Electric Cars and Economics 101
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The big problem with electric cars isn’t technological. It’s economic. And one’s just as defeating as the other, if the object is to come up with an electric vehicle that’s more than just a cute plaything for a handful of over-rich Hollywood celebs.

Consider GM’s EV-1 of the 1990s.

Remember?

It was a snarky looking two-seater straight out of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Worked pretty well, too — despite what you might have read. True, its range on a single charge-up was only about a fourth of what the typical IC (internal combustion) conventional car could manage — about 70 miles or so. But that impediment was more psychological than meaningfully functional.

How many of us, after all, drive 70 miles one-way on a regular basis? Even a long commute isn’t that long. More like 20-30 miles, for most of us. Right? And even if you push the envelope and the trip’s close to the thing’s max range, if it’s a commute to work, you don’t need to go anywhere for hours once you’ve parked and plugged in. Yes? So the beast would be fully recharged for the trip home.

For knocking around/commuting, the EV-1’s main functional limitation was not its range; it was its two-seater configuration — and limited cargo-carrying capacity. Kind of like owning any other small two-seater, such as a BMW roadster or a Porsche.

But the EV-1 had another thing in common with BMWs and Porsches — its price. Even by mid-’90s standards (when it was available to the public), the EV-1 was not a cheap date. About $35,000 — which is actually considerably more (adjusted for inflation) than the current base price of a 2009 model year BMW Z4 roadster ($36,700).

Now, if the whole point of owning an electric car is to save money — by saving on fuel costs — then a $35,000 electric car is as pointless, from an economy standpoint, as spending $10,000 to outfit your house with new triple pane windows but leaving them open all winter long.

Rich people don’t care about gas prices. To them, $3 or $4 per gallon is like what a few extra pennies jangling in our pockets is to us. Chump change!


NEXT UP, the Tesla roadster. It proves beyond any question that electric cars can also be blindingly quick and drop-dead gorgeous. It equals or beats the straight line performance (and handling) of just about any exotic sports car on the road. Keep in mind, electric motors have a huge advantage over IC engines when it comes to performance. They produce tremendous torque immediately — no waiting for the RPMs to build. There is so much torque available, in fact, that a car like the Tesla can’t really make full use of it — very much like a ’60s-era SS 454 Chevelle on 14-inch rims.

The point, though, is not the Tesla’s superb performance. It is the car’s stupefying six-figure price tag — $109,000 (before taxes and tags). It’s important to bear in mind that as interesting as the Tesla is, from a technology standpoint, it is basically a modified Lotus Elise roadster — which you can pick up for $46,270. The two cars perform similarly, but if you bought the Lotus, you’d still have $62,730 left over (the “change” remaining vs. the cost of the Tesla).

How much gas does $62k buy? Even at $10 per gallon, odds are you’d be in Depends before you ever had to pay for a drop of fuel again.

So, what’s the point?

Like the EV-1, the Tesla is a talking point. It is sure to get you noticed. You’ll be driving something “different.” But you sure as heck aren’t going to be saving yourself any money.


WHICH BRINGS US to the final entrant, GM’s forthcoming Volt, which is a quasi-electric car in that it still has an IC engine, but it’s only there to function as an onboard generator, keeping the batteries juiced up but playing no real in propelling the car.

Again, very neat stuff. But once again, it’s hardly economical.

GM has indicated the retail price of the Volt will be in the $30k range when it appears sometime in 2010. Maybe as much as $35k or even $40k. Which means that, like the EV-1 of the ’90s, the Volt is in the same price range as entry-luxury cars — and therefore by definition not an economical choice, no matter how much it “saves” you on fuel. None of that matters if the thing eats you to the bone up front, eh?

Which brings us full circle. Electric cars have proven they work. It’s not the range, the batteries, the performance or the looks.

All that has been handled.

The problem is they are still too expensive to make sense for the average person. Until someone can figure out a way to build a serviceable electric car that’s priced competitively with current $11k-$15k economy cars, it’s nothing more than a feel-good engineering exercise.

Most people would be better advised to shop a used Corolla or Civic. They get 35 mpg without elaborate and expensive technology — and you can pick up a cherry two or three-year-old example for $8k or so.

It may not be “green” to talk this way — but that’s the truth about electric cars and Economics 101.

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