Editorial: Electric cars are on a roll

Published: 1/18/2017 11:45:05 PM

There’s a conversion slowly taking place in the American driveway, a shift that may soon find itself in the fast lane.

Electric vehicles – a symbol of environmental consciousness and ingenuity for early adopters – have the very real potential to go mainstream. But it’s not for the reason you may think. The environmental benefits of electric cars have been touted for decades. The reason they may take off are the very limitations that have held them back – cost and convenience.

The past 10 years have seen steady growth in electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids across the globe, first in the United States and now in China and Europe. According to the International Energy Agency, there were about 1.3 million electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids on the world’s roads by the end of 2015, with about a third of those found in the U.S. This classification of car – which doesn’t include the popular Toyota Priuses that started to change driver perspectives – accounts for less than 1 percent of all vehicles on the road. But with the right policies, and the right prices, the IEA says we could have 20 million electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids on the world’s roads by the end of the decade, and 100 million within 10 years.

Why the optimism? It’s less because of the flashy Tesla Roadster – and it’s six-figure price tag – and more because of the emerging economy market that will include cars like the Chevy Bolt.

The Bolt, which is slated to arrive in the Northeast this spring, will answer two critical concerns. First, its range is expected to easily surpass 200 miles per full charge, a psychological milestone for those of us who worry we’ll run out of gas, err, power. Just as important is the price tag, which could be under $30,000 for the base model after a $7,500 rebate.

If Bolt sales stall out – unlikely considering the buzz in the auto industry – it could prolong the path to the mainstream. But if sales soar, it very well may usher in a new wave of lower-cost, higher-range models. Consumers, armed with options, will be more willing to listen.

First, though, legitimate obstacles remain.

Where’s the nearest charging station? Drivers are right to worry about the lack of charging stations. No one wants to plot their road trip based on a game of “Connect the Charging Stations.” The Obama administration last year introduced plans to add charging corridors that would extend along highways in 35 states, including New Hampshire. The goal is to have charging stations located every 50 miles. And you’d have one at your home. Try doing that with a gas pump.

How long it takes to charge: If you’re on a road trip or a longer commute, stopping to top off that battery will make the commute that much longer. Charging times of 30 minutes to two hours just don’t fit into the busy American lifestyle. This is why a significant boost in federal dollars for research and development would be a wise investment.

When you charge matters: This is where consumers need to make changes. (Wait, wait. Some of these changes may actually make your life easier some day.) When we consider how to charge an electric vehicle, we tend to see it through the network of gas stations. But you likely don’t drive farther than 200 miles at one time very often. Mostly, you’re going on short trips, from your house, to work, to the mall, to the grocery store. In an EV world, that means when you’re not at home, you plug in at work, at the store or at the hotel. Really, this means you’d save money because the businesses want to you charge while shopping, and you’d save time because you won’t ever have to make those left hand turns in search of a gas station. It also means retail businesses, offices, parking garages, town planners and developers need to start thinking about how they’d help build the network.

How you plug in: A transportation system built on electric cars would help with local air quality, but it wouldn’t move the needle much if we’re still getting our power mostly from power plants that burn fossil fuels. The most compatible solution pairs electric vehicle charging stations with solar power, but that marriage would certainly require that the state look at its solar incentives and its net metering rules.

Even farther down the road: In an EV world, shrinking revenue from a gas tax would be a strain on funding for roads and bridges. How will EV drivers pay their share for the upkeep of our roads? Future legislation may look to models based on miles driven, rather than gallons purchased. Just think, maybe someday we’ll even get to the point when we ask, “Hey, how many miles do you get per killowatt hour?”

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