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The Electric Car Revolution – D.O.A. (Discharged on Arrival)

I just read an interesting report. It seems the newest wave of electric cars are moving off of showroom floors at a rate that makes a glacier seem quick by comparison. To put it bluntly, sales are tanking. The buying public is showing these oddly silent vehicles about as much respect as they did comedian Rodney Dangerfield. To use an electrical impulse metaphor, the cars are currently “flatlining.”

This is distressing since these vehicles have been heralded as the most promising step in our path toward oil independence. The American government even offers generous tax incentives to lure drivers away from their dinosaurdrinkers in favor of these new “green” automobiles. Yet they barely sell. So, what gives? Well, I hate to kick an entire technology when its down, but I could have told them so.

In the beginning when electric cars were in their infancy their biggest problem was speed, or more precisely the lack thereof. With gas-powered cars easily capable of topping 100mph, not many were enticed by vehicles that could manage barely half of that – and at far stiffer prices to boot.

But that’s only part of the story. Designed in a classic form-follows-function style, these newfangled electric vehicles raised the ugly quotient by a sizable margin. Even if driving one benefitted Mother Earth and wrested proceeds from profit-crazy OPEC nations and equally greedy American concerns, not many were willing to pay big to go slow in one of these monstrosities. But that was then. Time and technology marched on and these deficiencies were eventually addressed. These days, if one wants speed and looks in their electric vehicle, they can drool over an ultra-sleek and blisteringly fast (0-60 mph in 3.7 seconds) Tesla Roadster wrapped up in Ferrari-like bodywork. Of course this exotic car carries an equally exotic price (over $100,000) but that misses the point. The Tesla, named for the inventor of AC current, has forever removed electric cars from the Poindexter category and made it “hip” to drive one. Nevertheless, some nagging problems continue to dog the technology.

The bane of electric cars is their limited range and lengthy recharge times. The far more affordable Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, for example, offer operational ranges of just 75 miles and 35 miles (when run solely on electric current), respectively, and lengthy charge times of 4-12 hours – hardly a setup that will encourage people to ditch their more practical gasoline-powered vehicles.

Sure, one can argue, Tesla also manufactures a series of sedans that will go more than 200 miles on a charge, but the buy-in for these beauties starts at around $50,000; a price that places them firmly in luxury car territory.

So what’s the bottom line? It’s simply this: Who in heck wants to get stuck for hours at Aunt Matilda’s house when their battery runs out after Sunday brunch? Let’s face it, there’s only so much fruitcake a person can eat!

So, engineers, if you’re listening here’s the answer from an admitted layman’s standpoint: Somehow, some way you MUST give these cars a 200- mile range or better, and a recharge time more in line with a gasoline fill-up than a human sleep cycle. Then price them to move – even if this means taking an initial hit in profits, stir, and count the pile of cash that’s certain to come your way down the road.

And for those of us who wish to drive farther still, a nationwide network of recharge stations makes as much sense as our current system of gas stations. I can already see the new “Get Juiced!” and “Catch a Buzz!” franchises. Hmm… I might want to trademark those.

When the slide rule gang accomplishes this, people will get all “charged-up” and electric cars will “hum” off of showroom floors. Then, it’ll be “bye-bye Dino-juice” and “hello DC power!”

Will it ever happen?

Perchance to dream. But in the meantime one thing seems certain: These oil-cheaters sure ain’t world-beaters. Or, as Kermit the Frog says: “It’s not easy being green!”

-Jeff Bahr

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