Yesterday I looked down at my dashboard and suddenly realized I might have to go fill up — in a few months. I’ve been driving a Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid since the summer, and I’ve yet to put in any gasoline. Of course, that fill-up time will arrive. Less obvious? When an electric vehicle (EV) future will arrive. It comes down to people’s behaviors.
First, let me explain the rationale behind the Chevy Volt. When introduced in 2011, it had an initial electric-only 35 miles. When you drove past that, the petroleum-powered generator turned on, recharging the batteries. This means that an electric motor always powers the drivetrain but it has a gas generator backup.
Why 35 miles? Because Chevy determined that Americans drove an average 35 miles per day, per vehicle. Of course, many of our fellow citizens commute much longer distances, but it turns out, most of us don’t. The second-generation 2016 Volt I own pushed the distance to 53 miles. Actually, it varies depending on factors like weather. My Volt went up to 62 miles in the summer. This winter I’m down to 42 before the generator kicks in.
Since I generally drive fewer than 40 miles per day I can easily plug-in at home. Two people in my college owning Volts drive from Ogden Valley to the college every day and manage to use mostly only electricity. Another, in the Automotive department, drives a Volt much farther — from Tooele — and ends up using gas, but has a very high overall mpg by plugging in at home and work.
All four of us enjoy driving the car. It accelerates very quickly. We never worry about running out of battery power. We’ve gotten used to the kind of quiet you might only find in a luxury vehicle.
You might wonder why the vehicle hasn’t caught on more given all it has going for it. For one thing, car buyers in the U.S. have gravitated toward trucks and SUVs, and the Volt drivetrain has not been shared with another vehicle type.
Additionally, some vehicle manufacturers indicate they never intended the plugin hybrid as more than a transition to fully electric. Chevy declared 2019 as the last year for Volt production and introduced the Bolt in 2017, a 240-mile range fully electric car. Other manufacturers like Volvo, Ford, Volkswagen and Tesla also plan for fully electric cars. Consumers will have over 20 models from which to choose this year.
These manufacturers have bet that battery costs will continue to go down while range will continue to increase. With EVs, manufacturers also generally benefit from cheaper production costs and consumers from cheaper maintenance costs. Battery cost has been an issue. But, with lithium batteries only 15% of what they cost six years ago, production costs between internal combustion and battery driven cars have become roughly equivalent.
Yet, people have enough fear of range anxiety to avoid purchasing an electric vehicle. Only two percent of new vehicles purchased in the U.S. have been EVs.
A new AAA study shows that, regarding the different technology, to paraphrase FDR, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” True, the 77,000 public electric chargers in the U.S. can’t compare to the 168,000 gas stations. EVs also take longer to charge than filling up at a gas station. However, the EV vs. gasoline comparison doesn’t include the availability of power in people’s homes and the increasing number of workplace chargers when the vehicle is typically sitting still. It also doesn’t accommodate the increasing number of public chargers and decreasing number of gas stations. The AAA study basically says that only a quarter of people who have owned and driven EVs still get any kind of range anxiety.
Comedian Jay Leno, host of Jay Leno’s garage, has a lot of optimism for EVs. He looks at electricity as the next evolution in mobility. “For new technology to succeed, it can’t be equal. It’s got to be better. . . It (Tesla) can go 350 to 400 miles at a charge. There’s no maintenance. They’re faster than the gas car. So, there’s almost no reason to have a gas car unless you’re doing long-haul duty.”
Of course, people want the possibility of doing a “long haul” with their car. With improving technology and infrastructure, however, I wouldn’t bet against EVs. Only last night someone told me that, if they can help it, they would never buy another internal combustion engine again.