March has brought beautiful spring weather to most of the United States, but electric car manufacturers have only gotten bad news. GM announced it was halting production of their electric Chevrolet Volt due to low demand. This comes with the laying off of 1300 employees, whom GM says will be rehired when Volt production resumes. On the luxury side, Tesla Motors posted a net loss for the 4th quarter of $81.49 million. And just yesterday, A123 Systems announced a recall of some of their batteries used in certain electric cars, another example of highly-visible bad press that only hurts the image of electric cars. And this is all, of course, part and parcel of the bigger issue: all-around low sales.
So is this a sign that electric cars are over before they began? Have they been revealed as more of a pipe-dream than a feasible reality? Although some are quick to jump on the cynical bandwagon and hail their demise, some good news can be found regarding the future of electric cars, as well as some explanations as to why their failure now does not mean a lack of future success.
One issue plaguing both current and potential electric car owners is the lack of charging stations, the “gas pumps” of electric cars. Currently, you can barely drive more than five miles in most parts of the U.S. without coming upon a gas station. However, charging stations are few and far between (less than 10,000 total in the entire country), meaning without extra batteries to replace those depleted, electric car owners are limited in their driving range, especially in terms of charging vehicles safely. Recent research shows, in fact, that most electric car owners charge at home, and don’t extend their car trips too far. There may be good news on the horizon, however, as a recent deal between California Public Utilities Commission and NRG Energy to build a comprehensive EV charging station network in California. This is one of the larger pushes for publicly available charging stations, though similar efforts have cropped up in cities like Portland, OR and Manassas, VA.
The move in California and other places shows that despite slow sales out of the gate, there are those dedicated to making electric cars a viable alternative to gasoline and hybrid models. Like many infrastructure-affecting innovations, lots of time and capital is needed to become not just environmentally-effective, but cost-effective as well. The market for electric vehicles is still young and untested. But investments from both federal and local governments will be needed to provide the support necessary for electric cars to not just be a specialized product, but a truly viable alternative, which requires major shifts in infrastructure, public perception, and social norms.