Electric car has recently become a viable alternative for the average consumer. Along with hybrid vehicles, most manufacturers offer some type of alternative fuel vehicle in their product line. The feasibility that alternative vehicles will replace combustion engines, however doesn't appear to be happening anytime soon. This raises the question that will be explored in this paper, of whether or not electric cars are a real industry or merely greenwash for manufacturers.
History of Electric Cars
Electric vehicles are far from a new concept in transportation. In fact, the first electric carriage was built by a Scottish inventor in 1832 using a crude non-rechargeable battery ("Timeline"). Thomas Davenport is credited as having built the first electric vehicle in 1835, a small electric locomotive, and William Morrison built the first successful electric car in 1891, more than a hundred years ago ("Timeline"). The electric vehicle is not new technology, as many may believe, and in fact in 1900 28% of all automobiles were powered by electricity ("Timeline"). It wasn't until Thomas Ford mass produced the gasoline powered Model-T that gas powered vehicles became standard changing the course of the American automotive industry ("Timeline"). By 1920, Americans desired to travel longer distances, needed cars with more horsepower and had easy access to gasoline which effectively put the electric car out of business ("Timeline").
It wasn't the end of the electric car but the technology necessary to produce electric vehicles capable of competing with gasoline powered cars would take another fifty years. The advantages of the electric car over gasoline powered cars have always been recognized, but it wasn't until 1966 that Congress introduced the earliest bills recommending the use of electric vehicles to reduce pollution ("Timeline"). The 1970's brought soaring oil prices and a growing environmental movement which encouraged the production of several hybrid and electric cars that were produced and used briefly ("Timeline"). In 1988 GM built the EV1 which was GM's practical electric consumer vehicle, however it was speculated that this was never a serious venture by GM and the cars were eventually pulled from production ("Timeline").
The world's first commercially mass-produced electric vehicle, the Prius, was introduced by Toyota for the Japanese market in 1997. The U.S. market saw a few electric vehicles come on the market in the following decade however they were typically only available for lease. High gas prices in the last few years along with a change in U.S. leadership has provided more funding for electric and hybrid cars and many hybrid models have been introduced into the U.S. market. A global interest in electric and hybrid vehicles in recent years has created more funding and research for the technology, however the high cost of manufacturing the cars and limited travel range are still issues for consumers that will need to be addressed before widespread adoption of electric cars is likely to happen ("Timeline").
III. The Electric Car Industry
The Environmental Push to Go Green
Some of the barriers to the evolving electric and hybrid vehicle industry are the same as they have always been: high manufacturing costs, lack of infrastructure (fueling stations), and limited traveling distance. The recent global mandates on lowering CO2 emissions and the U.S. And Britain's goals for putting more electric and hybrid cars on the road have increased funding and incentives for alternative fuels in the U.S. And Europe. This has spurred all of the major automakers into adding electric or hybrid cars to their line-ups.
In September 2009 the European Union and the G8 leaders set a goal to achieve an overall 80% decarbonization by 2050 that will require a portfolio of advanced powertrains including battery-electric (BEV), plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) and fuel-cell-electric (FCEV) vehicles, according to a detailed study by a consortium of 30 organizations, including major automotive OEMs, energy providers, oil and gas companies, and government and non-government organizations ("Major Study"). The study is titled "A portfolio of powertrains for Europe: a fact-based analysis" and compares the economics, sustainability and performance of fuel cell, battery-electric, hybrid-electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles in achieving the decarbonization goal ("Major Study"). The study concluded that the costs of initial start-up will ultimately marginalize with the reduction in battery and fuel cell costs, economies of scale and potentially increasing costs for fossil fuels and ICE specifications ("Major Study").
The technologies necessary to achieve the goals set by the EU will need to be varied. Over the next 40 years, the study found, no single powertrain satisfies all key criteria for economics, performance and the environment ("Major Study"). The world is therefore likely to move from a single powertrain (ICE) to a portfolio of powertrains in which BEVs and FCEVs play a complementary role: BEVs are ideally suited to smaller cars and shorter trips; FCEVs to medium/larger cars and longer trips; with PHEVs an attractive solution for short trips or where sustainably produced biofuels are available ("Major Study"). The study also details the next steps, noting that investment cycles in energy infrastructure are long and suggesting that BEV and FCEV infrastructure and scale-up should be initiated as soon as possible in order to develop these technologies as material transportation options beyond 2020 ("Major Study").
Infrastructure and long distance travel have long been deterrents to widespread development of the electric car however the most recent push to develop electric cars into the mainstream has seen a vast improvement in investment and support from government and private organizations. Large environmentally conscious companies are investing in the technologies and making an effort to promote the use of electric and hybrid cars. Whole Foods Market, the largest retailer of natural and organic foods, with more than 270 stores throughout North America and the UK, has installed its first Coulomb ChargePoint Networked Charging Station for Electric Vehicles (EV) ("Whole Foods"). There may be more businesses to follow suit as many companies have policies designed to lower the impact of operations on the environment, such as allowing employees to work from home a few days a week to lower carbon emissions. There is no longer just a U.S. push to be more environmentally conscious, it is a dominant policy trend for countries around the world seeking cleaner forms of energy and reduced dependence on foreign oil.
Consumers have also had a large impact on the use of energy and environmentally friendly products. The United States used significantly less coal and petroleum in 2009 than in 2008, and significantly more wind power and there was a decline in natural gas use and increases in solar, hydro and geothermal power ("Americans"). The significant decrease in coal used to produce electricity can be attributed to three factors: overall lower electricity demand; a fuel shift to natural gas; and an offset created by more wind power production ("Americans"). This trend shows that as a country the U.S. is moving towards more green energy sources, which could be beneficial to the budding electric and hybrid car industry.
Supply and Demand for Electric and Hybrid Cars
The danger inherent in building the infrastructure first and then waiting for the cars to sell is the possibility that the cars will not sell. The Obama administration's $2.4 billion investment in the development of batteries and other electric-car technology in the United States is an enormous bet on a product that has yet to gain broad commercial success (Kornblut and Whoriskey). Major manufacturers have yet to sell electric cars in the United States and hybrids represent less than 1% of the nation's roughly 250 million-vehicle fleet (Kornblut and Whoriskey). Even some of the U.S. companies that have received the federal grants express concerns that their capacity to build parts for electric cars is far outstripping consumers' demand (Kornblut and Whoriskey).
Even with the government pushing and creating demand through purchasing fleet vehicles, the outlook for electric car demand is slow and uncertain. J.D. Power recently released a report forecasting that hybrid and battery electric vehicles will represent only 7.3% of global auto sales in 2020 ("J.D. Power"). According to the report, it will be difficult to convince large numbers of consumers to switch from conventionally powered passenger vehicles to hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs) and battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) ("J.D. Power"). A consumer migration to alternative powertrain technologies will most likely require either one of the following scenarios, or some combination of these scenarios: A significant increase in the global price of petroleum-based fuels by 2020; a substantial breakthrough in green technologies that would reduce costs and improve consumer confidence; and/or a coordinated government policy to encourage consumers to purchase these vehicles ("J.D. Power").
Consumers have a variety of concerns about HEVs and BEVs and the costs of alternative-energy vehicle were most important to consumer's decision to purchase electric or hybrid cars ("J.D. Power"). While many consumers around the world say they are interested in HEVs and BEVs for the expected fuel savings and positive environmental impact they provide, their interest declines significantly when they learn of the price premium that comes with purchasing these vehicles ("J.D. Power").