25 Jun 2019 17:37 IST

Is the world really ready for electric cars?

The EV market continues to be on life support as companies are investing billions but are losing money heavily

Returning to my car at the Stanford University parking lot in California two weeks ago, I saw something that I don’t often see in my truck-loving home state of Texas. A sleek Tesla S connected to an electric charging station.

The Electric Vehicle (EV) industry says that there are nearly 24,000 such electric charging stations in the US, compared with over 150,000 gas stations which dispense petrol and diesel. The majority of these stations are in the states of California, New York, and a few other big cities, like Chicago and Boston.

The Green Party in Germany made impressive strides in the EU elections last month. Democrats are promising a massive Green New Deal. No matter where you look, politicians are promising voters a future wherein dirty, fossil-fuelled power plants would be retired in favour of electricity generated by wind and solar; and sleek electric vehicles would replace the venerable internal combustion engine. (The rare exception is Australia where the new government heavily won the coal vote in Queensland and just granted the Adani Group final clearances to begin mining in the area.)

The reality

Politicians’ promises are one thing. The reality on the ground is another. For 15 years, governments and environmentalists have tried every trick in the book to push EVs. But the EV market has repeatedly shown that it will collapse without expensive government subsidies. Tesla announced in January that it would stop selling the mass-market Model-3, even as US government rebates dropped from $7,500 to just $3,500. (It continues to sell high-end EVs, which cost over $100,000 each.)

During a visit to Austin a few months ago, a friend proudly drove me around in her Model-3. The car had a huge 9-inch tablet screen in the middle between driver and passenger, with up-to-date data on all of the vehicle’s key functions. Acceleration was super quick, as was regenerative braking. When we pulled into a shopping centre, her husband asked her to demo the auto parking feature. With a click of a button on her iPhone, the car effortlessly backed us into a tight spot between two cars. A Tesla is a superbly-engineered computer on wheels.

Despite all these techno-wonders, there’s a fundamental reason for the EVs’ poor adoption: Driver anxiety. We belong to an era in which we’re worried that our mobile phones would run out of charge, so we carry a spare battery pack with us. What if you’re on the road and your car runs out of juice? GM’s key selling point in launching the Volt, in 2010, was to address this very driver anxiety. If your car ever ran out of charge, a gasoline engine would take you where you wanted to go. This sounded like a win-win and should have placated all the naysayers. Yet, GM announced recently that it is ending production of the Volt altogether, after disappointing sales numbers seven years in a row.

The compromises

My friend told me that she gets a range of 250 miles on a full charge on her Model-3. She spent over $3,000 to have a 220-Volt charging system installed in her garage which allows her Tesla to charge in a few hours. On a traditional 110-Volt system common in US homes, the Model 3 typically takes eight hours to fully charge.

Both of these facts are problems. Around 250 miles is not much if you’re travelling long distances, you’re on a highway and your car is running low on charge. You will then have to spend four-five hours to recharge your car assuming that you will find a commercial charging station with a 220-Volt unit. What do you do during this time? Compare this to a gasoline car which has a range of 500 miles. Gas pumps are practically everywhere and it takes less than five minutes to fill your car up and get right back on the road.

There are other compromises. Consumer Reports magazine, a respected American publication which rates automobile reliability and costs of ownership, ranked Tesla low on both attributes. As cars with IC engines inch towards near perfection — some fuel-injected cars don’t require engine tuneups for 100,000 miles — electric vehicles often require weekly updates of software and appear clunky, by comparison.

On the losing side

And when it comes to hauling loads, electric cars just can’t compete with their gasoline and diesel counterparts. In America, the fastest-selling automobile has long been the pick-up truck or SUV. Cars are so out of favour with Americans that both GM and Ford have said that they will stop car production altogether. Indeed, the only Big-3 automaker which still makes cars is Fiat-Chrysler, borrowing designs from Europe where cars are still very much in vogue.

The EV market continues to be on life support. Companies are investing billions but are losing money heavily. In the 15 years since its existence, Tesla has not made a single dollar of profit.

Electric vehicles are excellent choices for dense urban areas where commutes are shorter than 150 miles round trip. Consumers can take their cars home to charge each night and for really anxious employees, companies could provide free charging stations at work. But electric cars, at least as currently designed, can never be widely adopted by all consumers. Large parts of the world — America, Canada, Australia, Russia, Africa, and West Asia — are too spread out to be appealing markets for EVs.

It’s little wonder then that according to the New York Times, of the more than 270 million registered vehicles in America, only about 1.1 million are electric, with about half of those in California. So much for the exciting promise of the Green New Deal.