EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 22, 2012

Column: Electric cars fail to electrify buyers

Dale McFeatters
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — For whatever reason, something within the U.S. government doesn’t love gasoline-powered cars, but their owners have resisted efforts by well-meaning bureaucrats and environmentalists to get them to drive less or drive something else.

The alternatives being pushed by the government are cars powered by ethanol or electricity.

Ethanol seems to be self-destructing as an alternative fuel. This year, corn-based ethanol proved to be peculiarly susceptible to a problem that gas-powered cars are not: drought. The drought that afflicted the Corn Belt affected not only ethanol prices but the feed costs for livestock, distorting food prices.

Cheaper sugar-based ethanol could be bought from Brazil and, heaven knows, one day in vast quantities from Cuba, but farm-state politics largely blocked both those avenues.

For years, doom-sayers have been saying that we had to end our “addiction to oil” because we would soon run out and so would the Mideast. Instead, geologists keep finding huge new reservoirs of oil and natural gas. And who knows how much properly run Mexican and Venezuelan oil industries could produce? The Chicken Little argument quickly collapsed.

That leaves EVs — electric vehicles — which, despite billions spent on research money, still have a major drawbacks. The batteries are expensive and need frequent recharging, a serious negative for notoriously impatient U.S. motorists.

The cars themselves are expensive: $39,995 for the Chevrolet Volt and $36,050 for the Nissan Leaf, both of them rather average-looking midsize sedans. The Volt comes with a $7,500 government subsidy that some would like to see raised to $10,000 — in other words, offer motorists a large bribe to buy them.

Sales have been something short of electrifying. According to USA Today, about 26,100 Volts and Leafs have been sold this year, representing about 0.2 percent of vehicle sales.

According to studies done for the industry, buyers of electric cars tend to be “very well-educated, upper-middle-class white men in their early 50s with ideal living situations for EV charging,” meaning the owners had enclosed garages with the proper outlets.

This does not sound like the demographics of your average traffic jam. For the electric car to take off as everyday transportation for the masses, one of two things has to happen: Either the prices must fall precipitously, without the benefits of subsidies our government can no longer afford, or the rest of us must become very well-educated, upper-middle-class white men in our early 50s.

We’re betting on the price coming down.

Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.