The 2016 Chevy Volt & Chevy Bolt news has woken up conventional media a bit. As one sign of that, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune (a member of the editorial board, actually) recently reached out to me to ask me a bunch of questions about electric vehicles. Naturally, I had a lot to say. As you could probably guess, the article ended up being a fairly generic one about modern electric vehicles, some of their advantages and limitations, and the future of the technology. It’s the same sort of thing you see over and over again in the mass media, with many of the same cliches. I’ll say that the article did seem to get its facts straight, at least, and on the whole, it was definitely above average for a mass-media electric vehicle article (imho). The reporter who contacted me seemed very interested and eager to learn as much as possible. I guess that’s how he ended up on the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune. The article ended up being published by the editorial board, but I’m not sure how much input other members of the editorial board had.
Anyhow, as is always the case, only a few of the things I wrote ended up in the article. While I was noted to be an EV evangelist, I was actually the only one quoted in the article (iirc — I can’t see the article now without becoming a subscriber), so thanks to the Chicago Tribune for that. It seems a bit weird to be called an “EV evangelist,” even though I guess I am one. I see myself more as an auto-market realist, much as people early to see that cell phones or the Internet were the future were eager to talk with others about this. The idea of “cell phone evangelists” or “Internet evangelists” seems weird, and the idea of “EV evangelists” seems weird in the same way, to me. But we’re getting into pedantics….
Since I think the stuff I wrote was worth sharing, and since I think the reporter/editor asked some very good questions (especially for those not already well aware of modern EVs), I’ve decided to share all of the questions and answers here (with only some minor formatting changes). Check them out, and share with friends:
Chicago Tribune editor: I’m intrigued by the Bolt announcement and want to give readers some perspective on the reality of EV vs. the hype.
How big a deal is the Bolt? What’s it really going to take for EV to go mainstream? Or do you think another alternative fuel (hydrogen?) will win out?
Me: Electric vehicles would already work well for the majority of people, and I think be even more convenient and pleasurable for them. However, we stick to habits and technologies we are familiar with. For a technology to really be “disruptive,” as the economists say, it has to be much better and the same price. In the case of EVs, I think this means the same upfront price (not cost of ownership price)… simply because of how people approach purchases.
This is already the case for a lot of people. The top-selling Nissan LEAF, for example, costs $29,010, or $21,510 after the US federal tax credit for EVs, or even $19,010 if you live in California and can also take advantage of the state’s $2,500 EV rebate. The average price of a new car sold in the US is now around $31,000–$32,000. Meanwhile, electric vehicles come with at least 8 big benefits, including the tremendous convenience of charging at home while you sleep or hang out with family & friends (never going to the gas station is awesome!) and their instant torque (awesome acceleration).
However, most people really don’t understand this, and they are often turned away from EVs due to “range anxiety anxiety” — not real-world range anxiety, which is hugely hyped but would be irrelevant for most people, but just the fear that they will have range anxiety. To put this into a little context, I saw a study showing that most EV drivers planned to charge their cars every night, but they quickly realized that wasn’t even necessary and started charging them every other night.
The Bolt is a very big deal… and it’s not. The thing is, several major manufacturers have said that long-range, affordable electric cars are right around the corner. (For context, the Nissan LEAF has 84 miles of range per full charge, while the Bolt is reportedly going to have over 200 miles for a similar price.) Tesla Motors has long planned the release of a long-range, affordable EV in 2017 or 2018 — the Tesla Model 3 — but no other automaker has announced a name or date for such a car, until GM announced the Bolt. So, that’s big news. Furthermore, GM released an actual demo/concept version of the Bolt, which even Tesla hasn’t done with the Model 3. That said, it seems very clear that Nissan and Volkswagen are planning to roll out an affordable, long-range EV around the same time, if not even sooner, based on recent statement by top executives at those companies. BMW is probably aiming for that as well, and I would be surprised if other major manufacturers are. But with GM beating everyone else to an auto show with a concept EV like the Bolt, I’d say that it is taking a big step forward and putting a lot of pressure on these other manufacturers. From what I can tell, all of the ones mentioned above believe that electric vehicles are the future of passenger cars.
