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It never worked to put the cart before the horse in the old days. In modern times, the electric vehicle will similarly have a hard time taking off before a real electric infrastructure is built.
The Charged 2011 EV Symposium in Silicon Valley recently received some unplanned negative press when a few participants were left stranded by their all-electric Nissan Leafs. One participant stayed late to charge the vehicle and still required a ride home from a gas-guzzling vehicle. Talk about embarrassing!
To help fix the problem, Nissan is testing a truck that charges stranded Leaf vehicles in Japan. That's an innovative solution, but it just doesn't solve the problems standing in the way of more widespread adoption.
The problem is twofold for electric vehicles. They don't have enough range to be more than short-commute vehicles, and when you're in a pinch it's hard to find a charging station. So how do we invest in the electric-vehicle movement without being left out in the cold?
Range anxiety run amok
GM (NYSE: GM ) and Fisker are going with plug-in hybrids, which eliminates reliance on the outlet. This approach essentially makes the transition to an electric vehicle easy and painless for drivers. But other manufacturers are taking a different tack.
Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) is all-electric but is the one competitor with enough charge to make more than a commute to work. When the Nissan Leaf runs out of electrons at 73 miles, the Tesla Roadster still has 172 miles left, give or take. Ford (NYSE: F ) is going electric with the new Focus, and Toyota is putting Tesla's power behind its Rav4, which is under development. Following are four of the most popular electric vehicles and their electric driving range.
|Tesla Roadster||245 miles||No|
|Nissan Leaf||73 miles||No|
|Chevy Volt||35 miles||Yes|
|Ford Focus Electric||~100 miles||No|
*Ford Focus does not have an official EPA range yet.
Until those ranges increase to closer to 300 miles, it's a long shot that electric vehicles will enjoy wide adoption. Betting on electric vehicles has already been a disaster for A123 Systems (Nasdaq: AONE ) and Ener1 (Nasdaq: HEV ) investors. Delays and lackluster sales have meant that demand isn't soaking up huge amounts of the supply that both companies have built.
The electric-vehicle market is risky for investors right now, and Tesla Motors is the only company I would consider investing in. But there is an adjacent market that's taking off to support the electric vehicles where risks aren't nearly as high.
To the rescue
The first hurdle the electric-vehicle industry needs to clear is to get an infrastructure of chargers in place for public use. And progress on this front is happening faster than you might think. AeroVironment (Nasdaq: AVAV ) , General Electric (NYSE: GE ) , and Siemens are working on just such an infrastructure, and they’re expanding it quickly.
Oregon recently selected AeroVironment to build the first phase of its "Green Highway" along Interstate 5. The company will provide "Level 3" (480 V) fast-charging stations that work in a similar way to filling at a gas pump for drivers. Since late 2010, the company has built more than 2,000 lower-voltage "Level 2" stations across the country.
If you want to see just how quickly the infrastructure is being put in place, ChargePoint and PlugShare have easy-to-use apps that show where chargers are available. Since all a station needs is an electrical connection, one can be built in little time and almost anywhere.
AeroVironment, which also makes military drones, is my pick in this rapidly growing sector. Last quarter, revenue increased 39% overall, and the efficient-energy systems division grew by 119%. The business should continue to get stronger as the charging infrastructure gets built out.
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