A guide to US electric cars and the love affair of with the American highway

A Renault Zoe Charging at the Geneva Motor Show in 2013. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Publish date: July 31, 2016

NEW ORLEANS – The romance of cars is a part of the American landscape. They hold the promise of freedom. The great American road trip is our most enduing literary and cinematic genre. Getting your driver’s license is a rite of passage more fêted than casting your first vote. The love affair is historical and literal: 3 out of 5 of us have had sex in our cars, and more than 15 percent of us left our virginity in their back seats.

NEW ORLEANS – The romance of cars is a part of the American landscape. They hold the promise of freedom. The great American road trip is our most enduing literary and cinematic genre. Getting your driver’s license is a rite of passage more fêted than casting your first vote. The love affair is historical and literal: 3 out of 5 of us have had sex in our cars, and more than 15 percent of us left our virginity in their back seats.

Clearly, Americans do it in cars. But can we do it green?

It’s not surprising that Tesla got its start in the US. Its sporty Roadster, produced between 2006 and 2011, was vehicular haute couture sported by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Prince Haakon of Norway.

Star power, and the fact the cars could only be ordered online, made EVs cool in the US – a car for the iGeneration. But at $109,000, Johnny is unlikely to take Peggy Sue to lover’s lane, or later, their children to school in a Tesla Roadster. Tesla has recently also moved offline and showrooms have sprouted throughout the US, giving Americans the more familiar experience of kicking the tires before writing a check.

Fast forward a couple of years and enter 12 pretty affordable fully electric cars on the US market, most of which are of produced by traditional car manufacturers, though 2016 promises to see that figure rise this year to 28. From 2013 to now, Mitsubishi, Smart, Ford, BMW, Chevy, Volkswagen, Mercedes, Nissan, Fiat, Kia, and the Tesla Model S and X family sedans.

US sparks, Norwegian explosions

But even with the recent upsurge in E-car purchases in America, which jumped 15 percent in January, what’s happening is hardly a revolution – yet. In all, 410,000 EVs have been sold in the US since 2008. That’s more than in any other country in the world. But the total of EVs on the road in 2014 was still only 0.75 percent of all cars sold, or less that one electric car per 100 car-owners.

The real E-car wildfire started in Norway, which echoed – and dramatically improved on – US federal and state incentives for E-car purchases. By May of 2014, 10.9 percent of all new cars purchased in Norway were electric. That figure more than doubled by July 2015, during which more than two out of every 10 cars sold was an EV– or 23 percent overall.

Bellona’s President Frederic Hauge – another European luminary that owns a Tesla and who helped engineer Norway’s E-car campaign, spilled the secret on Oslo’s success.

“The recipe: give car owners the right incentives, such as no taxes or lower taxes on electric cars, while maintaining or increasing taxes on fossil cars and fuels,” said Hauge by email. “Then you support and fund charging infrastructure along the roads, at home, and at work. People need to be able to use their cars without hassle.”


His how-to guide could translate into some incredible numbers: Had the Norwegian E-car sales percentages been duplicated in the US between 2014 and 2015, 1,943,177 new E-cars would have hit American highways.

Yet, as staggering as Norway’s E-car sales figures are, they still only account for a total of 2.4 percent of the 2.6 million cars cruising the country’s vertiginous fjord highways, which should leave America feeling slightly less shame-faced about its percentage of E-cars to conventional ones. If the US, the world’s second biggest emitter, is only trailing progressive little Norway by 3.2 times, then something must have gone right somewhere along the way.

In late February, disasters like the Volkswagen diesel scandal that hit Europeans and Americans seeking longer distances for lower emissions, offer up a silver lining.

VW at the end of June, negotiated a $15 billion settlement with the state of California over last years scandalous discovery that the manufacturer had installed so-called “defeat devices” on 11 million of its diesel cars. The defeat device – also discovered on certain Audi, Porsche and Renault diesel models – lowered the vehicles’ emissions levels when the cars were in emissions testing mode, while under normal use they were spewing 40 times more pollution than the tests showed.

