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What's the real deal with electric cars?
My Foolish colleague Alex Planes wondered yesterday if it is "too soon to bury the electric car." It almost certainly is -- the technology has shown some promise, and the cars should get better in the next few years.
But the debate around the electric car has heated up a great deal in recent months, thanks to concerns -- real and otherwise -- about the Chevy Volt.
Are electric cars the shining green future of transportation in America? Or an expensive taxpayer-funded boondoggle that nobody wants?
It depends on who you ask. But the truth is, they're probably neither.
Are electric cars the next big thing?
At least in some corners of the world, including the investment community, the hype behind electric cars has been hot and heavy for several years now -- despite the fact that, so far, hardly anyone has figured out how to make a profit on this new category of products.
The Obama Administration clearly heard that hype and bought into it, at least to some extent. The government has made a variety of loans and grants available to automakers and suppliers to help them invest in the technology. It's clear why: If electric cars take off, they'll clean up the environment, reduce America's dependence on imported oil, and -- assuming those loans and grants are put to good use -- put American companies in the forefront of a world-changing technological revolution.
Assuming you buy the idea that government should be "investing" in this way -- and that's a can of worms I'm not going to open here right now -- it seems like a pretty solid investment.
There's just one problem.
They aren't exactly selling like hotcakes
Since its launch in December of 2010 through this past January, Nissan (OTC: NSANY.PK) has sold 10,369 units of its all-electric Leaf in the U.S. The Leaf, a compact that sells for about $28,000 (after a $7500 Federal tax credit) and has a range of around 100 miles on a charge, is the best-selling electric car in the world.
10,000 sold here in a year may sound like a lot, but let me give you a little context: Ford (NYSE: F ) sells over 10,000 of its big F-series pickup trucks every single week, on average.
Now, that doesn't mean electric cars are doomed. Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) has already signed up close to 10,000 buyers for its upcoming Model S sedan. But that's a niche product, like (so far) the Leaf, albeit one with a BMW price tag. A bit further down the price spectrum, Ford just launched an all-electric version of its acclaimed new Focus compact, which should start appearing at dealers soon -- but I don't think anyone expects it to sell in big numbers.
And of course General Motors (NYSE: GM ) has its Chevy Volt. But while the Volt features some sophisticated engineering, functionally it's a hybrid -- albeit an advanced one -- not a true electric like the Leaf or the Teslas. And it isn't exactly selling well, in part because at $32,000 (after that aforementioned tax credit), it's an expensive hybrid.
That's a big part of the problem with this whole electric-car thing -- one that government investment, so far, hasn't yet been able to solve.
Range costs money. How much do you want to spend?
The Volt, like other "plug-in" hybrids coming soon from Ford and Toyota (NYSE: TM ) , is -- functionally speaking -- kind of a cross between a pure electric car and a more familiar hybrid like Toyota's Prius. Charging one of these cars overnight gives you a limited range on all-electric power -- 35 miles for the Volt, according to GM -- after which a gasoline-powered engine (or generator, in the Volt's case) keeps you going.
The short range and the cars' high prices are both results of the limits on battery technology. As anyone who has looked at an order sheet for Tesla's Model S knows, range is expensive, because right now, car-sized lithium-ion battery packs are expensive. Optioning up a Model S from the standard 160-mile range to a battery pack that will give you 300 miles costs a whopping $20,000.
Where the market really headed
Battery prices will almost certainly come down over the next few years -- massive investments in battery technology and battery factories are being made right now, all over the world -- but that's only part of the problem. A lack of recharging infrastructure makes relying on an electric car a daunting proposition, something that's unlikely to change any time soon.
Meanwhile, there are gas stations on every corner -- and better and better hybrids appear at local dealerships every year. Gas may be getting more expensive (though prices have been stable lately), but mass-market auto choices are getting more efficient every year. Ford expects its new Fusion hybrid -- the regular one, not the plug-in "Energi" model -- to get 47 mpg in the city.
That's a bread-and-butter mid-sized Ford that will probably cost you less than the Volt, and will definitely cost you a lot less than a Tesla Model S. Rather than seeing a mass shift to electric cars, Toyota's chief engineer thinks that most of us will be driving hybrids in a decade. I think he's right, and I think investors tempted by the electric-car hype would be smart to consider the possibility that hybrids may be the real future of cars -- at least for the next decade or two.
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