherlands provides perhaps the ultimate feasibility test. If electric vehicles catch on anywhere, it should be here: a small country – about 100 miles east to west – with gas prices of about $8.50 a gallon and a long tradition of environmental activism.

To encourage electric driving, the country is developing a rapidly expanding national grid of charging stations in cities and along highways; and Amsterdam offers owners of electric vehicles free street parking and charging. With hefty tax breaks, promotional leases and cheaper operating costs because there is no need to buy fuel, the vehicles offer driving costs no more than those of conventional cars, some analysts say.

The number of plug-in electric vehicles in the Netherlands soared eightfold to about 7,500 last year, and charging posts dot the sidewalks.

“In a few countries you’re starting to see a number of EVs on the road, especially in capital cities; they’re very visible,” said Peder Jensen, a transportation expert at the European Environment Agency.

Yet experiments with the cars in the Netherlands and Denmark also underscore the challenges facing this new technology. Sales have been lower than politicians and automakers hoped, representing under 1 percent of new vehicles, even here.

“It seems that the industry has not convinced consumers that they can do this,” Jensen said. “If they fail over the next few years, I think investors will pull out, and that will be a problem.”

Last year 120,000 plug-in electric vehicles were sold globally, according to a recent report by Pike Research, an industry analyst group, which predicts 40 percent annual growth between now and 2020. In 2012, 52,000 were sold in the United States, which now has 12,000 charging stations, according to the automotive consulting firm J.D. Power; but they are dispersed over a large area. Those statistics include pure electric cars and plug-in hybrids, which can run on gas or propane once the battery loses power.

Though many analysts had assigned electric vehicles to the second-car niche, a 2012 survey of Dutch drivers of the cars by the consulting firm Accenture found that most of them ended up being used as a family’s primary vehicle.

Range anxiety

Drivers learned to figure out how far they could drive on a charge, overcoming what has been dubbed “range anxiety.” They started off cautiously driving straight from home to the office, knowing they could charge at one or both sites. Over time, they expanded their driving repertoire, learning where to find charging points in garages and along highways – a smartphone app contains them all – much as people learn the locations of convenient ATMs. That task was made easier by the growing number of chain stores and restaurants offering parking spots with charging outlets, so that customers can refuel while they dine or shop. Still, a layer of complexity limits acceptance.

“There’s still some planning; it’s a bit like a puzzle,” said Maarten Noom, an Accenture consultant who drives an electric vehicle. “It’s not the same ease of mind as with a gas car.”

Noom, for example, charges at his office and overnight at home, but he switches to a gasoline car when his appointments are scattered around the Netherlands, since he sometimes drives hundreds of miles in a day. Charging at home uses low voltage and takes four to eight hours. New high-voltage rapid charging stations give an 80 percent charge in 20 to 30 minutes, but they are costly to install and still rare.

Langevoort, the electricity company manager, says he now leaves for work later because his Opel Ampera’s charge goes further as the day warms.

Some electric car leasing programmes here provide free or discounted gas vehicles for those who want to take a weeklong driving vacation around Europe.

Many experts say the lack of a uniform business model in the fledgling market is also a hindrance. Contracts for charging are sometimes purchased along with the car and tied to a particular charging network, much as cellphones are linked to a certain carrier. What is more, the penetration of the various networks varies depending on the region, and technology is not always interchangeable.

In Europe, the charging network run by New Motion delivers electricity from pumplike devices. One rival, Better Place, offers swap stations where drivers get a fresh battery in addition to charging points. In the United States, SAE International, an organization of scientists and vehicle engineers, recently adopted a standard charging plug nationwide so that most electric vehicles can use any charging station. But some companies, like Tesla Motors, operate closed networks of high-performance “superchargers.”

“That type of uncertainty is also unsettling to customers,” said Mike Omotoso, a senior manager of forecasting at LMC Automotive, a market research firm. “There’s a Wild West feel, with a lot of companies jumping in. But ultimately there will be a shakeout and consolidation.”

In many European countries there is a good financial case for driving electric. In Denmark, taxes on new luxury cars can be 200 percent of the sticker price, whereas electric vehicles come tax-free. In the Netherlands, gas costs about five times as much as the electricity needed for a similar journey.

While there are some tax breaks for electric vehicle purchases in the United States, the Obama administration has relied more on exhortation to make electric vehicles “as affordable and convenient as gasoline-powered cars in the next 10 years.” Last month, the Energy Department announced its Workplace Charging Challenge, in which Google, Verizon, Eli Lilly, Nissan and other companies pledged to put charging infrastructure in at least one major office.

Jensen, of the European Environment Agency, said a big infusion of money could be needed to improve infrastructure in those countries seeking to increase the use of electric vehicles.

When he looked into buying an electric car, the charging system would not fit in his garage, Jensen said, and few are willing to drive around Europe with a trunk full of adapters.

“I think the companies who will win are not necessarily the ones that have the best technology, but the ones that form the best alliances,” he said. “It you have a mobile phone – and even more a car – the most important thing is that you can use it wherever you go.”

(Published 11 February 2013, 18:59 IST)

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