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12:01 am
Mon November 21, 2011

Can Electric Cars Help Automakers Reach 55 MPG?

Originally published on Mon November 21, 2011 8:07 pm

First in a three-part series

Under fuel-economy rules announced by the White House this summer, cars will have to get an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 — nearly double the current average. Reaching that goal will take not only feats of engineering but also changing how Americans think about their cars and how they drive them.

The electric car is one of the ways carmakers expect to lower their average fuel consumption and get to the 55 mpg average. The problem is, people aren't buying, whether all-electric or plug-in hybrid.

General Motors is struggling to sell 10,000 Chevy Volts this year, and Nissan has sold just over 8,000 Leafs. For context, about 13 million cars are expected to be sold in the U.S. in 2011.

Brian Brockman with Nissan took me on a test drive of the all-electric Leaf. Starting the car, there's no sound of the engine turning on because there's no gas engine under the hood. The car is not only quiet but also smart, and it looks genuinely space-aged.

The Leaf doesn't fly, but Nissan claims the car gets about 100 miles per charge — sort of.

Brockman says physics naturally takes over even with these cars. If you're going 80 mph on the highway, you will naturally get more resistance against the car.

"The car has to work a little bit harder, so the range is going to go down a little bit faster," he says.

What Brockman doesn't say is you're only going to reach the 100-mile range on cool spring days doing about 40 mph, with the air conditioning off and the car going downhill. Consumer Reports, which tested the Leaf, said it gets an average of about 65 miles on a charge.

To see how the cars charge, we drove to a charging station at the local power company near Detroit. The problem is that there aren't yet enough places to go to charge the cars, and right now it can take up to 16 hours depending on the type of outlet used.

The other problem is what car people call "range anxiety."

"That feeling in your stomach starts to set, like, 'Oh, no. What if I can't make it?' And that's part of the problem," says Brian Moody with AutoTrader.com.

Moody says people feel like they don't have a grasp on how it works or how long the range is.

"It's sort of like a microwave oven: You know what it does, but you don't know exactly how it does it," Moody says. "It works by magic, and people don't like that."

Once people actually find out about the cars, they like them even less. Craig Giffi, a U.S. automotive practice leader for Deloitte, recently conducted a study of what people around the world think about electric vehicles. Giffi says people like the idea of electric cars — that's the good news.

"The bad news is that the technology is currently at a point where they have to make trade-offs," Giffi says. "So they want that same vehicle — they want it to look and feel the same. They also want it to perform the same."

Giffi says consumers want an electric car to go as far as a gasoline-powered car on a single charge, and they want to be able to recharge it as quickly as they can refuel.

Nobody is expecting those capabilities anytime soon.

"The problem is, the chances of there being a 500-mile range electric car, at this point, it seems pretty unlikely," Moody says. "You can go to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., and see electric cars. To me, that's not great progress."

Bob Casey, senior curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum, took me on a tour to see some of those electric cars from more than 100 years ago.

One of the vehicles on display is an electric car owned by Clara Ford, wife of Henry Ford. Like today, electric cars in Clara's day couldn't do what gas-powered cars could, so electric carmakers had to turn to niche markets. And there was demand for electric cars, it turned out, among well-to-do urban women, Casey says.

"[The cars are] quiet, they're clean, [and] if you're living in a city you don't have to go very far," he says. "If you're wealthy, you can install a charger in your home or in your garage. And if you're wealthy, you can afford these things, because they were expensive."

Not that much has changed with electric cars in more than 100 years. Casey says if they're to be widely adopted, it's drivers themselves — and their habits — that will need to change.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Let's talk about a different number now, one the Obama administration hopes to make a reality. Under rules announced by the White House this summer, cars will have to get an average of 55 miles a gallon by 2025. That's nearly twice what the current average is. Reaching that goal will takes feats of engineering and it will require Americans to change how they think about their cars and how they drive them. In the first of a series of stories, NPR's Sonari Glinton looks at how the auto industry plans to get to 55.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: The electric car - it's one of the ways carmakers expect to lower their average fuel consumption. The problem is people aren't buying, whether it's all electric or plug-in hybrid. The Chevy Volt is struggling to sell 10,000 cars this year. Nissan has sold just over 8,000 Leafs. To give you some context, about 13 million cars are expected to be sold this year in the U.S. Brian Brockman is with Nissan. He took me on a test drive of their all new electric Leaf.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

GLINTON: All right. How do I know it's on? Oh, Diane Rehm. Oh, look at you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BRIAN BROCKMAN: OK. So when you start the vehicle up, obviously you don't have a gas engine under the hood here, so you don't have what you typically think of a start-up sound, which is that engine turning over.

GLINTON: Not only is it quiet, it's also smart. It looks genuinely space-age. It doesn't fly, but Nissan claims the car gets about 100 miles per charge - sort of.

BROCKMAN: Physics naturally takes over even with these cars. If you go a lot faster - say you're going 80 miles an hour on the highway - you will naturally get more resistance against the car. The car has to work a little bit harder, so the range is going to go down a little bit faster.

GLINTON: So what Brockman doesn't say is you're only going get that hundred mile range on cool spring day doing about 40 miles an hour, when you're not using the AC and car is going downhill.

Consumer Reports tested the Leaf. They say it gets an average of about 65 miles on the charge.

BROCKMAN: So shut the car off with the button here.

GLINTON: Speaking of charging, we drove to over to a charging station.

BROCKMAN: So basically you just tap that. It'll unlock the plug, and then you just plug it into the car.

GLINTON: This charging station is at the local power company near Detroit. Problem is, there aren't enough places yet to go get your car charged. And right now, it can take up to 16 hours, depending on what kind of outlet you use. The other problem - what car people call range anxiety.

BRIAN MOODY: That feeling in your stomach starts to set in, like, oh, no, what if I can't make it? And that's part of the problem.

GLINTON: Brian Moody is with the car website Autotrader.com.

MOODY: People feel like they don't have a grasp on how it works and what the range is. It's sort of like a microwave oven, you know what it does, but you don't know exactly how it does it. It works by magic and people don't like that.

GLINTON: Once people actually find out about the cars, they like them even less. Craig Giffi is with Deloitte. He recently conducted a study about what people around the world think about electric cars. Giffi says people like the idea of electric cars, that's the good news.

CRAIG GIFFI: The bad news is that the technology is currently at a point where they have to make tradeoffs. So they want that same vehicle. They want it to look and feel the same. They also want it to perform the same, which means they want it to go as far. They want to be able to refuel it, or, in this case, recharge it quickly.

GLINTON: Nobody is expecting those changes to happen anytime soon.

Again, Brian Moody with Autotrader.com.

MOODY: The problem is the chances of there being a 500-mile range electric car, at this point, it seems pretty unlikely. Because you can go to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan and see electric cars, to me, that's not great progress.

BOB CASEY: My name is Bob Casey and I'm the senior curator of Transportation at the Henry Ford.

GLINTON: Casey took me on a tour of the Henry Ford Car Museum in Dearborn Michigan.

CASEY: This, by the way, this electric car, was Clara Ford's. Henry's wife drove an electric car.

GLINTON: Like today, electric cars Clara Ford's day couldn't do what gas powered cars could, so electric carmakers had to turn to niche markets.

CASEY: And one place where there was a demand for electric cars was among well-to-do urban women. They're quiet. They're clean. If you're living in a city, you don't have to go very far. If you're wealthy, you can install a charger in your home or in your garage. And if you're wealthy, you can afford these things because they are expensive.

GLINTON: Not that much has changed with electric cars in more than a hundred years. Casey says if they're to be widely adopted, it's drivers themselves and their habits that will need to change.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.