Despite the looming bankruptcy of electric carmaker Fisker Automotive, and disappointing sales of electric vehicles across the country, the Obama administration has harnessed some of the country’s top scientists, engineers, economists and auto experts to push electric car use deeper into the fabric of American society.
Among the ideas being considered: new and bigger consumer subsidies for electric-car purchases, stiffer gasoline or carbon taxes, more federal subsidies for electric-car research, more subsidies for public-access battery-charging stations, and even broad, publicly-funded ad campaigns extolling the virtues of cars that the public currently seems disinterested in buying.
Those possibilities, and more, have been rolled out in an 80-page interim report of a committee of the National Academy of Sciences which aims to put intellectual heft, as well as vast amounts of data-collection, behind a U.S. Department of Energy goal of producing -- and selling --electric cars that are “as affordable and convenient for American families as gasoline powered cars” -- by 2022.
In other words, despite the fact that electric cars have so far been largely a flop, the administration is still looking for ways -- backed by government funding and tax policy -- to produce even more of them, and rewire America. And in some critical ways, as the interim study points out, it still isn’t known whether the electric car idea makes any sense.
The interim document was issued without much fanfare by the National Academy on May 14 --just as Delaware-based Fisker was staggering toward bankruptcy. It is the precursor to a much more detailed report on the same topic that is slated to appear a year from now -- just as the 2014 congressional election campaign hits full stride.
Nonetheless, the study asserts that “The electric vehicle offers many promises -- increasing U.S. energy security by reducing petroleum dependence ... stimulating long-term economic growth through the development of new technologies and industries, and improving public health by improving local air quality.” It also helps by “contributing to climate-change initiatives by decreasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions” a course that the Obama administration has strongly committed to through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Both studies are being produced under the auspices of a special 15-member NAS “Committee On Overcoming Barriers to Electric-Vehicle Deployment,” along with a handful of NAS staff, along with about a dozen independent reviewers.
The 2014 report will cherry-pick the policies referenced in the interim document and come up with the “best ways to revise and improve them,” according to last month’s study. It will also take on additional economic and technological “barriers” to PEVs (plug-in electrical vehicles) deployment,” as the document drily describes it, presumably describing the ways to overcome them in significantly more detail.
Those barriers are spectacularly high, as the interim report over and over again admits. Last year -- the best in a half-decade -- Americans bought about 15.3 million new cars and trucks. Of those, less than a half-million were hybrids, which use both gasoline and electrical power sources; and only about 53,000 were all-electric -- though supporters touted that figure as a huge improvement over 2011.
As the National Academy studies notes, one obvious reason is the impressive price difference between all-electric and hybrid autos and the gasoline-powered cars that the vast majority of Americans continue to buy -- despite the $7,500 subsidies offered by the Obama administration.
Using a 2013 Ford model as a basis for comparison, the report notes that the price difference between the plug-in version and the conventional Ford Fusion SE amounts to about $12,000.
There are plenty of other reasons why Americans are not wild about electric cars. Among other things, the interim study notes that Americans don’t know much about them, and what they do know they don’t like, starting with their short -- less than 100 miles -- driving ranges on one electrical charge; lack of widely accessible charging stations, absence of non-specialized repair facilities, lack of standardized plugs, and the frustrating amount of time it can take to fill up on electricity: half an hour even at rare and expensive fast charging stations.
And then there is the time it can take even to buy one, which the report says includes the time it might take for a prospective buyer to inspect his residence to examine the possibility of buying and installing a moderately-fast charger to go with his new auto purchase.
As the report notes, “A process that includes inspecting, costing, permitting and installing can take days or even weeks and add time, multiple cost factors, and uncertainty to the car-buying process.”
Despite all of those very practical impediments, however, the interim study comes up with plenty of potential solutions -- mostly in the form of additional government programs of one kind or another.
To overcome continuing public ignorance of electric cars, the authors suggest “public service announcements that showcase current PEV owners” and “describe the benefits of PEV ownership.” At the same time, the document declares that “few data on customer perceptions, attitudes and behavior regarding PEVs are available,” though the collective authorship believes that “further research could help to determine how to structure effective programs and policies.”
To deal with those still-intimidating higher prices, the study authors suggest that the federal government “continue to provide incentives” such as purchase subsidies as well as slap on further disincentives to conventional auto sales, such as “increasing taxes on motor fuels or by instituting a broad-based carbon tax.”
Another thing that consumers don’t seem to like about electrical vehicles -- their short driving range -- could also be a plus, the study indicates, since 70 percent of Americans average less than 40 miles of travel per day in their cars, and more than 90 percent travel less than 90 miles.
But, in fact, whether Americans are willing to accept those limitations -- on their non-average travel is something the study authors don’t know. As they put it, “few data on customer perceptions, attitudes, and behavior regarding PEVs are publicly available, although some studies have examined those topics, further research could help to determine how to structure effective programs and policies.”
Indeed, the document adds, “Little research has been conducted to determine which government policies concerning PEVs are the most successful and why.”
The biggest good news that the study conveys is that America’s electrical generation capacity can handle any number of new electrical vehicles without additional generating capacity. But how that electricity gets to the cars themselves is another thorny aspect of the problem.
Many cars can be charged simply with household-level current, the study affirms -- but only, it appears, if the individual homeowner has a driveway or a garage. But for those who don’t have those things -- and according to the study, that would be one-third of private homes -- there are problems. People who rent their homes, those who live in apartments, and those who park on the street might find that solution even more “problematic,” the study puts it.
And then there is the cost. Putting in a slightly-stronger than household current charger could cost an average of $1,375 -- over and above the much higher sticker price of the car. And then there is the permit for anyone to do that, which the study estimates could cost anywhere from $50 to $500. One answer, or course, might be to “encourage or subsidize local governments” to establish public charging units on a broad scale.
Higher voltage public outlets -- the equivalent of filling stations -- are another kind of problem. Only about 155 exist in the U.S., according to the study -- most of them in urban areas of Pacific Coast states, various Texas and Tennessee cities, as well as Phoenix and Chicago. In most cases, federal and state governments paid for them.
And they paid, or will pay, a lot. The study estimates that high-speed charging stations would cost anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 -- but that does not include warrantees, maintenance, and safety and security measures, as well as the actual infrastructure to charge customers for the service.
Add those all together, and the three-year cost of these fast battery boosters is more like $109,000 to $122,000, the study says.
And then, how fast is fast? The latest state-of-the-art stations take about a half-hour to put the equivalent of 100 to 150 miles of charge in an electric car. An ordinary gasoline pump might take, say, three to five minutes to put the equivalent of 450 miles range in a conventional auto, making it about 18 times as efficient.
“Electrical ‘gas stations’ would have to be as big as Walmart parking lots to handling all the cars waiting their turn to juice up,” says Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research, a Washington think tank that is sympathetic to the benefits of more traditional U.S. energy sources.
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell.