While Hurricane Sandy forced me out into the night to sit in '70s-style gas lines to fill my truck's gas tank and a couple of cans to power my generator, I got to thinking that, in addition to feeling like I was in Soviet Russia waiting for my ration of toilet paper, maybe I should have bought an electric car instead of the pickup I did. Rather than sitting in miles-long gas lines, I'd be driving by them, waving smugly at all the fools still bitterly clinging to their gas-hogging cars.
Of course, it then came to me why I was in line for hours on end: I was using a generator to provide a modicum of electricity to my house that had been left powerless by the storm. A Chevy Volt or Nissan (NASDAQOTH: NSANY.PK) Leaf might have bypassed a whole bunch of gas stations, but eventually it would need to be recharged, and without power I couldn't do that. Possibly I could use my generator to recharge the batteries, but I'd still be sitting in line to get gas for it.
One hot car
There are other environmental concerns as well with EVs that aren't in the owner's manual. The auto blog Jalopnik reported that 16 Fisker Karmas, the sleek luxury electric hybrid, were parked at Port Newark and were flooded by the hurricane's storm surge. While any car, gas or electric, would suffer significant damage and probably be totaled as a result, it seems the Karmas "caught fire and burned to the ground."
That's not something that typically happens to a gas-powered vehicle, but it is something that's happened previously to Fiskers and General Motors' (NYSE:GM) Volt, as quite a few of the cars have spontaneously combusted. And EVs require special maintenance, like not allowing the battery charge to get too low and not parking it for extended periods of time without recharging it. Otherwise, as one Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) owner found out, you run the risk of turning your high-priced auto into a "brick."
Many of the problems associated with the self-combusting autos were due to batteries produced by the now-bankrupt A123 Systems. It had to recall its entire production run consisting of tens of thousands of batteries because of faulty manufacturing issues, costing it tens of millions of dollars.
Yet Nissan also had battery problems for its cars operating in Arizona. Seems they experience a greater-than-average battery capacity loss because of a "unique usage cycle": Higher-than-average operating miles in high-temperature environments over a short period of time causes them to burn out. I guess Arizona businesses that are reliant on their cars shouldn't plan on switching to EVs anytime soon -- or should buy a Volt or Tesla instead, since they use battery-cooling technologyÂ .
A blackout on gains
Alternative-fuel vehicles are still selling well, so long as you count hybrids like Toyota's (NYSE:TM) Prius in the mix. The Fool's Chris Baines points out that EVs and hybrids are the second biggest-selling vehicles in the U.S., behind Ford's (NYSE:F) F-pickup series (that's what I ended up buying). When states like California are experiencing gas prices of $5 a gallon (and not even from shortages caused by a major hurricane), there may still be some sense to it all.
Yet if you exclude the Prius, then the market continues to show that EVs are still a fringe niche. Chevy may have sold more than 19,000 Volts this year, certainly moving a lot more than it had in 2011, but it remains a tiny fraction of the overall car market and it's only because the company is virtually giving them away that it can claim the sales-leader title. Reuters estimates that GM is losing $49,000 on every Volt it builds, and it's had to resort to extremely low-cost lease deals -- $199 a month! -- to move them off the lot. While GM may dispute the actual loss per vehicle,Nissan and Toyota aren't willing to bleed themselves to move their cars, and that probably explains why their sales numbers are a lot lower.
Fill 'er up!
From technological issues to cost to environmental challenges, the EV and hybrid market still can't compete with its fossil-fuel rivals. Whatever the future holds for the niche, I think we'll look back on the current alt-fuel car market as one that wasn't capable of rising to the challenge and still not ready for prime time.
My guess is that the alt-fuel vehicle that will catch on will be natural gas ones. Although engine maker Westport Innovations (NASDAQ:WPRT) reported bleak guidance as OEMs cut back on production, it will ultimately power the car that's able to make its mark on the auto market. As the infrastructure is built up to support the industry, we'll see nat-gas vehicles proliferate. Until then, however, I'll sit in my pickup waiting for my ration of gas to get me through the cold night.
Rich Duprey has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford, Tesla Motors , and Westport Innovations. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Ford, General Motors, Tesla Motors , and Westport Innovations. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.