CHARGE! Purely electric vehicles (those that use no gasoline) could represent between 2 and 5 percent of the total output of light vehicles by 2020, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report last month. Image: © ISTOCKPHOTO.COM/LEE PETTET
Which came first: the electric car or the infrastructure needed to power the electric car? That's one of the key questions that carmakers will have to answer if they ever hope to fill up the freeways with their plug-in vehicles.
Finding an answer won't be easy. Most drivers are hesitant, for the time being, to buy electric vehicles for a number of reasons. For one, even when these cars roll out in volume next year, they'll cost $7,000 to $20,000 more than comparable vehicles with internal combustion gas engines, according to business consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
There's also no guarantee that carmakers won't abandon their electric-car customers (remember General Motors' EV-1?) and move on to some other promising green technology. Energy Secretary Steven Chu may have cut funding for the research and development of hydrogen fuel cells, but Congress could still vote to restore funding. It's also unlikely that Toyota, GM and other companies who've invested in hydrogen technology will want to abandon it at this point.
But perhaps the biggest question for electric vehicles (and hydrogen cars as well) relates to infrastructure. How and where will drivers be able to recharge their all-important lithium-ion batteries, particularly if those drivers venture far from home? In most cases, this means they plan to drive farther than the 160 to 240 kilometers they'll get from a fully charged battery. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated in a report last month that by 2020, purely electric vehicles could represent between 2 and 5 percent of the total output of light vehicles. While certain types of electric vehicles, such as GM's Chevrolet Volt, include range-extending gasoline engines that act as battery chargers, purely electric vehicles, such as Nissan's Leaf, would be solely reliant on the driving range that their battery pack provides.
"Inadequate infrastructure…will delay a widespread shift to electric vehicles," Steve D'Arcy, PricewaterhouseCoopers' global auto leader, said in a prepared statement released along with the company's report. "The lack of an available network of charging stations restricts drivers to short commutes, while it can take several hours to fully recharge an electric vehicle. The space required to place charging stations, coupled with a suitable means for consumers to pay for the electricity they use while charging their vehicles, are open issues."
Electric vehicles are propelled by one or more electric motors powered by rechargeable battery packs, which convert 75 percent of the chemical energy from the batteries to power the wheels. (Internal combustion engines convert 20 percent of the energy stored in gasoline.) However, there are relatively few recharging stations in place across the U.S. at this time, with only the state of California having more than 400, and most states having none.