Economy of scale and innovation don’t favor the battery-powered. .
Electrics are slowly gaining a foothold, but there are still only about 250,000 of them on the American roads. That’s a fair number of cars. But GM started making its first commercially available electric car, the EV1, in 1996.
In June 2014 alone, Americans registered 1.4 million cars and trucks, on the way to about 16 million for the year. When you think the average car on the road is 11.4 years old and there are 253 million of them, those 250,000 electrics start to look like a mighty small fraction.
In fact, during 18 years of commercial production, they’ve captured just under 0.1 percent of the market.
So why are electric cars oddballs? You might not realize it, but they’re not new technology, not by a long shot. They developed side-by-side with the gas (and steam) engine in the 1890s, and as cars started to catch on in the Oughts, in places like New York, Boston and Chicago electrics accounted for a solid third of cars sold. Gas came in last place as steam was generally in first with about 50 percent of the market.
Into the Teens, a vast infrastructure developed around electrics, with about 2,000 charging stations along the Washington-to-Boston corridor. If there were approximately 450,000 cars registered in 1910 (a figure that was starting to explode with the Model T Ford), that’s one station per every 225 cars!
According to the EPA, there are about 9,000 public charging stations today, one for every 28,000 cars. The ratio of stations per mile of road is even worse.
What electric cars had 100 years ago that they don’t now was a pure mechanical advantage. They were simpler and easier to operate, and most of all, far more efficient than the the average gas engine.
One hundred years ago, you were lucky to see a double digit MPG (another key to the Model T’s success was up to 20 MPG). Additionally, few people took long trips, conditions which favored the simplest solution.
The efficiency piece is key in understanding electrics’ downfall in the late Teens—and why they suck today. The electric powertrain as a concept debuted highly developed. In 1900, internal combustion was still an evolving field, but batteries had been around since the late 1700s and electric trolleys were in widespread use by the Civil War. Putting together these already-mature technologies leapfrogged the competition.
That same maturity became a problem, though, because gasoline is a perfect fuel. It’s a matter of what’s called energy density: A gallon of gas weighs 6.2 pounds and contains an immense amount of energy.
A 6.2-pound battery is not going to take you very far. Even worse, the first ounce of gas in your tank is just as good as the last one, while batteries drop off fast as they get low.
Today, electric powertrains operate at something like 50 percent efficiency, meaning 50 percent of the energy that goes in ends up moving the car forward. That’s a terrific number, especially when you consider gas engines are at about 35 percent. Five years ago, however, gas engines were at about 30 percent...and electrics were at 50 percent.
Batteries and motors can and will be made more efficient, but it’s a long, slow process for very expensive and incremental gains, one that requires the death of many pandas (see last month’s “Airbag”).
Gas engines, made in the millions every month, benefit from a fast feedback cycle (many changes can quickly be introduced and evaluated) and billions and billions of dollars of revenue. The curve of improvement does not favor the electric.
A Ford Fiesta with a gas engine and no hybrid anything is rated at 43 MPG highway. You can go 300 (at a stretch) miles without worrying about the battery and fill up anywhere you like, with a sticker price of $14,000.
You need $8,000 more to get into an all-electric Nissan Leaf or Mitsubishi i-MiEV and you’ll hate every minute in them. You need to buy a $70,000 Tesla to have a really nice pure electric. How can they compete?
I actually like electric cars. They’re neat. But while gas is still cheap and plentiful; and gas engines continue to get better faster, electrics will continue to be the past, not the future.