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“This did not put [GM] on an even footing with the full battery electrics, at least in our state tax code,” said Doyle, “even though, at the national level, they recognize it as part of the whole technology you’re trying to incentivize.”
Washington state may also be particularly well-suited to all-electric travel in “fuel” costs. The U.S. Energy Information Administration notes that Washington has the nation’s third lowest average electric rate per kilowatt hour: 6.6 cents, outdone only by Wyoming and Idaho. By contrast, California has 13.01 cents/kWh average and Florida 10.58 cents.
According to Dan Edmunds, that regional power cost advantage may auger well for Washingtonians in considering an all-electric vehicle. “I think there’s still a lot of potential there where you live,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s a more compelling case because the fuel is really cheap.”
But the practical issues of all-electric car ownership today may well outweigh the pluses.
Range anxiety remains one of the major stumbling blocks to all-electric vehicle ownership. How far will your all-electric car let you drive without needing a fresh charge? Will there be chargers available when I arrive at my destination? How long will the charging take?
A July 2012 Motor Trend article traced the triumphant journey earlier this year of some EV vehicles along U.S. 2 from Seattle over the Cascades to show the feasibility of EV travel over long distances. The article noted, however, that the vehicles used for the trip could utilize Level 3 or DC Fast Charging installations, which can charge vehicles in roughly 30 minutes. By contrast, Level 2 chargers can take four to six hours.
Only two vehicles, the Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi I-MiEV, are currently capable of accepting Level 3 charging; both were used on the Motor Trend trip. No other EVs sold worldwide are similarly equipped; all others depend on Level 1 (household current) or Level 2 charging.
The paucity of Level 3 chargers and the cars that can use them may well be dwarfed by another issue: whose Level 3 charging standard will dominate the car industry. In a battle reminiscent of the Betacam-VHS technology wars, the Japanese CHAdeMo fast-charging standard, backed by the Japanese auto industry and currently available, is at odds with the SAE Combo Charger: a new and different standard backed by U.S. and German auto manufacturers, although no cars nor infrastructure are yet available.
The realities of urban life, in which many people live in multi-family dwellings instead of single-family homes, is another issue for the nascent EV industry. Most early adopters have homes with garages in which to install EV charging stations. The next wave of owners, however, may be “garage orphans”: people living in multifamily dwellings without garages. Sandra Pinto-DeBader of Seattle's Office of Sustainability and Environment, noted that Seattle has joined 10 other cities in applying for a $50,000 grant to study this issue from the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.
Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds.com market analyst, called the urban dweller issue a thorny one. “If you think about electric cars in general, the places where they make the most sense, urban dwellings are not necessarily home dwellings in which it’s easy to put a charger on your wall,” she said in a phone interview. “If you live in an apartment or a condo, which most urban people do where this car makes the most sense, it’s a big issue."
The gas-powered EV is the most workable for people who have short distances to drive, and for families who have a second car to provide longer-range transportation, she continued. “The problem with [plug-in] electric vehicles is almost a chicken-and-egg,” she said. “There’s no infrastructure in place yet. The burden falls on the automotive companies: You’re going to have to set up infrastructure if you want people to buy a car.”
Then there is the price issue. Plug-in electric vehicles are simply more expensive, often in the $40,000-plus range. Even with a federal tax credit — up to $7,500 depending on the size/capacity of the vehicle’s battery — the cost of ownership may be daunting no matter what the environmental tradeoff.
Caldwell said, “You’re paying a price premium over what you would pay for an internal combustion engine. What is really interesting in this whole situation: how far internal combustion engine economy has come. It’s not unusual to see standard [non-EV] cars getting close to 40 miles per gallon because they’ve made so many changes with their engines."
“At current gas prices," Caldwell added, "it doesn’t make sense [to trade up to an EV]. If gas reaches $9 a gallon, perhaps we would be having a different conversation. If you’re buying a new car, that’s one thing. But to trade in your existing car just to get 10 miles per gallon better, that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”
Despite the financial and technological issues, what of the new generation of vehicles would the experts buy? Caldwell thinks a hybrid is the better answer than the all-electric EV: “Hybrids will be the winning solution for most people because it is what people are used to on a daily basis . . . People have to get over the hump of plugging in their car.”
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