NPR Not Plugged In to All the Facts on Electric Vehicles

A recent story on NPR’s Morning Edition about plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) misses the mark. At C2ES, we don’t believe PEVs are the single answer to our transportation energy security and environmental problems, but we think they could make a contribution if they’re given a fair shot. That’s why we started an initiative on PEVs almost a year ago to take a practical look at the challenges and opportunities of PEV technology.

First, the story mentions plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) like the Chevrolet Volt at the outset, but then ignores how that vehicle type overcomes the problem at the heart of the story – range anxiety. The fear of being stranded due to inadequate driving range and deficient charging infrastructure is a legitimate critique of battery electric vehicles (BEVs). BEvs are battery-only vehicles, i.e. they cannot run on gasoline. But, the Volt and soon-to-be-released Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid can run on gasoline or electricity and have the same range as a conventional car. You can travel 25 to 50 miles in a Volt or up to 15 miles in a plug-in Prius without using gasoline and then rely on gasoline to fuel the rest of your trip. It’s difficult to estimate how many trips these electric-only ranges will accommodate, but a plug-in hybrid overcomes the need for a consumer to make that determination. In case you’re wondering, the average car trip length is 9.34 miles according to the National Household Transportation Survey.

Second, the story provides evidence that the PEV market is struggling to gain its footing. It is true that market growth is slow and that it is unclear whether PEVs will be a mass-market vehicle in the near future. However, the PEV market is already off to a better start than the last alternative vehicle to hit the mass market. When the hybrid electric Toyota Prius (HEV) hit the U.S. market more than 10 years ago, it sold less than 6,000 units. (HEVs have batteries, but they can’t be plugged in and can’t go as far on electricity as PHEVs). Combined, the LEAF and Volt have already sold 13,000 through October, despite the impact of the tsunami in Japan on Nissan’s production capacity and the retooling of the General Motors facility that makes the Volt.

Third, NPR’s visit to the Henry Ford Museum is perplexing. Yes, battery electric vehicles were around 100 years ago and consumers decided on the internal combustion engine because it provided the range they desired at a cost they could afford. It is also true that some of the benefits PEVs provide today are the same reason folks liked the battery-powered cars of the early 1900s – they run quietly and they don’t emit harmful pollutants. That is where the similarities end. The battery-powered vehicle was absent from the marketplace for so long because the technology didn’t exist for these cars to adequately compete with conventional vehicles. The story concludes that not much has changed in 100 years. I think the thousands of engineers and scientists that work on battery and vehicle technology would strongly disagree with that. Recent years have seen tremendous advances in battery systems that have changed the game. Also, where our oil came from and the quality of our air were not major public issues in the early 1900s. Nowadays, energy security, local air quality, and global climate change are important concerns that PEVs can help to address.

The story is right about some of the challenges for battery electric vehicles, like the Nissan LEAF. They are range limited, but there are many consumers for whom a limited range is all they need.  And LEAFs face the same primary issue that all PEVs face – a high upfront cost. It’s unclear whether the industry will succeed in driving down the costs of PEVs to make them competitive with conventional vehicles at the dealership, but the total cost of ownership of a PEV may already be advantageous for some because the fuel and maintenance costs are low compared to competing conventional vehicles. Regarding range, research shows that range anxiety is something consumers overcome quickly. Despite what the story asserts, people don’t need to fully understand how a technology works in order to rely on it and are quite accustomed to technology changing how they live their lives. The “magic” inside a smart phone, the personal computer, the modern conventional vehicle, and almost everything else people buy today did not prevent them from mass adoption.

In the end, PEVs may not fit everyone’s needs but we don’t need to have every car run on electricity-fueled batteries to achieve our energy security and environmental goals. Our research shows we can get very far down the emissions curve using a mix of conventional technology, alternative fuels, a more efficient transportation system, and better land-use planning. PEVs can play a role so long as we take the steps needed to give the market a fair shot. NPR’s nationwide audience deserves a more comprehensive look at PEVs, the opportunities they present, and the challenges they face.

Nick Nigro is a Solutions Fellow at C2ES.