Unified approach to bringing the voltage

Both the US and Norway set out with some lofty and mutually resonating goals for tackling transport emissions with electric cars. Both countries say that about 27 to 29 percent of their emissions come of cars, and both intend to slash those greenhouse gasses with electric transport. Norway’s capitol, as a city, aims to be entirely transport emissions free by 2035, using EVs only.

President Barack Obama’s efforts began in 2009, with his American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which, among other things, earmarked $2.4 billion in funding for electric vehicle and battery development.

In 2011, Obama promised in his State of the Union address to put 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015. The country as fallen short of that by 600,000, but seems on course for fulfilling the million mark by 2020, according to US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. Eight states are optimistic that the number of EVs will reach three times that by 2025 and have pledged considerable state funding to participate in an EV infrastructure improvement plan, including chargers to fit all EV models, chargers at workplaces, and coaxing rental car and taxi companies to switch to electric fleets.

Money back from the government

The ARRA also established tax credits for electric vehicle customers of up to $7500, which are today taking a bite out of the typical $37,000 cost of any of the top manufacturer’s E-cars by lowering their price to about $30,000, slightly lower than average $31,252 cost for any car bought in America in 2015.

Rebates, tax credits and other perks handed out at a federal level can get even sweeter when you reach car dealerships in specific states. Thirty-seven states offer incentives to EV customers that include driving in carpool lanes, financial incentives, exemptions from vehicle inspections or emissions tests, cheap or free parking or reduced utility rates.

But some states are more generous others with financial incentives. Colorado leads the pack, and will hand you a tax credit of $6000 for buying an electric car. Six other states offer considerable cash as well: Georgia gives you $5000; Illinois, Louisiana and Pennsylvania – $3000, and California will dish out a credit of $2500, though it’ll double that depending on where in the Golden State you live.

So federal and state tax kickbacks in any of these places will knock $10,000 to $13,500 off the average $32,000 cost of the 12 EVs available on the US market. The average US cost of conventional car in 2015 was $33,560, making virtually any EV a bargain with the tax credits. And even without them, five of those EVs sold in the US start at less than $30,000.

Behind the wheel

A recent study of EVs conducted by the Washington-based Union for Concerned Scientists, said the annual costs for feeding electric cars what they need to run is about 70 percent cheaper than gas powered car. A Nissan Leaf, America’s top seller next to the Tesla Model S, costs $431 in electricity bills a year versus $1500 a year for a compact gas car, like Nissan’s own conventional Sentra.

The Nissan Leaf also only pumps 2.3 tons of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere – coming from the local power plant that’s charging it – a year as opposed to the 4.7 metric tons that that will come right out of the tailpipe of the Sentra. And this is a good argument for the persisting need for carbon capture and storage – an environmental technology that has made inroads in the US.

Incentives still don’t guarantee a cheap and easy EV experience

So why aren’t US car buyers crashing the gates of dealerships to cash in on these savings? Unfortunately, only 11 states’ incentive packages include tax incentives. The remaining 26 confine their incentives to special parking privileges, carpool lanes use, free passage on toll roads, EV supply rebates, sales tax exclusions, excise tax exemptions and other perks that are certainly a nice “atta-boy” – but fail to make EVs universally affordable for everyone.

But financial incentives aren’t ultimately suitable to all car markets, said Teodora Serafimova, an EV adviser with Bellona Europa.

“The choice of fiscal incentives packages will largely depend on the characteristics of each state, such as the level of car ownership tax burden, the VAT rates, the cost of electricity, and gas prices among others,” she wrote.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” she noted, adding that the success of California – where nearly half of US EV owners reside – is a combination of approaches, not all of which are financial. She said the state’s “comprehensive EV deployment strategy, including vehicle manufacturer policies (CO2 standards, EV requirements); charging infrastructure investments, electric utility actions, consumer awareness campaigns, and other local initiatives,” as additives that equal or outweigh the state tax break.

Further, many of these federal and state incentives aren’t going to last forever. The $7500 federal tax credit should stand for another three years or so, as the credit itself is tied to the number of EVs sold. That number is limited to 200,000 EVs per manufacturer, then the credits start to phase out.

