Can Electric Cars Help Automakers Reach 55 MPG?

First in a three-part series

Under rules announced by the White House this summer, cars will have to get an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 — nearly twice what the current average is. Reaching that goal will take not only feats of engineering but also changing how Americans think about their cars and how they drive them.

The electric car is one of the ways carmakers expect to lower their average fuel consumption and get to the 55 mpg average. The problem is, people aren’t buying, whether all-electric or plug-in hybrid.

General Motors is struggling to sell 10,000 Chevy Volts this year and Nissan has sold just over 8,000 Leafs. For context, about 13 million cars are expected to be sold in the U.S. in 2011.

Brian Brockman with Nissan took me on a test drive of the all-electric Leaf. As you start the car, there’s no accompanying sound of the engine turning on since there’s no gas engine under the hood. Not only is the car quiet, it’s also smart and it looks genuinely space-aged.

The Leaf doesn’t fly but Nissan claims the car gets about 100 miles per charge — sort of.

Brockman says physics naturally takes over even with these cars. If you’re going 80 miles an hour on the highway, you will naturally get more resistance against the car.

“The car has to work a little bit harder, so the range is going to go down a little bit faster,” he says.

What Brockman doesn’t say is you’re only going get reach the 100-mile range on cool spring days doing about 40 mph, when you’re not using the AC and car is going downhill. Consumer Reports, which tested the Leaf, said it gets an average of about 65 miles on a charge.

To see how the cars charge, we drove to a charging station at the local power company near Detroit. The problem is there aren’t yet enough places to go to charge your car, and right now it can take up to 16 hours depending on what kind of outlet you use.

The other problem is what car people call range anxiety.

“That feeling in your stomach starts to set, like, ‘Oh, no. What if I can’t make it?’ And that’s part of the problem,” says Brian Moody with AutoTrader.com.

Moody says people feel like they don’t have a grasp on how it works or how long the range is.

“It’s sort of like a microwave oven: You know what it does, but you don’t know exactly how it does it,” Moody says. “It works by magic, and people don’t like that.”

Once people actually find out about the cars, they like them even less. Craig Giffi, a U.S. automotive practice leader for Deloitte, recently conducted a study of what people around the world think about electric vehicles. Giffi says people like the idea of electric cars — that’s the good news.

“The bad news is that the technology is currently at a point where they have to make tradeoffs,” Giffi says. “So they want that same vehicle, they want it to look and feel the same. They also want it to perform the same.”

Giffi says consumers want an electric car to go as far as a gasoline-powered car on a single charge, and they want to be able to recharge it as quickly as you can refuel.

Nobody is expecting those capabilities anytime soon.

“The problem is, the chances of there being a 500-mile range electric car, at this point, it seems pretty unlikely,” Moody says. “You can go to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., and see electric cars. To me, that’s not great progress.”

Bob Casey, senior curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum, took me on a tour to see some of those electric cars from more than a 100 years ago.

One of the vehicles on display is an electric car owned by Clara Ford, wife of Henry Ford. Like today, electric cars in Clara’s day couldn’t do what gas-powered cars could, so electric carmakers had to turn to niche markets. It turned out that one place where there was a demand for electric cars was among well-to-do urban women, Casey says.

“[The cars are] quiet, they’re clean, [and] if you’re living in a city you don’t have to go very far,” he says. “If you’re wealthy, you can install a charger in your home or in your garage. And if you’re wealthy you can afford these things because they were expensive.”

Not that much has changed with electric cars in more than 100 years. Casey says if they’re to be widely adopted, it’s drivers themselves — and their habits — that will need to change.


Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.