Is It Time to Buy an Electric Car?

Once a project or cause makes its way into the pages of a president's annual address to the nation, it usually becomes kind of a big deal.

So with President Obama teeing up a renewed emphasis on electric and hybrid cars in last month's State of the Union speech, it was no surprise that each of the major automakers came strongly out of the gate with fuel-efficient models at this year's Washington Auto Show, held in Washington, D.C., from Jan. 28 to Feb. 6.

Within minutes after the show's opening on Public Policy Day, head honchos from General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) , Ford (NYSE: F  ) , Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) , and even BMW (OTC: BAMXF.PK) had begun touting their latest and greatest ideas.

When you're walking around the showroom floor, eyeing all of the shiny, perfectly coiffed new cars, trucks, and SUVs – not to mention the Advanced Technology SuperHighway – it's easy to buy in. Why not? There's little argument that a lessened dependence on petroleum-based automobiles is a good thing.

But is it realistic? Not someday -- but soon?

Toyota surely seems to think so. Heralding its family of Priuses as the wave of the future, company Vice President James Colon was proud to tout each member of the Prius clan, from the original hybrid model to the new electric vehicle.

Colon wasn't alone. Ford's representatives debuted the new all-electric Ford Focus, which just that morning had been named Green Car Journal's Vision Award. General Motors' reps touted the Chevy Volt, which took center stage for the second year in a row. And BMW, while clearly sticking to what it does best – muscly, sexy vroom-vroom cars that suck the gas right out of the pump – even made some concessions to cleaner petrol-based cars, adding more miles to the gallon in many of its vehicles.

All of this is fine and well, and as an admitted tree-hugger, I confess that I want very badly to get swept up in all the Electric Boogaloo. But I'm just not sure it's reasonable. My husband and I are a one-car family, carpooling hither and yon with not even a garage in which to park our car. (There's only street parking around our DC-area townhome.)

Sure, we commute the two miles to work by car (well within electric-car range), but we do love a nice long road trip from time to time, not to mention simply setting out for parts unknown on a Saturday afternoon. Where are the electric filling stations between here and our family in Florida or Indiana? More broadly, where is the electric infrastructure that is needed for these snazzy new cars?

The automakers would argue that it's coming; that if you build the car, the infrastructure will populate itself in short order. But I've got little faith in the notion that electric filling stations will be on my block anytime soon. And I'm in what would presumably be one of the top markets in the country! (Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA  ) surely seems to think so – the company has opened a showroom in Washington, D.C., and it's presumably eagerly awaiting throngs of buyers for its all-electric, and extremely good-looking, Roadster.)

I have high hopes for alternative energy and new ways of getting from Point A to Point B. I want to embody the pioneer spirit and rush right out to purchase a Volt, a Focus, or a new Prius. But though it may pain Thomas Edison to hear it, I'm just not sure America is ready for the switch to electricity. And until the automakers put longer-lasting batteries under the hood, and provide would-be road trippers with a little bit of confidence, I'm not sure the technology is fully in place, either.

Want to follow the major automakers as they foray further into the Electric Era? Add them to your watchlist!

What do you think about the electric car – or the president's push toward energy efficiency? Chime in via the comments box below.

Hope Nelson-Pope is online coordinating editor at The Motley Fool and the proud owner of a 2010 Ford Escape. She'd love to put an electric docking station on the sidewalk in front of her house, if only to give the neighbors something to talk about. She owns none of the companies mentioned in this story. General Motors is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Ford is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (15) | Recommend This Article (6)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2011, at 7:27 PM, buffalonate wrote:

    Electric cars will be economically viable within 5 years. They are making quick advances in battery technology. The problem with electric vehicles is they get their power from coal and natural gas so they don't make much sense. Natural gas is the real fuel of the future. It is cheap, clean, and we have huge amounts in the U.S. The transportation sector is moving to natural gas quickly but there are very few cars available that can use natural gas.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2011, at 7:47 PM, MellowGuy1 wrote:

    Hope is correct that electric cars won't be a solution for many families. Hybrids effectively reduce gasoline consumption and plug hybrids will be an improvement for those that don't go on long trips daily.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2011, at 8:01 PM, pryan37bb wrote:

    "The automakers would argue that it's coming; that if you build the car, the infrastructure will populate itself in short order"

    Fields of Dreams much? If you build it, he will come?

