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Can Electric Cars Make a Go of It?

Gas is topping $3 a gallon just as the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf start hitting the market

While the internal combustion engine is far from dead, electric cars are here to stay.

The chief benefit of electric cars is that they use energy more efficiently than even the most efficient fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. That means they're much less expensive for drivers to operate. Chevrolet estimates it will cost most drivers about $1.50 a day for the electricity to charge the Volt to get to and from work—a lot less than most people now spend on gas for their commutes.

That efficiency also has enormous benefits for the environment. About 17 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions that are causing global warming come from vehicles that burn fossil fuels like gasoline or diesel. Replacing them with electric cars, which emit no greenhouse gases, would reduce that number. It would also cut air pollution and begin to curb America's dependence on finite oil supplies, much of which comes from foreign countries hostile to the U.S.

Some electric cars can travel only 75 to 100 miles between charges, which is a legitimate concern. Yet even today's limited ranges—which are sure to improve as battery technology advances—still allow electric cars to be used effectively in 90 percent of daily driving situations. In addition, almost 60 percent of American families have more than one car, so a limited-range commuter vehicle that can be charged at home or at work could make sense for many families.

The really encouraging thing about the electric car is that these are still its early days. The internal-combustion engine has had 125 years to become the much-improved but still imperfect device it is today; we've just started to focus on investing in the technology of electric engines. For electric cars, the game has just begun.

Jamie Kitman
Columnist, Automobile Magazine

Electric cars, which are powered by rechargeable batteries, may be the wave of the future, but for the next decade they'll remain niche products that cannot broadly succeed in the U.S. car marketplace.

First, electric cars remain limited in range, since their batteries need recharging every 100 miles or so. This will likely be the case for the foreseeable future. For most people, that makes them practical only for a daily commute, supplemented by a second car. Most Americans won't want to buy a car that's impractical for longer trips.

Second, they're expensive. Electric driving does offer efficiency gains like regenerative braking, in which using the brakes recharges the battery. But at current gas prices, the additional efficiency doesn't offset the higher sticker prices. The plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt sells for more than $40,000, and the all-electric Nissan Leaf sells for almost $33,000—both out of range for most middle-class families. For now that means the electric car will remain limited to drivers for whom it's a lifestyle statement.

Third, electric cars offer at best small reductions in overall carbon emissions, since the electricity they're using is largely generated by coal-burning power plants. And we will have to deal with recycling all those toxic car batteries.

A better solution is diesel, which much of Europe already relies on. Diesel cars are much more efficient than gas-powered cars, and overall more efficient than electric cars. What's more, mass-production capacity is already in place.

In 10 years, we may start transitioning toward electric cars, but it will be 20 years before they have a chance of becoming the standard. For now, we should do all we can to encourage the use of diesel, today's best technology.

Michael Smitka
Professor of Economics, Washington and Lee University

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, January 31, 2011)