Electric car market hits rocky road as initial optimism fades


The road has gotten bumpier for electric cars.

Coda Automotive, one of what had been a promising crop of electric car startups, filed for bankruptcy protection this month, and said it would reorganize around the electric storage market. High-end electric car maker Fisker Automotive, which has had financial woes for months, announced, meanwhile, it was laying off 75 percent of its workforce, raising the prospect of defaulting on U.S. government loans.

Electric cars are still coming to market from luxury maker Tesla, and from major automakers such as General Motors, Nissan and others, but the outlook has become murkier.

Analysts are divided on the outlook, but few believe President Barack Obama’s goal of getting 1 million electric cars on the market by 2015 will be met.

“It’s not like people are clamoring for these vehicles,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with Rebel Three Media.

Lindland said her view that Americans “just don’t see how an electric car can fit into their lifestyle. We continue to be risk-averse in investing in new technology in our cars.”

Mike VanNieuwkuyk of the research firm JD Power & Associates said more people are aware of the electric cars on the market “but there is still a low number of consumers who say they would purchase an electric car.”

A report by JD Power and its partner LMC Automotive found battery-powered vehicles’ share of U.S. auto sales was just 0.08 percent in 2012, and predicts this will reach only 0.47 percent by 2015.

Only about 3 percent in the survey said their next vehicle would likely have a battery-electric powertrain.

VanNieuwkuyk said consumers are held back by a lack of plug-in charging stations, concerns about the range of the vehicle before it needs recharging, and especially the high cost.

At the same time, the analyst said, gasoline-powered cars “are improving enough to meet the needs of the consumer,” without the price tag of electric cars.

Jason Kavanagh, engineering editor at the research firm Edmunds.com said recent surveys suggest pure electric vehicles are unlikely to get past 1 percent of the U.S. market, even by 2040. The lack of range and long recharging times are key factors.

“Sitting around for eight hours waiting for your (Nissan) Leaf to charge up is not exactly a selling point,” he said. “EVs have a sitting-on-your-ass factor that conventional cars do not.”

More important, said Kavanagh, is that the U.S. electric power system cannot support large numbers of electric vehicles which need constant charging.

“The U.S. power grid is not capable of supporting that,” he said. “You would need a multitude of small nuclear power stations to support that recharging.”

Kavanagh of Edmunds.com said beneficiary of the trend will likely be hybrids, which use both gasoline and electric power, and charge during driving.

“We’re going to see a big jump in hybrids, which can take advantage of the infrastructure we have,” he said.

Kavanagh said he expects hybrids may become more attractive in the coming years “because they will become more capable in range and more cost-effective.”

  • BrianKeez

    After 43,000 miles in my all electric Nissan LEAF, Kavangh is wrong about the charge time and the grid load needed. Fully powered DC quick chargers give my car 80% in 20 minutes and are only needed for extended trips. When I travel less than 40 miles in a day (national average) I don’t need to charge that day, which is less load on the grid. Besides, oil refineries use so much electricity that some of them have their own power plants. I can travel over 25 miles on the 6+ kwh of electricity used just to refine ONE gallon gasoline.