The problem with Electric Vehicles … the word “Electric”

The first decade of the 21st century saw the birth of the hybrid vehicle thanks to the jump in gas prices during 2008 and the resulting rush to buy every hybrid in stock – it was a lot like the excitement that occurs every time a new smart phone is introduced.

With over a million hybrid cars sold during the last decade, I’m not sure we’re going to see the same level of interest with electric vehicles and part of the reason why is the word “electric”. It’s actually a bit negative as it suggests reduced freedom and is often used to describe a niche version of an existing product such as a lawnmower / electric lawnmower, stapler / electric stapler, and a slightly extreme example … chair / electric chair.

In a world that has been shifting to cordless / wireless for over 2 decades, carmakers wanting to ship millions of EVs will need to push the electric wording to the fine print and develop a product with a price / performance point that is attractive to many consumers, probably as an inexpensive second car or neighborhood vehicle.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to see EVs succeed as there will be a bunch of new silicon in each of those vehicles, but the value proposition just hasn’t matured yet and calling them “electric” isn’t helping. I bet there are people that bought a hybrid based on price, performance, and looks alone and didn’t even know it was a hybrid until after the fact. I don’t own one but if you do, I’d love to hear how the sales pitch was handled – was hybrid mentioned and if so, was it the dominant theme or just a casual mention? I can’t wait to hear about the EV sales pitches that should hit the showroom floors later this year.

If you’ve got an opinion on this “electric” topic, I’d love to hear it! Next month I’ll discuss some of the other barriers with EVs. Until then, take care!


  • I've always wanted an electric vehicle, ever since I rode in the golf carts with car bodies on them at the open house where my dad worked - Westinghouse Electric Research and Development.  That was in the 60's.  I looked at some Jet Industries left-overs in the 90's that were offered for sale.  I test drove a couple - they weren't ready for prime time.  I've owned an electric bike.  I looked at hybrids but wasn't impressed by the value proposition, especially for my 28 mile, 3 stop light, 3 stop sign commute.  I bought a CNG car instead.  

    At least on paper, the Nissan Leaf looks like I want one.  I think there are enough early adopters who want an electric car to get things started, just like there were enough early adopters to get the hybrids started before the boom of 2008.  

    I have read articles that said that the Prius outsold things like the Honda Civic Hybrid because it was more recognizable as a hybrid.  In California, the HOV sticker has also played some role, and it is gone now from the hybrids.  

    There is definitely an energy crisis cycle, even less predictable than most business cycles, that will have a big impact on electric vehicle acceptance.  We'll just have to wait and see.  

  • I don't know that I will be looking for a straight electric, primarily due to the range limitation.  I have some scouting trips with my son that are longer than 400 miles.  I doubt that present eletric vehicles can reliably give this range with a fully loaded vehicle and full time air conditioning that we need here in Texas.

    I am in my second hybrid vehicle.  I had a 2006 Toyota Hybrid Highlander that I traded in for a 2010 Toyota Hybrid Highlander late last year.  For trade-in, I received half of what I paid for it in 2005 ($19.5K vs. $39K).  50% depreciation was not bad for a 4 year old car.

    I have to wonder what the depreciation will be for pure electric vehicles, especially as they near the end of the battery warranty.  More competition will be needed or this could be an issue. For drivers that like to keep their cars until the wheels fall off, they could be looking at expensive replacement batteries.

    The improved gas mileage was only one reason for buying the hybrid. When I feel like stomping on it, I enjoy the instant 50 horsepower performance boost.

    Tesla has a sub 4 second 0-60 electric roadster, but $100K is a little out of my budget.


    Bill W.

  • Ken, I think you're on to a better name - the "cordless vehicle."

    We are a 3 Prius household.  I got a Prius in 2004 (after a 5 month wait on the list).  I knew more about the car than the sales staff.  My wife picked up one in 2006.  My daughter started driving earlier this year so I handed down the 2004 to her and picked up a used 2007 for me.

    The car certainly appealed to the engineer in me, but the roominess, hatchback flexibility, and overall value were the real hooks.  Averaging 53.6 mpg has been quite a money saver and the car has been very reliable.  I've got a load of data posted at  

    I've been following electric vehicles and I still worry that the batteries are not ready for prime time.  The genius of the Prius was keeping the NiMH battery operating in the 40%-80% range to extend the life, then offering a full 8 year, 100,000 mile warranty.   Full electric (or cordless) cars will tax their batteries much harder which is bound to shorten their life.  I know a lot of folks are working on the lithium-ion (and a few other chemistry) batteries.  Good energy storage is still a gating item.  

  • Ian, it's funny you mention golf carts because that topic is already on my list of future blog posts so stay tuned. And if you do decide to get a Leaf, I'd love to get a ride and blog about the experience! On a more serious note, I am concerned about the rumors of a $20K dealer mark-up for the Leaf - that would be a major party killer for the early adopters.

    Bill, I have the same concerns as you do regarding "the battery" - it is also on my blogging list. I also think your point about improved acceleration (due to the electric motor assist) will be one of those positives that will eventually sway people to buy a hybrid over a non-hybrid as the price difference narrows or disappears completely as is the case now with the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid.

    Paul, holy cow! that's some impressive data on your 2 Prius' - . I particularly like the metric "Time Saved Not Stopping for Gas" - good one :)  I also agree with your point that the batteries are not quite ready for prime time. I've seen a forecast or two suggesting a glut of Li-ion batteries on the market around the 2015 timeframe so battery pack costs should be much lower. Then the only remaining significant barrier will be charging times with the goal being to duplicate the gas station exprience - the 4 minute fill-up!