5 Problems Standing in the Way of Electric Vehicle Adoption

Full disclosure: We like electric vehicles. We’re happy to share how they can be cheaper to insure than gas cars, which are the most efficient, and how dubious Wall Street “analysis” can serve to confuse issues in the industry. We’re also realists. We know that if everything was glorious in the EV universe then every driver in America would own one and oil companies would be going out of business. What’s the story?

With the arrival of the Chevrolet Bolt EV concept and Tesla’s Model 3 expected a few years down the road, it seems like a good time to take stock of the situation in the industry. What are the issues holding back the widespread adoption of electric vehicles in 2015? Here are five things that stand in the way.

mitsubishi i-miev
Source: Mitsubishi

1. The image problem

Things in EV world got off on the wrong foot with cars like the Mitsubishi i-MiEV holding court in the early years. This dorky ride came off like the anti-Mustang, the car that would make your date wonder why she let you take her out to dinner. In fact, Elon Musk told 60 Minutes he started Tesla because he wanted to show the world that electric vehicles were not “ugly and slow and boring like a golf cart.”

Changing that perception was a big enough goal that Musk said he founded Tesla even though he didn’t think it would succeed. After designing the 380-horsepower Model S, it’s safe to say he busted up the boring and slow part. As for the ugly part, here’s what Musk came up with:

model S
Source: Tesla

Bay Area Plans Major Expansion Of Electric Vehicle Charging Stations
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

2. The lack of charging stations

If you want people to run electric cars in the city and suburbs, there will have to be many more charging stations installed. Take large East Coast cities like Philadelphia and New York as examples. According to PlugShare.com’s list of charging stations, drivers who invest in an electric vehicle would need to invest in a parking garage spot where available chargers are located. In New York, that runs drivers aout $400 a month on top of insurance and car payments.

When people say electric cars don’t sell outside of California in any volume, this practical concern is a big reason why. Massive upgrades in charging infrastructure would be necessary to make it possible for working class and lower-middle class people to operate an EV affordably. General Motors and Ford getting involved would help, but the government has to be on board, too. We’ll see what New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a man with a rep for being green, can achieve in the coming years.

2015 Leaf
Source: Nissan

3. Limited range

Can you afford a Tesla? Great, then you have at least 208 miles and as many as 270 miles of range to play with on the roads. Otherwise, you are going to be limited to the average range of vehicles like the BMW i3 or Nissan Leaf, the segment’s best-selling car. A Leaf can post 84 miles in ideal conditions. So, 84 miles is enough to get to the beach and back, right?

That depends. One favorite LA road trip illustrates this problem. Setting out from West Hollywood near the Farmers Market, you stand 43 miles from Point Dume, that exquisite Malibu destination. You’re not getting there and back without a charge, so you don’t take an EV to get to Dume. In other words, either you keep your range limited or buy a $75,000 Tesla. Hence the race to affordable 200-mile EVs.

Whoever gets there with the right car (early handicapping says Tesla) will corner a significant market. We already counted two sales in the Autos Cheat Sheet staff of three (our third is waiting for a test drive).


4. Dirty power plants

Like coal in your stocking on Christmas morning, coal in your local power plant is a real buzzkill if you want to ride green in an electric vehicle. By the time black rocks coughed out suffocating plumes of smoke to power your EV, those emissions savings are negligible (if they exist in the slightest).

In California, where over half of America’s electric vehicles make their runs, coal only contributes a tiny fraction of the electric grid power, so everything’s fine where most people buy EVs in this country. Down the road, this problem will stand in the way of people who want to make a green impact. Local and state governments need to continue cleaning up the mix of power juicing the electric grid for EVs to achieve extensive emissions reductions.

2014 focus electric
Source: Ford Motor Company

5. Affordable cars

We’ve mentioned the expense of electric vehicles as it relates to both charging and range anxiety, but we still think it deserves its own entry on this list. Let’s say you live right by a free public charging station and drive over 50 miles on rare occasions. You are the ideal EV consumer in 2015. Here’s the problem: You can only afford two or three cars. Two of them are the sort of “boring” and “slow” cars Elon Musk thought were terrible for the public perception of electric vehicles. The other one is the Nissan Leaf. After rebates, you might be able to get a Nissan Leaf for less than $20K. If you can con a Ford dealer to get a Focus Electric on the lot, you might be able to get a similar deal.

Otherwise, you’re spending between $25,000 and $30,000 to get a car that does not compete with gas models in the price range. Electric vehicles have traveled light years to get to this point, and sales of pure EVs grew 58% in 2014. To penetrate the mass market, they have a few more hurdles to clear.