Are electric cars losing their spark? – USATODAY com

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Electric Cars

By Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY

Rather than electrifying auto buyers, the plug-in car revolution is feeling more like a fizzle.

By Dan MacMedan, USA TODAY

Shannon Arvizu lives in Venice Beach, Calif. but charges her car at Santa Monica Place shopping mall twice a week because there is no charger at her condo complex.

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A year after the first two plug-in electric cars from major makers went on sale, buyers appear put off by high sticker prices — even with federal subsidies — and, for the moment, by more-stable gasoline prices.

The Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt also have had their own issues. For owners of the Leaf, and other electric-only vehicles, there still are relatively few places to plug in and recharge away from home, limiting use. And the Volt, which has a backup gas engine to run a generator for extended range, is under the shadow of a government safety probe of why its big lithium-ion battery pack could catch fire days or even weeks after suffering severe crash damage.

Meanwhile, some start-up makers of electric cars, including the Think City car and the egg-shaped Aptera, have gone bust. Others have hit pot holes and delays in their drive to get plug-in cars in front of buyers. Even some major automakers have had hiccups developing new plug-ins.

Electric cars on the way to showrooms also face stiffer competition from conventional cars and hybrids that not only are cheaper, but also have gotten markedly more fuel-efficient as automakers work to meet tightening federal fuel-economy rules.

All these problems amount to some big bumps on the road to President Obama ‘s stated goal of 1 million electrified vehicles (including advanced hybrids) on the road by 2015.

But even some avid electric-car fans say they aren’t all that surprised at muted mainstream interest in the initial models of electrics. I think the public is just not really ready for them — and I don’t think (the cars) are ready for the public, says Art Spinella, an electric-car fan who is president of CNW Research, a tracker of auto-sales trends.

The high-tech Volt, for instance, had narrow interest from car buyers overall, even before the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ‘s probe into battery fires began last month.

About 1% of general consumers said in a July CNW survey that they were willing to consider buying a Volt, a figure that fell to 0.6% this month after reports of the safety probe. Among those in the market immediately for a new car, Volt interest fell from 4.3% to 2.1% over the same period.

GM had hoped to sell 10,000 Volts by the end of this year but now acknowledges it will fall short. Just 6,142 Volts had been sold through November, according to Autodata.

Nissan has sold 8,720 Leaf electric sedans through last month, and the company has said it is satisfied with first-year results that were hampered by early delivery problems that since appear ironed out.

But the combined sales of those two models represent just 0.1% of the 11.5 million new car and truck sales in the U.S. through November. While Nissan and Chevrolet were delivering limited numbers of their shiny new electrics, Toyota sold almost 120,000 of its 50 miles-per-gallon Prius gas-electric hybrids, despite the March tsunami in Japan that disrupted production.

Electric-car enthusiasts believe their day will come. Just like when the car arrived to take on the horse, it was not an instant win, says Chris Paine, a Volt driver and director of the documentary Revenge of the Electric Car . which had its debut earlier this year. This stuff takes a long time to shift.

It’s not that potential car buyers reject the idea of being green. Most love the idea — until it involves the hassle and substantial expense of installing a home charger on top of paying a substantial price premium over an equivalent non-electric car. And then there is planning for range limits.

The Leaf, which the government says can go 73 miles between charges, has a sticker price of $36,050 including destination charges. Volt, which goes 25 miles or more on the plug-in charge before the gas engine kicks in for more juice, is priced at $39,995.

Many buyers of either car do qualify for the federal $7,500 tax credit, as well as more tax subsidies in some states. And they will get the savings down the road for using plug-in electricity at a fraction of the price of gasoline.

But consumers apparently can’t get past the fact that a Chevrolet Volt, for example, compares in size and features with the Chevy Cruze. which starts at about $17,000.

The big obstacle is price, says Craig Giffi, vice chairman and automotive sector leader for consultants Deloitte. The difference between electric and conventional cars is still not at the trigger point that gets consumers to run out and buy electric.

As with CNW’s research, a Deloitte study shows limited interest in electrics from potential buyers. More than half of consumers surveyed say they aren’t willing to pay a dollar more to drive electric rather than conventional.

Gasoline would have to hit $5 a gallon before consumers would take a serious look at electrics, Giffi says. On Monday, regular gas averaged $3.23 a gallon nationwide, according to the federal Energy Information Administration .

