The technology is also not up for comparison with the venerable internal combustion engine: a pure electric vehicle requires one kilogram of battery to support one kilometer of travel, making a car with the typical range of a conventional vehicle prohibitively heavy. And surmounting that hurdle with lighter-weight batteries employing lithium-ion technology adds yet more to the cost of the final vehicle. "Even if we can tolerate the heavy weight of the battery, we will not be able to tolerate the premium of price [over the cost of a comparable conventional vehicle], which ranges from 50,000 to 60,000 renminbi per unit," Wang notes, though the Chinese government now offers a subsidy of 60,000 renminbi to buyers of electric vehicles in five chosen cities and 50,000 renminbi to buyers of hybrid cars.
Simply put, electric vehicles remain too expensive for the average car buyer. And what holds for China probably holds for the rest of the world. The Chevrolet Volt, for example, is roughly $40,000 in the U.S. before government incentives—roughly twice as much as a comparable sedan with an internal combustion engine.
It remains to be seen how electric cars will fare upon their reintroduction this time; it is possible that EVs can help the world's car drivers reduce their oil consumption—and reduce the emissions of heat-trapping gases. After all, electric cars dominated the early history of automobiles because of their ease—Mrs. Henry Ford drove one—until the abundance of oil and its power density displaced them from the marketplace (while incorporating them as electric starters for internal combustion cars). "The goal is to make these cars more affordable than the gasoline counterpart," says Julie Mullins, a spokeswoman for Better Place, a purveyor of electric vehicle infrastructure. "If it's not more convenient and it's not more affordable, then consumers will not make the switch."
And, as of today, electric cars are neither more convenient, nor more affordable. "I have no confidence in electric vehicles amounting to a hill of beans in the next five years or 10 years. The batteries are lousy," says Mark Levine, a senior staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, who has worked with the Chinese government on energy efficiency programs since 1986, though he notes that "the Chinese do miracles…. China will be dominant in electric vehicles and will probably take over the world market [in 2025 when the technology matures] unless other countries are willing to subsidize their own production."
He adds: "It's just not going to happen overnight."
At the same time, simply switching Chinese drivers from burning oil to using electricity that is created by burning coal—responsible for more than 70 percent of such power presently in the Middle Kingdom—may not reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough. "Electric vehicles only make sense if you are also committed to decarbonizing electricity," Sperling notes.
And globally, it will take a long time for electric vehicles to displace the internal combustion engine. "It would take until 2029 to swap to all electric vehicles if all new vehicle sales from today forward are electric vehicles," notes chemical engineer David Rogers, general manager for climate change at California-based oil company Chevron, and until 2089 if only 25 percent of new vehicle sales were electrics. The Toyota Prius and cars like it—hybrid electric vehicles, which rely on conventional motors in conjunction with electric ones—grew to only as much as 5 percent of new vehicle sales in the last 10 years. "This thing is going to take a long time."