Feature

Electric cars: A disappointing start

President Obama predicted that 1 million electric cars would be on the road by 2015; last year, American consumers bought only 20,000.

The electric car industry was supposed to spark into life in 2011, said Chris Woodyard in USA Today. But instead, the “plug-in car revolution” began to look like a flop. American consumers bought only 20,000 electric cars last year—far short of the pace expected by President Obama, who predicted that 1 million would be on the road by 2015. General Motors had hoped to sell 10,000 Chevy Volts in 2011, but managed to move only 7,671 vehicles, while Nissan sold 8,720 Leafs. A survey found that just 0.6 percent of Americans would consider buying a Volt, citing its comparatively high $39,995 price, the “hassle and substantial expense” of installing a home charger, and the fact that you can drive only about 25 miles on a charge before the gas engine has to kick in. Clearly, the federal government should stop subsidizing these impractical vehicles, said The Washington Post in an editorial. Despite a $7,500 tax credit for purchasers, electric vehicles remain expensive toys that only the rich can afford. This is an industry that is “not ready for prime time.”

It’s too early to “consign EVs to history’s crusher,” said Peter Gorrie in TorontoStar.com. The Chevy Volt’s sales dropped last year after a battery fire occurred in testing, but they’ve since picked up. Owners praise its smooth, silent operation and cheap running costs. Other major automakers are still pressing ahead with their own electric vehicles, showing that there’s life in the industry yet. Both Ford and Toyota are releasing mass-model EVs this year, and Nissan expects to sell 250,000 Leafs throughout the world by 2014. As batteries improve, and electric cars run longer between charges, interest will continue to grow. It will be years before we know if the electric car has a real future.

Let’s be honest: The Volts and Leafs now on the road are just “pilot projects,” not viable competitors to gas-powered cars, said Bryan Walsh in Time.com. “The car of the future” will need to be cheaper and capable of covering longer distances. That could take years of research and development. But technological revolutions rarely occur in one year, or even five; the dream of greener motoring is far from dead. While electric vehicle sales fizzled in 2011, sales of “small, cheap” cars with great gas mileage, like the Chevy Cruze, boomed. As gasoline gets increasingly expensive, automakers will find a strong market for energy-efficient vehicles, “however they’re powered.”

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