Electric Vehicles Are Gaining Ground

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In the United States, electric vehicles are slowly gaining ground on gas-powered cars. As of March, 2013, there were 34,000 on the road. But if electric vehicles are ever going to overtake their combustion-engine counterparts, the sticker price will have to come down, battery life will have to go up and the charging station infrastructure will need to expand so that it's easier to commute and take longer trips.

The good news: consumers now have more than 14 different EV models to choose from, a figure that will triple in the next two model years.

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Just as with hybrid gas-electric vehicles, plug-in EVs are having their greatest success with early adopters of new technology and the luxury marketplace, according to Dave Hurst, principal analyst with Navigant Research in Detroit.

“We’re about where hybrids were in the early 2000s,” Hurst said about EV sales in the United States. “The challenge continues to be the fact that gas prices are low in the U.S. And if you have low gas prices it makes it a challenging economic decision to move away from gas.”

Gas averages $3.50 a gallon nationwide. That's down from $3.90 a year ago, according to AAA. But compare that to $7.60 a gallon that motorists in the European Union pay, or $4.76 per gallon in Canada.

Brian Wynne, director of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, said that drivers are getting more and more options than ever before with various forms of electric vehicles.

“These are really fun cars to drive,” Wynne said. “As we get the word out, we will continue to see an accelerating curve for sales.”

Wynne also noted that while customers are lining up to buy the $80,000 Tesla S Roadster, there are also buyers who want a more entry-level electric vehicle. Fiat, for example, is offering a leasing plan for $199/month for 36 months (with $999 down) for its new 2014 500e series which should be available later this year. If you want to buy it outright, the new Fiat will set you back $32,500 -- minus the $7,500 federal tax credit (California residents get another $2,500 credit). That makes the new Fiat price competitive with many gas-powered econo-cars.

For West Coasters, driving EVs is getting easier. The states of Oregon and Washington are expanding recharging stations along the main freeways, while supermarket chain Kroger is adding 225 vehicle charging stations at its stores in California and Arizona.

Nationwide there are 5,612 recharging stations, according to the Department of Energy’s great locator map.

Navigant’s Hurst said that EV carmakers are improving the range on their vehicles, but they still average around 100 miles per charge.

“The improvements that you are seeing are getting to be closer to real 100 miles,” Hurst said. “The early 2010 versions of the Nissan Leaf had a lot of criticism because they were rated at 100 miles but only got 60 miles. Were not hearing that as much anymore.”

Hurst said that there’s a big push on charging side to be more rapid with more powerful chargers running at higher kilowatts. That’s cutting down on recharging times.

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The reason that EVs continue to cost so much is the batteries. “There’s not a lot of volume so it remains a challenge to have an entire plant focused on that one industry," Hurst said.

But as battery makers shift factory production lines over to making more vehicle-only lithium ion batteries instead of sharing production with li-ion batteries for consumer products, Hurst predicts the consumer cost will come down.

That will give time for new, more powerful and longer-lasting batteries such as lithium air a chance to get in the same, according to Wynne, of the Electric Drive Transport Association.

Overall, Wynne is optimistic about the future for EVs.

“We are still at the early stages in socializing people to fueling their cars with electricity,” Wynne said. “Still, it’s much more convenient to fuel my car with cheap electricity than go to the gas station and shake my head about gas prices.”