Thinking Tech

Will drivers ever embrace the electric car?

Will drivers ever embrace the electric car?

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Surveys have suggested people will want electric cars when the technology becomes cost efficient. But is it enough?

Every now and then a big name automaker dazzles the public by unveiling a electric car concept that it confidently feels represents its vision of the future. Last year, it was Jaguar showing off the C-X75. And just last week, BMW gave us all a tantalizing glimpse of their latest model, the i3 sports car. Yet despite all the hoopla surrounding each of these announcements, the fact remains that consumers simply aren't ready to ditch their gas guzzlers.

So if sexier electric cars aren't enough, just what will it take? Surveys have suggested that the turning point may occur when the technology becomes cost efficient compared to all the other transportation options out there. For instance, back in April, the consulting firm Deloitte surveyed 12,000 people, 1,000 of which were Americans, and found that 78% of Americans would consider buying an EV if gas prices reached $5 a gallon.

Now a new study conducted by the Harvard Kennedy school of government puts the dollar figure closer to $4.50, which means we might be near the tipping point. Drivers in Chicago, where gas is most expensive, are already filling up at a rate of 4.07 a gallon. So just about any day now we should see EVs flooding the streets, right?

Numerical price points are alluring because they do a nifty job of simplifying matters, but they also often belie the fact that there are, of course, numerous caveats (as is the case with so many of these reports). The study's authors reached this magical number by conducting a long-term analysis of purchase, operations, and maintenance costs to determine at which point would electric vehicles be competitive with conventional ones. But this includes taking into account the expectation that EVs will offer a much improved per-charge driving range and are much less expensive then they are now -- selling points that may still be a long time coming.

    According to the Deloitte survey, over 77% are looking to spend less than $30,000 on an electric vehicle and most would require that EVs have a driving range of 200-300 miles on a single charge. It would also have to be able to be fully-recharged within two hours since 60% of Americans said they were unwilling to wait any longer.

    And in a scenario where these per-requisites aren't met, the prospects become much gloomier. A Gallop poll found that 57 percent of those surveyed wouldn't even explore the possibility of buying an “electric car that you could only drive for a limited number of miles at one time” irrespective of how expensive gas prices get. For perspective, the poll suggested that people are more likely to turn to public transportation before looking into electric cars the way the situation is now.

    Still, this seeming reluctance won't stop the major industry players from presenting their own evidence that suggests otherwise. Siemens, an energy and technology conglomerate, recently released an in-house study that they say confirms that electric vehicles like the BMW MINI E, which has an all electric range of 100 miles, has been deemed by test subjects to be "suitable for everyday use."

    Here's the methodology, as explained in a press release:

    Private and commercial users drove 40 MINI E cars on Munich streets over a period of ten months. During the model trial the electric vehicles were driven 300,000 kilometers, with zero emissions. Siemens developed the technology for charging.

    And here are the results of a survey taken after the trial period was completed:

    • 89 percent of private users found the MINI E to be sufficient for day-to-day use.
    • 88 percent of the private users found charging the cars at a charging station (at home or at work) to be more pleasant than driving to a gas station
    • 79 percent of the private users said that environmental friendliness and zero-emissions driving were important advantages of the electric car.
    • 59 percent of the private users would like electric cars to be charged exclusively with electricity from renewable energy sources.

    But even if you gave Siemens the benefit of the doubt, the study's conclusions somehow omits just what what were the kind of concerns reported by those who didn't find the technology to be satisfactory.

    Interestingly enough though, many of the most common criticisms of electric vehicles were highlighted in a recent episode of the popular BBC show "Top Gear" in which host Jeremy Clarkson test drove the Nissan leaf only to experience numerous setbacks and inconveniences, most notably of which involved running out of fuel as he searched feverishly for a spot to recharge his car.

    As expected, the segment promptly drew an angry response from Nissan, which charged that the test was misleading since the vehicle was not fully charged at the onset of the journey. Clarkson has so far refused to apologize and told the AFP, "at no point did we mislead the viewers. Top Gear's job is to say to everybody, 'Just a minute, do not believe (electric cars) can be run as simply as you have been told. Charging them up is a pain in the arse'."

    Watch the video:

    Anyway, this has the makings of a controversy. What do you think?

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    Tuan Nguyen

    Contributing Editor

    Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure