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Why Electric Cars Aren't Catching On--Yet

The Wall Street Journal has a great piece today on some of the obstacles preventing electric cars from catching on in the United States. Most of the looming uncertainties are things we've covered before, like that pesky chicken-or-egg problem of how to build a critical mass of charging stations to make electric cars viable for drivers. (See here and here for some previous coverage of this topic.) But here's something I hadn't seen before—some companies are worried about new rules about range advertising:

One of the concerns Tesla raises is that the Environmental Protection Agency is looking at new ways to measure how far electric cars can go before they need to be recharged. The aim is to make the advertised range figures better reflect how people drive their cars in the real world. Some of the new test methods the EPA is considering could require electric-vehicle companies to reduce the advertised range of their vehicles by as much as 30%. ...

If electric-vehicle marketers are forced to scale back their advertised range figures, it could diminish the number of potential buyers. But large numbers of customers getting stuck by the side of the road with a dead battery because they believed exaggerated range claims would be worse.

Should this matter? Let's see. Tesla is claiming that its Roadster can go 245 miles between charges. Nissan claims that its all-electric Leaf can go up to 100 miles before it has to be plugged in. Now, it's quite possible that these numbers are overly optimistic, and would have to get knocked down once you start accounting for air temperature, speed, power drain from air conditioners, and so forth. So let's slash both figures by 30 percent. What's the big deal?

After all, the vast majority of Americans commute less than 40 miles per day. So both cars would still allow people to do all the driving they need to do before plugging in at night (although hopefully we'll have a smart grid in place so that everyone's not powering up right at 6 pm and overloading the system). Except that now we're bumping up against a weird psychological fact about American car consumers. As a Better Place official explained to me, market research shows that most drivers want to feel like they can just get into their car and drive cross-country if they have to anytime they want. So even if they never drive more than 40 miles at a time in practice, they still get nervous about buying cars with short ranges. That's why these EPA rules matter.

That's one reason why Better Place thinks it can make inroads into the electric-car market. Remember, this is the company that would lease batteries to its customers and allow them to swap out for a fresh battery whenever they want. Consumers would essentially be buying miles the way cell-phone owners buy minutes. That way, if you wanted to drive cross-country in a Better Place car, you could: No need to wait hours for a recharge every time the batter putters out—just go to a swapping station and get a new one.

Right now, Better Place is setting up a charging network in Hawaii and possibly California, but for now it's mostly staying out of the U.S. market. As its founder, Shai Agassi tells the Journal, the company's focusing on countries like the Netherlands, where gas prices are two to three times the price in the United States. Congress could try to attract more electric-car investment by either a) raising the gas tax or b) subsidizing public charging stations. The former's unlikely, as always, but Byron Dorgan does have legislation that would do the latter. Might be an idea worth including in the Senate energy bill that's supposedly coming out soon.

(Flickr photo credit: david_megginson)