Monday, November 01, 2010
Driving the Car of the Future
It actually is already economically unattractive. The cost of driving an electric car per mile of use is 1/2 that of driving my Prius, which means it's about 1/4 that of driving a typical gas powered car. Drive a car 15,000 miles per year and you're spending about $1300 extra annually for the privilege of using oil and supporting oil rich nations that don't like the US very much. Why would anyone do that?
The answer to that question was easy in the past. Electric cars required an expensive initial cost relative to mass produced gas cars. They typically had to be charged every 40 miles or so, making them impractical even for a typical commute. Their top speeds were often on the low side, making them unusable for the highway. In short, they were impractical.
But increasingly, those negatives aren't true. I recently drove two all-electric cars, the Tesla Roadster and the Nissan Leaf. The Roadster has been out for awhile, at least a couple of years. On the negative side, it's basically a toy for rich people. The cost is well over 100 thousand dollars, and there is room for no more than two people and maybe one bag of golf clubs. The body comes from Lotus and it drives like a 1000-pound-too-heavy version of an elite gas-powered sports car. The handling is kind of clunky. Basically, the Tesla is a very expensive muscle car.
On the plus side, the car has a 230 mile range and its acceleration provides blood-boiling excitement. Personally if I were very rich and wanted a sports car, I'd just go for the gas-powered Lotus, which I'm sure handles much more nimbly. But the Tesla Roadster does have its uncompromising power.
Then there is the Nissan Leaf. I drove that car last week and it will be available for sale in December. If I remember correctly, 50,000 or so will be built the first year for worldwide use and in the US, every one of the cars that will be available for the first six months or so is essentially already sold. Why? This car is amazing.
The cost of the car after a federal rebate is in the 25-27K range. About 10K of that cost comes from the batteries themselves. I have no doubt that, like Toyota did initially with the Prius, Nissan is pricing this car below actual cost. But as the cost for batteries drops and production becomes more efficient, the Leaf will turn a profit.
What do you get for about $26,000? A Toyota Corolla type of car with a hatchback, comfortable seating for four with lots of headroom, a top speed of 90 MPH and a range (with the air-conditioning off) of about 100 miles. The acceleration is much better than my Prius. The handling is much better than my Prius. On the outside, the car looks boring, but it's actually very fun to drive. The handling reminded me of those old Civic hatchbacks from the 80's, "sportscar-ish" even though it's a front-wheel drive car.
It's true you can buy a similar gas powered car for about 8K cheaper. It's going to take you several years of driving to make up for the initial extra outlay of cash for a Leaf, and that's assuming your don't earn much interest on the cash you'd save by buying a gas car (which is certainly true today). Right now when you buy a car like this, you're really buying it - like the Prius of several years ago - for that feeling of moral superiority.
But wait a few more years. Battery costs will continue to drop dramatically. Battery efficiency will increase. With mass production, the cost differential between electric and gas cars will shrink to almost nothing. The range of these cars will stretch out to 200 miles or more. Basically, as I drove this car I became more and more convinced I was driving the car of the future.
Nissan has a couple more electric models in the works. Volvo is supposedly coming out with an electric car based on Nissan's technology as well. I'd be inclined to buy the Leaf next year regardless because the battery packs are designed to be upgradable. For me, the future is essentially now. My guess is that for many, electric cars will become a very attractive potential purchase by 2014.