Norway predicted rise and fall of incentives

Norway, whose incentives are the most extravagant in the world, have gone a long way toward making the purchase of a conventional car borderline idiocy. But the popularity of EVs there is losing the government money. Agence France Presse reported that EVs Owners will have to pay half of the road tax – from which they are now exempt– from 2018 and all of it from 2020. The VAT exemptions will also be replaced by a subsidy, which will probably be revoked over time. And local authorities can now decide whether to offer free parking, exemption from tolls, and the use of bus lanes.

Fear of losing your voltage fix

And another reason EV car sales haven’t reached panic proportions in the US is charge anxiety. Like cellphones, not all car chargers are alike. What fits a Tesla may not fit a Nissan Leaf may not fit a Chevy Volt. And the kind of distance you get off a charge depends on the size of the battery. Tesla’s Model S will get you 460 km on one charge, where the Nissan Leaf, Volkswagen e-Golf or Chevy Spark EV will drain to a halt between 130 to 135 km.

This anxiety should at least partly abate as new battery models increase in capacity and drop in price. Serafimova said that by 2020 batteries are forecast to be 60 percent cheaper than they are now.

But where in the US to charge them remains a treasure hunt. The US Department of Energy says there’s a total of 30,669 publicly available EV charging outlets hosted by 12,203 nationwide. What you have to pay when you find one is also a mixed bag: Some charging stations make you pay by the hour for as much energy as you can suck up. Others charge by the kilowatt hour. Still others demand a flat per session feed, and yet others require you to buy a subscription. And then there are many that are just plain free. Then, tossed into this mix are the variety of different chargers, and not all are guaranteed to fit your specific model EV.

A comprehensive EV fueling infrastructure with universal outlets, said Serafimova, “is a universal pre-condition” to truly substituting electric for gasoline powered travel.

“The challenge is not only ensuring the rollout of a sufficient number of charging stations, but also guaranteeing EV drivers that they’ll be able to reach the closest station, and it will offer them a compatible plug and payment solution,” she said. “Addressing these anxieties is key to rectifying the perception of EVs as limited to the urban environment.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists’ study offered a further chill pill to calm EV performance anxiety: Thirty one percent of US drivers drive more than 95 kms a day anyway, well within the charge distance offered by Mitsubishi iMiEV, the most modest of the EVs on the US market. Further, 56 percent of American homes today –without major infrastructure upgrades – have access to parking and a plug, hence EV charging.

Speeding towards normalization

The boomtown stimulus packages offered in Norway and, to a lesser degree, in the US, will, as EV use and infrastructure levels increase, begin to level out and normalize.

As cheap as EVs are in these two markets at the moment, they promise to become even cheaper in coming years, meaning they will be far more plentiful.

Where EVs make up only one-tenth of 1 percent of the global car market today, they will, by 2040, account for 2035, account for 35 percent of the world’s cars, Bloomberg predicts. Furthermore, EV capable of long ranges – say the range of a Tesla Model S and beyond – will cost less than today’s equivalent of $22,000 without the benefit of major subsidies, said the same report.

Analysts are still grappling with how exactly to project EV sales. But so far they seem to be following some familiar patterns: 2015 saw EV sales grow by 60 percent, the same rate Tesla predicts it will follow through 2020. That’s the same growth rate through the 1910s that the Ford Model T followed in surpassing horses and buggies.

At a regulatory level, Bellona Europa’s Serafimova expected EVs to eventually provide the same kind of tax support at state and federal – or country, in Norway’s case – as their conventional counterparts have in the past.

Other financial boosts could come from other areas as well. Again, the Union Of Concerned Scientists calculated that if only 42 percent of households bought an EV, that would eliminate the need for 350 million barrels of oil a year. This in turn might impact the US – and Norwegian – Government’s motivation to subsidize oil to the tune of billions annually.

At least partial deliverance from oil dependence – the eternal topic for American political debates – is a weighty argument. And so is clean air. After all, Kerouac’s big road story is not a frame from Mad Max, and no American teenager would imagine his first date under a gray sky infused with toxic car fumes.

Affordable, roomy, longer-range EVs – plus the guarantee of fresher air to breath – goes a long way toward maintaining the allure of those long drives down America’s lover’s lane.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Russian in Environment and Rights magazine, published by the Environmental Rights Center Bellona.

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