Electric Vehicles Run Out of Juice

Craig Cole
by Craig Cole

Arguably electric cars are the future of the automotive industry. They promise smooth, quiet, pollution-free driving, but are they ready for primetime? If recent news is any indicator, the answer is a resounding “NO!”

Like a battery-powered, four-wheeled Jesus, the electric car has been hailed as the planet’s salvation. Environmental evangelists and eco-loving governments alike are pushing for the widespread adoption of EVs. In the United States automakers are basically forced to build these amped-up autos because of regulations, but don’t think this is only a federal issue. States are throwing their weight around as well… make that state.

Last year California updated its long-standing Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) law, which dates back to 1990. The changes made in 2012 push for significant reductions in smog-forming pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. But the big story, and the most damaging bit of legislation for automakers, is an electric-vehicle mandate. The law requires that by 2025, 15.4 percent of new vehicles sold in the Golden State feature zero-emission or plug-in hybrid drivetrains. That’s one out of every seven cars and trucks!

Of course the legislation paints a rosy picture in other areas as well. Its creators at the California Air Resources Board (CARB) estimate that drivers in the state will save a total of $5 billion in 2025. They also estimate it will create 21,000 jobs.

If automakers fail to meet the ZEV mandate they face some hefty consequences. Distilling the legal gibberish down to something understandable, if an automaker does not follow the rules they will be fined $5,000 for each vehicle they sell that’s not in compliance with the law. That civil penalty is identical to what they pay if a vehicle fails to meet state emissions standards.

This law has basically forced automakers to spend billions upon billions of dollars developing electric vehicles, which has not been a sound investment, especially in such a fiercely competitive market. To date EVs are a blunder of Edsel proportions; really they’re this century’s automotive white elephant.

For example, Ford’s electric Focus hit on the market last May. In the seven months following its introduction dealers delivered a grand total of 693. For a little perspective, the company sold nearly 246,000 Focuses in the U.S. last year. Electric models amount to a raindrop in the ocean.

Likewise, Honda has been no more successful with its Fit EV. Just 93 were sold in 2012.

Naturally, automotive executives are not oblivious to the problems facing electric cars; they just rarely mention them publicly. One of the most eye-opening admissions came from Chrysler and Fiat’s unusually frank CEO, Sergio Marchionne, a man who’s known for dropping provocative quotes from time to time. Reportedly he said they will lose 10 grand on every single Fiat 500e they sell, a car slated to arrive at dealers this spring.

Making the situation even more disheartening, electrified Cinquecentos will supposedly sticker for $45,000. That’s about $6,000 greater than the much more sophisticated Chevrolet Volt, which is known as a “range-extended electric” because it features an onboard gasoline engine that allows the car to be driven when the battery is depleted. The prices mentioned above exclude a $7,500 federal tax credit.

SEE ALSO: Chrysler Will Supposedly Lose $10,000 on Every Fiat 500e it Sells

In an effort to move the metal, automakers are slashing prices and losing even more money in the process. A terrific example of this is what ford recently did with the Focus Electric. Just a few days ago the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker announced it was lopping nearly 11 grand off the sticker of the battery-powered hatchback. This reduction brings the car’s MSRP down to a less excruciating $29,245, including destination and delivery charges, excluding the aforementioned federal tax credit.

Buyers interested in Ford’s latest electric have until April 1 to take advantage of that substantial discount. Lease pricing is supposedly $285 per month on a 36-month term. Still, that’s a lot of hard-earned buckaroos to shell out for a Focus, a car that starts at about $17,000 for a stripped-down sedan model (including destination and delivery charges).

SEE ALSO: Ford Focus Electric Discounted $10,750

Nissan got in on the discount game late last year when it adjusted pricing of the all-electric Leaf. In an effort to unload leftover 2012s some dealers were allowed to slash $10,000 off the price for lease customers. All told the automaker moved just shy of 10,000 examples last year.

Boosting its versatility, the 2013 model has gained a 14 percent increase in driving range, bringing the total to 83 miles in EPA testing. Engineers were able to deliver the improvement through a 180-pound weight reduction and the implementation of more aggressive regenerative braking. Unfortunately this is just a baby step toward making EVs a useful alternative for people.

SEE ALSO: 2013 Nissan Leaf Gets Longer Range, Lower Price

Even Toyota, the industry’s undisputed champion of electrified vehicles is backing away from pure EVs. Instead, it’s focusing energy on conventional and plug-in hybrids. The company’s chief of research and development, Takeshi Uchiyamada said “The current capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs, whether it may be the distance the cars can run, or the costs, or how it takes a long time to charge.”

And that pretty much sums up the problems with today’s electrics. They’re generally too expensive, lack sufficient range and take forever to charge. Additionally, the availability of public recharging stations is far too limited.

SEE ALSO: Toyota Betting on Hybrids, Not EVs

Mainstream electric vehicles have pretty much been a failure, but arguably they make more sense at the premium end of the market. Profit margins on top-dollar vehicles are much higher, meaning Cadillac makes more money selling an XTS than Hyundai does from an Accent.

Audi’s e-tron concepts are a perfect example of electrifying premium vehicles. The luxury brand has been teasing us for years with the idea of a battery-powered performance machine. So far the German company has released several different concepts wearing the name, many of which resemble the magnificent R8 supercar.

But this may just be another automotive bridge too far. Audi executives had planned to launch the R8 e-tron this year, but as of last October it was reported the project had been put on hold and was under review, practically a death sentence in automotive terms.

SEE ALSO: Audi R8 e-tron Might Still See Limited Production

However, conflicting reports indicate development is still going forward but that the car will only be offered in tiny numbers. Mark Dahncke, Product and Motorsports Communications Manager for Audi of America said “The R8 e-tron project may still be continued in a very small volume of cars that has yet to be decided. What has been decided is that it will not be executed on a large-scale production basis.” There may still be hope for a top-shelf performance EV from Audi.

At the end of the day electric vehicles are simply too expensive and too limited for most drivers. Car companies are only offering them because they’ve been forced to by California’s ZEV mandate. Until automakers can increase range and lower prices, electric vehicles will continue to be little more than a footnote at the bottom of sales charts.

GALLERY: Electric Vehicles

Craig Cole
Craig Cole

Born and raised in metro Detroit, Craig was steeped in mechanics from childhood. He feels as much at home with a wrench or welding gun in his hand as he does behind the wheel or in front of a camera. Putting his Bachelor's Degree in Journalism to good use, he's always pumping out videos, reviews, and features for AutoGuide.com. When the workday is over, he can be found out driving his fully restored 1936 Ford V8 sedan. Craig has covered the automotive industry full time for more than 10 years and is a member of the Automotive Press Association (APA) and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).

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2 of 5 comments
  • JRP3 JRP3 on Feb 05, 2013

    Funny how there is no mention of what is probably going to be the most successful EV ever, the Tesla Model S.

  • Guest Guest on Mar 06, 2013

    Craig Cole is a dip shit.