    Regarding the limited range of all-electric vehicles, the Chevy Volt is clearly the perfect compromise, and it's ready today, not "someday." You can go 50 miles on battery only, and then the ten-gallon gas tank powers a generator that provides a charge that adds another 300 miles to the range. Long story short, drive from New York to Florida with about four gas stops (in ideal conditions) and only ten gallons of gas per stop. That'd be susbtanitally cheaper than what I paid to drive that route, fueling up six or seven times with a tank in excess of 20 gallons.

    Tesla's problem: they're bleeding money and have only rolled out one car to speak of. And that one car is a $110,000 all-electric sports car. People who can afford sports cars aren't the people who worry about paying more for gas than electricity; people who worry about the rising gas prices and want to switch can't shell out six figures for that car. So TSLA's basically selling a glow-in-the-dark sundial.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2011, at 8:07 PM, islandgreentech wrote:

    2 things: Hope must have 2 salaries, one from MF and 1 from General Motors. The one from GM pays her to publicaly denigrate electric cars and encourage range anxiety about cars that now already go 100 miles for her weekend trips to Philly. Very sad use of a priveleged position.

    AND

    with 2 huge salaries from MF and GM, doesn't allow her to pay up for a Hybrid Escape for trips to NYC. And a rental guzzler to get to Indiana.

    Shame on MF for posting such silly Chevron/GM/Saudi propaganda.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2011, at 10:19 PM, sanytee wrote:

    Ideally, we can reduce our oil consumption beginning with our interstate trucking system. We need to offer incentives to convert to natural gas.

    To accelerate the conversion process, increase the tax on diesel for trucks (not cars) 50 cents a year for the next five years.

    This could apply to our city buses and sanitation trucks over the next few years.

    Conversions would add jobs as they need to be performed here.

    I too have range anxiety. We do have hybrid technology that can be applied to almost our our cars and SUV's. Start a 3% tax in 2014 on all new vehicle purchases that are solely gasoline powered which increases to 15% in Five years.

    We can help our environment and fund the transitions with these taxes.

    This could cut our vehicular consumption by more than half.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2011, at 10:24 PM, sergeanted wrote:

    Electric cars are no more then a novelty , their cost is prohibitive [ex.-chevy volt $42000] , they really don't save on fuel as their source of recharge comes from power plants that burn coal , nat. gas , etc. . They also have a less then desireable appearance and their lack of weight would be a serious shortcoming in an accident . I really don't see a significant future for this technology.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2011, at 10:54 PM, doctorolds wrote:

    Electric cars have huge shortcomings. The very best batteries available require 50 pounds of battery to story the equivalent of 1 pound of fuel.

    In the case of the Volt- think: $10,000 gas tank that holds just one gallon of gas!

    Still, you have to walk before you can run. Companies are Intensely focused on battery cost reduction. Costs may come down to the point that these cars can be sold at both a more reasonable price, and good for the makers, a little bit of room for a few dollars in profit.

    I is doubtful that any of them make any money right now.

    Comments about how electric power is generated conflate two separate issues. The electrification of the auto takes the car completely out of the vehicle emissions equation.

    Work to develop cleaner power production- realistically Nuclera energy- is necessary regardless of whether there are any electric cars at all.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2011, at 11:06 PM, doctorolds wrote:

    @sergeanted - Electric cars are actually quite a bit heavier due to the weight of the battery, and in Volt's case, a gas engine as well.

    In the case of Volt, the structure is common with Chevy Cruze, one of the safest small cars on the market

    This technology is an enabler for the eventual day when fuel cells will be affordable. Right now, change Volt's $10,000 fuel tank to $40,000, still way to expensive for production, albeit with more than one gallon's equivalent capacity. Hydrogen fuel cells still won't match hydrocarbon fuels for energy density, and require substantial infra structure investment- about $1 million per station. ent is .

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2011, at 11:08 PM, pryan37bb wrote:

    Regarding the prohibitive costs of electric cars: you're not taking into account the $7,500 tax credit you get for buying electric cars like the Volt, nor the dizzying amount of money you save when you consider how much it costs to drive an electric car a certain distance versus a conventional car of similar weight the same distance. Electricity costs a mere fraction of what you'd pay for gas. And to people who say that it doesn't matter since coal is used to make the electricity anyway, how about the charging stations being installed with solar panels, the giant wind turbine farms popping up, giant hydroelectric generators, and that company in California that leases solar panels to private citizens, who can then sell excess voltage back to the power company? Who denies that this country is getting greener, both environmentally and financially?

