With gas prices soaring and petroleum supplies dwindling, the electric car, at first glance, seems like a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, many obstacles still stand in the way of electric vehicles (or EVs) gaining widespread public acceptance and a competitive place in the market. While the challenges facing the EV are widespread and complex, advances in technology bring us closer to a future where the EV will replace the petrol car entirely. Given our unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels, it seems more a case of when, rather than if, the EV takes the lead.
One of the biggest hurdles to the public acceptance of wholly electric vehicles is the expense.
Even hybrid cars are considered a boutique item in the automotive market, a privilege of higher-income families, while the majority of car owners are stuck with older, cheaper, gas-burning cars.
EVs are expensive even when compared with new petrol cars, which can be a deal-breaker when deciding on a vehicle purchase: what consumer wants to pay all that extra money for a car that is, ultimately, more limited than a gasoline burner?
While the niche market status of the electric car makes it difficult for them to meet the same price point as more common vehicles, companies like Tesla have tried to abrogate the expense by offering loan programs to potential purchasers, as well as offering better residual values on the resale of EVs. It’s governments, however, who are leading the charge in trying to offset the high costs of plug-in vehicles. Countries across Europe are offering financial incentives, from direct subsidies to tax exemptions, but thus far these schemes don’t appear to have done much to boost demand.
The major expense of the electric car doesn’t lie in the framework of the vehicle itself, but in the battery.
The lack of a standardized battery design, as well as the low volume in which EV batteries are produced, makes them prohibitively expensive. The batteries in the Chevy Volt, for example, cost $8,000, and the battery for the Nissan Leaf a staggering $12,000 by itself — nearly the cost of a gas-burning car itself.
The massive cost of the batteries is probably the greatest challenge the EV industry faces – manufacturers have no choice but to pass those expenses on to consumers.
Considering the inherent risks already present in adopting such a nascent technology, it’s easy to understand why consumers are so hesitant.
Aside from the simple issue of expense, concerns have also been raised about the longevity of current batteries. Recently, Tesla made headlines when it responded to John Broder’s criticism of its Model S vehicle’s inferior range by posting the car’s data logs.
While the data rebutted the most extreme criticism of the Tesla’s battery life and travel range, the fact remains that EV batteries are still more expensive than regular car batteries, and short-lived in comparison to gas-burning vehicles. In fact, the batteries are so expensive that they must be leased up front when the vehicles are purchased, and require expensive maintenance to swap out.
To offset this expense, some have proposed that electric cars be redesigned to make the battery more accessible, making the vehicle itself more “user-friendly” and lowering the cost of maintenance. While this does nothing to address the relatively steep expense of EV batteries themselves, there are some encouraging advances in lithium-ion batteries, which could eventually replace the more costly and less efficient lithium-sulfide batteries, both improving performance and making EVs more cost-effective.
Finally, there’s the problem of infrastructure.
There simply isn’t enough support in place for EVs to go mainstream. While you can find a gas station on nearly every city block and all along the major highways, finding a proper charging station for an EV is still a rare sight. This makes longer journeys problematic for EV owners, possibly confining them to urban areas and shorter trips, and cementing the EV’s reputation as an inferior transportation choice.
While home charging stations are common for owners of EVs, developing public infrastructure for EVs is critical to gaining equal footing with petrol cars. While EVs have an advantage in that they can use existing the electrical grid for charging, updates to the existing infrastructure must still be made. Advances in inductive charging (the use of an electromagnetic field to charge EVs without a cord) may be a path to making public charging easier, and charging stations can already be found at many taxi stands and bus stations. Until that network is more expansive, though, drivers just won’t be able to travel in confidence.
While the electric vehicle is still struggling for a competitive edge in the automotive marketplace, technological and infrastructure developments are constantly working toward its future. As fossil fuels decline and become more expensive, necessity will once again become the mother of invention and make the affordable, reliable EV a reality