Driving ‘as a citizen’

Then there is the issue of where to plug in. Installing home charging can be problematic for owners such as Shannon Arvizu, who doesn’t have a charger at the Venice, Calif. condo complex where she lives.

Arvizu drives her Volt to a nearby shopping center with public charging twice a week (though if need be, she can run the car on gasoline alone).

She doesn’t mind. She’s a true believer in electric cars who works on her laptop at a coffee house while her Volt gets its volts. She drives her plug-in with a certain patriotic zeal.

There’s a reason that I chose this car, because it represents the future, says Arvizu, who wrote a doctoral dissertation at Columbia University on electric cars. I’m not driving it as a consumer. I’m driving it as a citizen.

Arvizu thinks the Volt safety concerns are overblown. Gas-powered cars can catch fire in a serious accident, she says, as opposed to the electric’s batteries, which could potentially catch fire hours or days after the crash. In either case, she says, it’s only prudent to drain a gas tank or discharge a damaged battery after an accident.

And she faults automakers for not doing more to promote electric cars for what she believes is the ego boost and fun they offer — not just because they save money on gas.

They forgot Marketing 101, says Arvizu, 33, who works as a clean-tech researcher. They forgot that people buy cars because it makes them look good and feel good. … These cars are …, fast and fun.

Despite lackluster interest, more plug-ins from major makers are on the way. Mitsubishi delivered the first of its electric cars earlier this month, a small, odd-looking, $28,840 four-door called simply the i. Ford is launching a $39,995 Focus Electric in the first half of 2012 and the C-Max plug-in small van sometime in the second half of the year. Toyota will introduce the $32,000 plug-in version of the Prius in 14 launch states.

They all have high hopes. GM officials point out that while the numbers aren’t huge, there’s no surplus of Volts and there are more buyers lined up to buy them. North American chief Mark Reuss predicts Chevrolet could sell up to 40,000 Volts next year with production ramped up.

Electric Cars

A Cadillac plug-in is in the works as well.

Nissan, likewise, is upbeat. Leaf launched in Hawaii, California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Tennessee and Texas. It’s now on sale in 30 states but not yet nationwide.

And electric vehicles aren’t languishing on sales lots. Makers are selling every one they produce and coming new models will help offer more variety, cost-cutting scale and visibility for the fledgling industry, predicts Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, a trade group promoting electric vehicles. He cautions against looking at the relatively few sales so far.

We’re looking out of the wrong side of the binoculars, he says. We’re just getting started.

Some setbacks

But there is no ignoring some of the setbacks for the industry this year:

•Think, an electric-car start-up that had planned to make vehicles in Elkhart, Ind. filed for bankruptcy protection. The U.S. unit created to market the small car based on one sold in Europe from a factory in Norway was backed by Silicon Valley financiers.

•Aptera, makers of an egg-shaped electric vehicle on struts that looked a little bit like a rolling Cessna, announced it would liquidate. Executives say they were unable to find financing needed for the Southern California-based company to qualify for federal loans.

•Fisker just raised the price again of its sleek plug-in extended-range Karma that’s going on sale now. It’s $102,000, up from about $80,000 originally. Because the batteries limited space inside the car, it is classed by the government as a subcompact.

Another California-based start-up, Tesla Motors. is ending production of its pioneering $109,000 electric sports car and won’t be ready to start selling its next all-electric model, the $57,400-to-$87,400 Model S sedan with up to a 300-mile range, until next summer.

There are already more than 7,000 reservations for the luxury-oriented Model S, says Ricardo Reyes, a vice president.

He says the launch of the electric revolution is off to a respectable start. I don’t know what they expected. It’s not like from day one to the next we’re going to have electric vehicles, he says.

It wasn’t like 2011 was going to be a seminal year.

Chelsea Sexton. an electric-vehicle enthusiast who was involved with General Motors ‘ initial electric in the 1990s, the EV1, also takes the long view.

We’re in the era of skinned knees and companies having to grow up, she says. The little companies are finding it’s harder to play than they thought.

She faults the big companies, too, for sometimes overpromising and undercommunicating.

We have to get our act together quick or it will disappear, she says. There is way too much work to be done.

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