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2011, at 11:42 PM, pryan37bb wrote:

    And stop accusing the author of being on the take, that's just pathetic. Next time. make an actual argument that might conceivably contribute to an intelligent debate or take your baseless allegations elsewhere. I'm sure the Fools' contributors put integrity above all else in their writing.

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2011, at 12:20 AM, m176990 wrote:

    I like to look at it more micro than macro. I bought a small 100% electric Zap car recently. I drive it to work everyday. Also to the grocery and drug stores. Anytime I need to make a short trip. I have my gas car for longer trips and for towing the camping trailer. But I put gas in it half as much as I used to. And the Zap only costs around $10,000. It's small and rides like a truck but I laugh every time I drive past the gas station. And knowing that I am not directly putting emissions into the air makes me happy. Stop bashing it and give it a try.

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2011, at 11:04 AM, Trish911 wrote:

    The article said an electric car not an electric motorcycle. Hate all you people referring to a zap as a car it is NOT a car has Not passed either US NHTSA safety standards nor passed European NCAP standards

    and the 2008 model they imported failed the brake standards of 2008 and hasn't been imported to this country again. Sure you can find one up on Ebay for less then 4,000 but then again it is not a car it is classified as a Motorcycle. The other vehicle mentioned the Tesla, the Chevy Volt and the Ford Focus (electric)

    will all have passed NHTSA standards and are accurately classified as cars. Good Luck to all and make sure your vehicle has the minimum safety standards to guarantee you can continue driving another day.

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2011, at 1:45 PM, acampbell3 wrote:

    Been driving electric cars for over 10 years, nothing fancy, but I love it so much, driving anything else seems unclean. Once you start, you never want to go back.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2011, at 2:18 PM, baldheadeddork wrote:

    The problem for wider adaptation of electrics, and even hybrids, is a huge increase in the efficiency of gas engines and drivetrains in the last few years.

    When my wife bought her Scion xB in 2005 it was one of a few non-hybrids that got better than 30mpg highway. She's beginning to look for a new car and now she can match the fuel economy of her Scion with any midsize sedan, or get 40mpg from several compact models. With the midsize she'll get more car for the same price as a Prius, and with a Focus or Elantra she'll get Prius-matching fuel economy for several thousand dollars less.

    Direct fuel injection and more efficient transmissions have made this possible, and we're not done yet. Start-stop systems, where the engine shuts down when the vehicle is stopped, are coming this fall and will be universal within two years. This will raise city fuel economy substantially at a cost of under $100 per vehicle. Beyond that, the next generation of compact vehicle engines will be one-liter turbocharged engines that will offer the power of existing 1.6-1.8l engines with better fuel economy.

    I'm confident this is going to be the wave of the future, not advanced hybrids or EV's, for two reasons. The first is economics for the manufacturers and consumers. All of this is substantially less expensive than hybrids or full electrics. The second reason is the level of diminishing returns on hybrids/electrics as fuel economy improves on conventional models. If you can get 40mpg from a $22K Focus, Cruze or Elantra, spending an additional $7K to get 48mpg is going to be a very hard sell unless gas becomes ridiculously expensive.

  • Report this Comment On February 18, 2011, at 4:55 PM, muddlinthrough wrote:

    Okay, guys.

    Let's check a couple of assumptions about this wonderful, 'green' electric car.

    First premise: the only truly 'green' thing humans can do for the planet is to die off en mass. But we're not going to do that, so...

    1) Batteries require lithium refinement.

    2) Lithium is a highly reactive metal, so it's trickier to work with than steel, aluminum, and other manufactured components in the system

    3) These puppies (the batteries) don't have an infinite, 'build it and then use it through the life of the car.' Yes, yes, recycle away, but right now, you have a $4000-$10000 item that has to be replaced long before the car will go out of service.

    4) Electricity ain't free. Source of that nifty 'non-polluting' car motive force? Probably coal. Maybe NG. Very unlikely, wind, but possible. Some nuclear. Oops.

    Soooo...you want me to buy a vehicle that has an additional 50% overhead for CoO (cost of ownership) at a 25-40% premium (excluding Tesla) so I can feel better about saving the environment?

    Riggggggggggggght.

    This is what happens to an empire when they quit raising engineers and scientists and soldiers and start working on self-esteem and 'service economy' jobs. Critical, productive thinking and economical sense goes right out the window, and into an 'emerging market' not-so-near you.

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