Luke Ottaway's picture

How to tell when electric cars have made it, and why we don’t need a cheap one

It is often argued that electric cars need to be cheaper to really go mainstream, and that is certainly true. But there is one definitive litmus test that will tell us when electric cars have truly made it.

Is the future electric? Are electric vehicles destined to displace the internal combustion engine for passenger vehicles once and for all? If so, how long is that going to take? And why does an all-electric Nissan LEAF cost $30,000 when it looks just like a Nissan Versa you can get for a shade under $12,000 if the dealer is desperate?

I believe the answers to those questions are yes, yes, by the year 2043 (write that down), and because batteries are still expensive and the Versa is a lousy car, particularly compared to the LEAF. But the electric car has not truly arrived yet – luckily, it will be easy to tell when that happy day comes.

Some will argue that electric vehicles won’t be successful until you can buy one for under $20,000, just like your run-of-the-mill Honda Civic. Those people are wrong for a few reasons, chief among them that by the time such an electric car arrives gasoline will presumably be so expensive that the operating cost advantage of electric cars, which is already huge, will make such a comparison laughable. A $25,000 all-electric vehicle will be quite comparable to a $20,000 gas-burner.

No, we will know that electric cars have arrived the day the first all-electric pickup truck and competitively priced all-electric midsize sedan reach their customers. I’m talking true competitors to the Ford F-150 and Toyota Camry. The price it will take? Maybe $40-45K for the truck, $25-28K for the sedan. Those numbers would be game-changers.

The Toyota Camry sold 428,606 copies in the U.S. last year. Its segment competitors, the Accord and Altima and Fusion and Sonata and Malibu, were not terribly far behind. In fact, 6 of the top 11 cars in 2014 (not including trucks and SUVs) were these family sedans. Of course, those numbers pale in comparison to the gaudy stats put up by the pickups: how about 753,851 for the Ford F-150, 529,755 for the Silverado, and 439,789 for Ram?

We shouldn’t leave out the small SUVs, like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape – those two vehicles topped 300,000 sales last year. But the Camry and F-150 fighters should come first.

It’s still early days, and no known electric pickup or non-luxury midsize sedan is in the works (that’s not to say they aren’t, but we don’t know about any yet.) However, at some point in the not-too-distant future, these cars will arrive and will seal the fate of the exclusively gas-powered automobile.

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I agree and Tesla Motors success supports this piece. Auto manufacturers believed that only environmental nerds and Prius drivers wanted 100% electric cars. So they all built lift back EV's. 150 mile range 100% electric Altima would sell better than the LEAF.
I wonder if Nissan knows that......

I own a Leaf, and from my perspective there are three forms of anxiety associated with electric car ownership that need to be solved *at an affordable price*:

1) Range anxiety, especially at highway speeds and in cold weather

2) Battery degradation anxiety - electric cars will never compete with ICE cars in volume until owners can be assured their batteries will function very well for as long as well-maintained ICE cars do. My guess is 100,000 miles is the minimum, and I don't mean 65% of new capacity, I mean 90-95%. Additionally, electric cars need to be designed to tolerate how normal people want to drive. My Leaf is supposed to be parked in the shade on hot days, and I'm not supposed to charge over 80% capacity, leave it 80+% or 20-% charged for long periods, or drive immediately after charging. Nerds like me can manage this - normal people won't bother and shouldn't be expected to.

3) Depreciation anxiety - dependent on the other things I've mentioned here

4) D%#king around with charger installation. Standard charger installation should be built into the price of every electric car, always, no matter what. Normal consumers are simply not going to start calling electricians or paying $2500 out of pocket in addition to the car.

@Tom C, You paid $2500 to install a charger in your house? What drove the price so high?

I paid $600 for a 40A 14-50 outlet (running wire to the circuit box on the opposite side of my house), and $450 for a JuiceBox 30 charger - $1050 total.

The problem with charging everyone for a new charger when they buy an EV is that one often isn't needed. The friend who advised me on buying my Leaf (thanks, Jeries!) merely used the existing 240V dryer outlet in his garage with the included charger (upgraded for only $287 - his total cost!). The cost for a charger for my next car will be $0.

Better batteries and lower purchase cost will help, as will a good fast charger network along the Interstates. Perhaps in a few years, EVs will go mainstream. PHEVs like the Volt are a good halfway point, evangelizing the value of electric operation while eliminating any anxiety about range with that backup ICE. The ICE will melt as the EV tech heats up, I hope.

Tom C---Agree 100%. Same exact thing with our aging Leaf. The obvious "answer" is a Tesla which most people, like me, can not afford--even a used one. We plan to replace our Leaf in the near future with a Volt. Gets rid of all the anxiety, tow trucks and rental cars. Still allows us to drive most of our miles electric. Until batteries come down in cost and improve in longevity the Volts or Volt like car seems like the best option given todays battery/EV choices.

@Tom C - Not to invalidate your experience with your LEAF, the next generation of Nissan EVs (and all others) will be greatly improved. There have been good reports on the Nissan 'lizard' battery in the 2015 LEAF, degradation is less of an issue (hopefully a non-issue).

I have 76,000 miles on my 2011 and enjoy it despite the range limitation. I treat it like any car I've ever owned. It has exceeded my expectations.