A title of a 2006 documentary posed the question: “Who Killed the Electric Car?”
Like Mark Twain’s, the electric car’s death may have been greatly exaggerated.
Nearly 750,000 electric cars have been registered as of 2014, according to the Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research — a mere blip on the windshield when compared with conventionally fueled vehicles, but hardly a worldwide death knell.
As all-electric sticker prices decline — and with reasonable gas prices anything but certain — that raises the question: Rather than stick with a gas-powered car or going halfway with a hybrid, has the time come to consider an electric car?
Possibly, say authorities. But, optimally, for only certain kinds of drivers.
One of the biggest obstacles to buying electric car has been price. On the upper end of the spectrum, that remains true. For instance, the 2016 Tesla Model S starts at approximately $70,000 and, with additional bells and whistles, tops $100,000. The reason for the hefty price tag and others like it is largely due to the cost of the cars’ batteries, which can account for close to half of the vehicle’s overall price.
But that's changing. For instance, Tesla on March 31 was slated to unveil its Model 3 with a base sticker price of a relatively more affordable $35,000. By contrast, Nissan’s 2016 Leaf checked in at a price range of $29,860 to $39,000.
Dropping sticker prices can be attributed in part to lower overall manufacturing costs, particularly with regard to batteries.
“Manufacturing efficiencies and growing volume are two reasons why electric vehicle retail prices are beginning to drop,” said Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor of Kelley Blue Book’s kbb.com. “Also, as more batteries are produced, the lower the per unit costs, as batteries comprise one of the biggest cost components in electric vehicles.”
Attractive deals are particularly true in 10 states and the District of Columbia that require automakers to produce zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) to improve local air quality and slow climate change. Those states are California, Oregon, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine.
“Especially in states following the California Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, prices are artificially low because manufacturers need to sell a certain amount of EVs to maintain sales volumes of their conventional fleet,” said DeLorenzo.
Various government incentives can further sweeten the deal. Hybrid and electric car buyers are eligible for tax credits ranging from $2,500 to $7,500, depending on the size of the car's battery. Individual states also offer reduced license fees, elimination of certain types of insurance surcharges and other financial perks. Th website plugincars.com has a comprehensive rundown of both federal and state-specific programs.
Additionally, electric ownership can cut a consumer's overall energy bill even with dropping fossil fuel prices. As a hypothetical, if electricity costs 15 cents per kilowatt hour, gasoline would have to run roughly 90 cents a gallon and offer 30 mile-per-gallon mileage to offer comparable cost efficiency. Some utility companies push that efficiency even further, offering discounted rates for electric car owners.
Driving an EV may also make commuting to work something less of a headache. Some highways allow electric cars in HOV lanes designated for specific vehicles, such as those with multiple passengers.
As far as performance goes, proponents say the joke of driving an EV is the equivalent of riding in a sewing machine to and from work no longer applies. “The torque is instantaneous,” said DeLorenzo. “They’re quick off the line.”
Despite declining prices and minimal maintenance (no oil changes), stumbling blocks remain for widespread acceptance and use of all-electric vehicles. For many, a big drawback is limited range. Most electric cars can travel between 60 and 100 miles fully charged (the 2016 Nissan Leaf reportedly tops this average at 106 miles.) Moreover, say experts, mileage projections aren't precise, as weather conditions can trim overall mileage.
“Obviously, for most consumers a 200-mile range is desirable,” said William L. Seavey, who operates the website Greenestcar.com. “Electric vehicles will only be a niche market until (greater) range is possible and gasoline prices return to $3 to $4 a gallon or more.”
Then there’s the time spent charging the vehicle. It takes roughly four to six hours and sometimes longer to fully recharge a battery (times vary according to the voltage used and how empty the battery is). Certain premium models come equipped with “superchargers” to shorten the charging time. Motorists can also buy an add-on supercharger for several hundred dollars.
But DeLorenzo warned that faster charging times can also shorten overall battery life.
Given their limitations, electric cars aren't for everyone.
Ginny Scales-Medeiros, co-author of “What Is the Electric Car?,” suggests leasing to take advantage of new electric vehicle technology as it becomes available, to try it out without the long-term commitment. Several models are currently leasing for $200 a month for up to 36 months. Go to Green Car Reports for current information and leasing details.
Consider how an electric car might fit into your driving life. The average American driver logs 13,476 miles a year, or roughly 36 miles a day, according to Federal Highway Administration data. So, motorists living in rural areas or with lengthy commutes may think twice before committing to an all-electric vehicle.
“It’s best if someone lives in an urban setting,” said DeLorenzo, adding that one workable arrangement would be a household with both electric and gas-powered vehicles — each used as individual trips dictate: “There’s a role for electric vehicles as part of a household fleet. It’s a very specific application.”
That hasn't been the case for Scales-Medeiros, who said she hasn’t owned a gas-powered vehicle for close to 10 years: “I’ve never run out of juice once. And, I can always rent a car if I’m going on a long trip.”