Electric Cars Motor Ahead, But Will Consumers Leave Gasoline-Powered Cars Behind?
Then there’s GM’s great hope—the Chevy Volt.
Like the Tesla, the sleek, modern-looking Volt is muscular—273 lb-ft of torque available as soon as you step on the accelerator. Its electric motor turns in performance comparable to a 250-horsepower V6. Right now, the car’s only in initial testing—the journalist who got to drive one of the prototypes said the trim Volt handled like a Cadillac Coupe de Ville—and GM is hoping to roll out 75 “integration vehicles” (the final, pre-production prototypes) over the summer.
Other car companies are working on electrics, too, but these are the three which captured the most attention. One is already in production, and the other two are being tested in final, pre-production stages by major car companies—GM and BMW. So, are electrics about to overcome market resistance?
Not yet. There’s still a huge problem with electrics—the batteries. Not only are they heavy (the Tesla’s battery weighs 992 pounds, or around 8.5 times what 20 gallons of gasoline would weigh), which itself will reduce energy economy—that’s a lot of extra weight to cart around—but they’re bulky, too: the Mini E’s battery costs the car the back seat.
Worse, they take a long time to charge: three to four hours compared to the five minutes it takes to gas up your car. Other schemes to improve battery life or speed recharge (the Volt includes a small gasoline motor whose job is to keep the 40-mile-range battery topped up; a planned Tesla sedan will have fresh battery packs swapped in at special service stations) are either unproven or have their own logistical difficulties. With long charging times and comparatively short ranges, you simply can’t drive electrics like you drive gasoline cars. Instead of the car being a symbol of empowerment or freedom, it becomes a shackle. Your travel and your day would need to be planned around the electric’s limitations.
As James May of British car show Top Gear pointed out while reviewing the Tesla (whose performance he loved), until alternative powertrain vehicles can simply slot into our lives in place of gasoline cars, they’re not going to gain traction. Our lifestyles, our towns and cities, and our roads, are all built around being able to drive frequently, far, and without advance planning. Most people are not going to want to change their lives to suit their vehicles—they’ll buy vehicles that suit their lives. So forget about pennies per mile driving cost or low emissions; the first alternative vehicle technology that can masquerade as a gasoline-engined car will win the race.