You could call it the Green Revolution, but that would be a real misnomer. It’s more like an evolution—not as slow as Darwin’s, but it ain’t gonna happen in two years, or even five.
But it will happen, because the petroleum-based economy is untenable—for reasons you all know. Let’s look at some of the impediments and some of the things that must change before we get to any significant market penetration of green cars (hybrids, EVs).
The biggest problem for most people even now considering a green car is cost. The cost/benefit ratio doesn’t compute for most buyers, for a couple of reasons. The biggest factors are the cost of fuel and the cost of the technology.
A recent Deloitte study showed that “78 percent of consumers in the United States would consider purchasing an electric vehicle (EV) when fuel prices reach $5.00 per gallon.” But gas-powered (ICE) engines continue to improve, and 68 percent would be less likely to consider an EV if they could find an ICE with 50-mpg fuel efficiency.
So one challenge is to get the cost of production down, with batteries being the biggest offender. Carmakers also have to answer the charge that production of green cars makes more pollutants than making ICE cars. In fact, “an electric vehicle generates 46 percent of its expected lifetime carbon footprint (estimated 18 tons of CO2) before it even leaves the factory.”
Production ramp-up has been slow, as we saw with the Volt, and disrupted, as we continue to see with the Leaf. The Prius has an enormous lead in popular acceptance, one that will be difficult for the competition to overcome.
Since their inception in 1999, a total of 1.9 million hybrid electric automobiles and SUVs have been sold. The top-selling car in the U.S. is the Toyota Prius, with cumulative sales of 1 million units by early April 2011.
The marketing and sales structure for these cars will have to change radically for them to be successful, in my opinion. To their credit, smaller companies like Tesla have begun to challenge the standard dealer model, and other companies like Coda are experimenting with different storefront models.
Infrastructure—particularly for charging stations—needs to be built out, and there are signs that this is happening. Few seem to seriously consider natural gas as a power source, and that is a shame.
Finally, the industry needs immense amounts of R&D to generate new technologies for batteries and other propulsion systems. I think these will come, but for the moment we are limited to small improvements, like auto stop-start for gas engines. One study predicts 37 million stop-start cars sold annually by 2020.
There will be more such fringe solutions to come, probably, and so the evolution will take time, lots of time.
In our evolution toward a greener automotive economy, should we be looking for more breakthroughs (and who will fund them?) or leave it to small steps?