There were supposed to be one million electric vehicles (EVs) cruising America’s roads this year, but we’ve fallen well short of that 2009 goal. Today there are just 300,000 EVs in the U.S., and in March the government quietly revised downwards its EV goals for government fleets.
That nice, round target was set in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse. The newly inaugurated President Obama was full of hope and still promising change, and desperate auto company CEOs had been forced to beg Washington to save the auto industry with massive bailouts. Those circumstances allowed the President and his allies to set what, if we’re being kind, might be called a “stretch goal”: one million EVs by 2015. But here we are, and less than one third of the President’s 2009 target have been purchased in the past six years. By contrast, it takes Ford fewer than six months to sell as many F-150s, a single truck in its entire fleet of autos.
Consumers aren’t buying EVs, despite the generous heaping of government support such eco-friendly purchases might net them (each electric vehicle buyer gets a federal tax credit of $7,500 plus state incentives, all of which can add up to several thousand more depending on the circumstances). For its part the federal government has bought more than its fair share of electric vehicles, as Bloomberg reports:
The U.S. bought about 24,816 electric and hybrid vehicles during Obama’s presidency, or about 7 percent of government purchases in that time…. U.S. consumers bought about 286,814 of those models from 2009 to 2014, or 3 percent of overall sales.
But Uncle Sam’s shopping spree couldn’t get us to our goal, just as automakers couldn’t convince the American public to shell out for the “car of the future.” Despite what your average environmentalist might try to tell you, this doesn’t have anything to do with some conspiracy cooked up by Detroit and Big Oil. Rather, it has to do with the cars themselves, and more specifically with their batteries.
Range is still an issue for EVs, and even Elon Musk’s super-hyped Supercharging stations take 30 minutes to recharge a spent battery (every other option takes significantly longer). Researchers haven’t produced batteries capable of replicating the job gasoline does for us, a job we may take for granted but when put in the proper perspective is truly extraordinary. Consider this bit of number-crunching from Science 2.0:
A gallon of gas contains the energy density to power your television for 36 straight days—in a comparatively tiny package. How large a battery would you need to run a TV for 36 days? Gigantic.
Batteries’ low power density limits vehicles’ range, and that’s a problem. EV proponents say that potential customers are in the grip of an irrational “range anxiety,” citing study after study showing that the vast majority of car trips fall well within the limits of current EV range. That may be true, but those frustrated greens can join every economist ever in being boggled by the irrationality of the consumer.
None of this was impossible to predict in 2009. Back then the Obama administration appeased its green base and picked a nice-sounding number, and now that reality has had time to catch up, everyone hoodwinked by that exuberance is feeling foolish, to say nothing of those that orchestrated this policy flop.
Like most green missteps, this electric vehicle embarrassment carries with it an opportunity cost. The money and political capital spent on going after this unreachable goal would have been much better spent on the research and development of better battery technology capable of actually affecting consumer behavior, even without $7,500 in tax breaks. The White House will hope to sweep this under the rug, but it’s worth a closer look—this is what happens when green idealism blinds policymakers to the less sexy truths of our world.