5 Major Obstacles for Electric Vehicles in America

Hyundai Sonata PHEV
Sonata PHEV | Source: Hyundai

A year is a long time in the world of electric vehicles. When we looked at the biggest problems facing EVs at the start of 2015, issues like image and cost still played a huge role in the slow adoption rate across America. The cars you wanted to be seen in you couldn’t afford, and the ones that were cheap were laughingstocks at the curb.

A year and a few months later, these concerns seem to come from a vault sealed for a decade. Thanks to Tesla (and the automakers trying to compete with it), few people consider plug-in cars “ugly and slow and boring like a golf cart,” which was the perception Elon Musk hoped to change about the segment when he founded his company.

Cost has come down considerably as well. For the segment of EVs ranging between 76 miles and 93 miles, many are available for $20,000 or less after incentives. (In some states, you can purchase a Nissan Leaf for $8,500.) Despite these seismic shifts, perceptions had not changed a great deal when the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) conducted a survey of the general car-buying public in 2015.

Here are five obstacles that stand in the way of EV adoption according to the national study published in spring 2016.

1. Charging infrastructure

Nissan Leaf charging on NYC's Lower East Side
Nissan Leaf charging on NYC’s Lower East Side | Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Everyone knows where the local gas station is. Do you know where your nearest EV charging station is located? Not many people in the NREL study did. Just 18% said they knew of places to charge along routes they drove. When people talk about range anxiety, they usually mean charging anxiety. Without a means to fuel the car, an EV seems practically impossible. More public charging stations with proper signage can correct this problem.

2. A lack of information

Chevy Volt
Chevy Volt | Source: General Motors

As of early 2015, U.S. auto consumers didn’t know a great deal about electric cars. Only 48% could name a specific make and model (e.g., Tesla Model S, Nissan Leaf). Another 56% said they needed cars with 300 miles of range to consider them. Considering gen-one Chevy Volt drivers covered 80% of their driving on electric power in a car with 38 miles of EV range, there is a serious information deficit here.

3. Automaker marketing

Ford Focus Electric charging
Ford Focus Electric charging | Source: Ford

There is a severe lack of electric car marketing: Tesla doesn’t advertise on TV; GM did a poor job getting word out about the Volt; and Ford just released its first ad for the Focus Electric in 2015. Even worse, salespeople have been seen steering shoppers away from plug-ins at the dealerships. Facing such an uphill battle, it’s no wonder just 20% of people NREL surveyed said they were considering an EV for their next car purchase. If major automakers want to sell more of them, they’re going about it in a funny way.

4. Media coverage

Elon Musk showcases the Tesla Model X
Elon Musk showcases the Tesla Model X | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Outside of Tesla, is there any electric vehicle getting any press? Not really. Tesla has stock speculation and “cult of entrepreneur” appeal for media outlets. Emissions reductions and practical cost-savings are far less sexy, and thus the media is happy to avoid all most other EVs in regular news coverage. Considering energy independence and the respiratory health of U.S. citizens are at stake here, that’s a shame. It took until the debut of the Model 3 to really shake up the world media. Before that, one in two U.S. consumers couldn’t call out an EV by name.

5. The cars themselves

2016 Chevy Bolt EV charging
Chevy Bolt EV | Source: General Motors

With less than 100 miles of range, most electric vehicles are only viable as second cars in the household. An EV would probably work for the 60% of people surveyed who said they have two or more cars at home, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Until EVs hit at least 200 miles, they are a tough sell for the general car-buying public. We’ll see how much that changes when the Chevy Bolt EV appears in late 2016, followed by the Model 3 in 2017.

Study: National Renewable Energy Laboratory (PDF)

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