The troubles of electric-car-maker Fisker Automotive have fueled another round of debate about whether plug-ins can live up to their promises. The California start-up, which had already halted production and laid off most of its employees, missed a federal loan payment Monday and told a congressional hearing on Wednesday that it may not be able to avoid bankruptcy.
This is probably the end of the road for Fisker. But definitely not for electric cars. Let me dispel some of the myths.
1. The electric car is dead.
This myth is partly my fault, perpetuated by the title of my 2006 documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” The signs back then weren’t promising. Under pressure from car companies and other lobbyists, California rolled back its Zero-Emission Vehicle mandate, which had helped get nearly 5,000 electric cars on the road. The change in the regulation freed carmakers to round up the cars they had leased — and then surreptitiously crush them.
Thankfully, it takes more than a crusher to kill a technology. Today, almost all the major automakers, along with a cast of new players, are investing in and building plug-in cars. California’s mandate has also made a comeback, and other states are considering similar rules.
Fisker’s struggles can be attributed, in part, to the fact that start-ups in any industry have a high rate of failure, and launching a start-up in the automotive sector is especially expensive. That makes it all the more impressive that Fisker’s rival Tesla turned a quarterly profit this year.
A new report from IEE, part of the Edison Foundation, projects that between 5 million and 30 million electric cars will be on U.S. roads by 2035. “The electrification of the vehicle fleet is a foregone conclusion,” says former GM vice chairman (and former electric-car-basher) Bob Lutz.
Economics, politics and technology all played a role in the turnaround. Soaring gas prices in 2008 got everyone complaining. U.S. manufacturers, stuck with large inventories of low-mileage SUVs and facing bankruptcy, watched with envy as Toyota rode the buzz from its Prius hybrid to become the world’s No. 1 carmaker. The chief executives of Detroit’s Big Three further reassessed after being chastised for flying corporate jets to congressional bailout hearings in November 2008. When they returned to Washington two weeks later, they arrived in electric hybrids. Since then, partly with the help of government loans (some already repaid), electric-car technology has made big strides.
2. Electric cars can’t get people where they need to go.
I’ve been driving electric cars for 15 years and have yet to run out of power. But ask people what their biggest hesitation is about electric vehicles, and they’re most likely to say something about the cars leaving them stranded. This myth is so pervasive that General Motors applied to trademark the name for it: “range anxiety.” A controversial New York Times test drive in February of Tesla’s Model S, which ended up needing a tow to a charging station, seemed to confirm the fear.
But that test drive — covering more than 500 miles in temperatures as low as 10 degrees — was not your everyday trip. The average American drives fewer than 40 miles a day. That’s well within the 75-mile-plus range of most electric cars. And while batteries do run down faster in extreme cold, on a normal day Tesla’s Model S can go as far as 265 miles on a single charge.