I definitely don’t see any other fuel competing with battery-electric vehicles in the coming decade or two. I could write a book about why hydrogen is a lame and counterproductive solution that will not catch on in the coming two decades at least, but others have already done that and I don’t see the need right here. 😀
Chicago Tribune editor: Concerning EV: How long will it take a Bolt or Tesla to charge to go 200 miles? Does that make the Bolt potentially the first truly mainstream EV?
Charge time varies a lot depending on the charger used, or if the car is just plugged into the wall like a vacuum cleaner or your smartphone is. With the fastest chargers, by 2017, I think a 200-mile EV will be able to charge in under 20 minutes. However, most charging is done at night. All you have to do is plug in when you get home and unplug when you leave in the morning. And robots or wireless charging devices have been developed, and will continue to be improved, that could well handle those 5 seconds of inconvenience for you.
Chicago Tribune editor: Where do you think we’re actually going? What will it the market look like in 10 or 20 years? How efficient will EV be and how mainstream? What technologically has to happen? Do you have to be able to charge up in 10 minutes anywhere? Or will the reality look different?
These are great questions, and I think they show you are generally interested in the matter. I was writing about EVs for a long time before I drove one. Based on logic, they seemed like the future of cars. But once I drove one, I knew they would be the future. They are simply better in so many respects. I look at a gasmobile the way I look at a landline telephone, or a film camera… or something even worse, since gasmobiles are actually harmful, not just inconvenient and clunky.
I’ve laid out 8 big benefits of EVs that I think will drive their mass adoption within the next 5–10 years. Some of those include the tremendous convenience of charging at home (imagine the hours, or days, saved by not going to the gas station); the instant torque, or in human terms, much better acceleration; the smoother and quieter ride; the financial savings; the potential energy independence (especially if you have solar panels on your roof); and the big health and environmental benefits.
I think the #1 barrier to mass adoption is now simply lack of awareness and lack of experience. I don’t think those would be overcome with the current technology and crop of electric cars, but a lot of progress is being made. I do think they will be quickly overcome in around 2017 or 2018. I think that’s when a tipping point will really occur. Again, if you look at cell phones, they were “too expensive” or “cool, but not necessary” for awhile after they were really competitive. People had a hard time adjusting to the idea that they didn’t need landlines. But then, pow, all of a sudden, everyone had a cell phone. It happens with technology after technology — cassette tapes, CDs, digital cameras, laptops, cell phones, smartphones, dishwashers, etc. I’m definitely convinced it will happen with electric cars, and before 2020.
Back to charging: No, 10-minute charging won’t be necessary at all. The need for public EV charging stations is massively overhyped, in my opinion. They are helpful, but they won’t inspire the shift to EVs and they aren’t holding it back. That said, I think we will have a lot more public EV charging stations by 2017. Also, important to remember, electric cars can charge with the simple electrical sockets that we use to charge our phones.
Chicago Tribune editor: I don’t understand the charging station equation. Do we need ubiquitous charging stations to make EV a reality? The story so far is they aren’t successful and require government funding.
Are you concerned about the low cost of gas hurting development?
I do think the low cost of gas is currently keeping electric car sales a bit lower than they would have been. However, the really big selling points of EVs are that 1) they are much better, safer, and more fun to drive, and 2) they are much more convenient than gasmobiles. The ability to save money and become energy independent is also big, but I think it’s primarily those other two points that are driving sales right now and will drive the next wave of electric car purchases. Nonetheless, in 2017, when EVs are much cheaper than gasmobiles and have those other benefits above, and are much better for our health and the environment (which they are today), then I think there’s no way the auto industry won’t transition and move beyond gasmobiles back to electric cars (where we started over a century ago).
Chicago Tribune editor: How many EV (plug-in and full electric) models are on sale today?
Chicago Tribune editor: How many do you expect by 2018 or so?
I expect well over 50 by 2018 (maybe 70?), but that’s a hard question, as it relies on manufacturers really changing their businesses.
Chicago Tribune editor: In a sentence, why is hydrogen not an option? Is there another technology out there?
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles don’t have the excellent performance benefits of battery-electric cars, are absurdly expensive to produce (with almost no chance of that changing a lot in the coming decade or two), and are much “dirtier” when it comes to environmental matters (the Prius is cleaner).
Images by GM