Rising gas prices bring electric cars into spotlight

March 9, 2011 8:34:03 PM PST
Electric cars are hot sellers right now, with waiting lists for both the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf. But how long will it really be before electric cars make a dent in the market place?

Ray Higdon recently drove off with the first Nissan Leaf ever sold at Premier Nissan in San Jose.

I've been waiting for the Leaf about six months," Higdon said.

Down the road, the folks at Capitol Chevrolet can't get enough Chevy Volts to meet the demand.

"I believe if we had a row of them we could sell them as fast as they came in," Capitol Chevrolet spokesperson Mike Luner said.

Despite the fast start for both cars, analysts don't expect those early sales to continue.

"I think right now electric vehicles are a little bit over hyped," Gartner analyst Thilo Koslowski said.

The business research firm Gartner predicts sales of electric vehicles will make up only 5-7 percent of all new vehicles sold by 2020. Those sales could increase to 15 to 20 percent by 2030.

"So that is still far away from some of those very optimistic estimates that some people have, especially in the automotive industry," Koslowski said. "And again, it comes down to the fact the cost of an electric vehicle is still pretty high."

Consumer Reports estimates it would take at least 10 years to recoup the higher cost of the electric vehicle versus a comparable gas vehicle, even when you consider gas savings and combined federal and state subsidies of up to $12,000. For budget-conscious consumers, it recommends the Honda Fit.

"It's still returning between 30-33 miles per gallon overall," Consumer Reports' Mike Quincy said. "It's only costing about $17,000."

But for many, electric cars aren't about saving money; it's about saving the environment.

The city of San Francisco will be installing 60 charging stations in public garages throughout the city and 20 more at SFO. Charging stations are across from City Hall and are for city-owned vehicles.

"It has a real public education value, these are very visible, we have lots of people walking by, taking a look, just saying, 'Wow, what is that,'" SF Dept. of Environment spokesperson Robert Hayden said.

Outside of costs, the biggest criticism of electric vehicles has focused on the limited range. But city officials in San Francisco say it shouldn't be an issue.

"About 75 percent of all trips that are made, this is nationwide, not just in the city, but all trips are less than 40 miles," Hayden said.

Another obstacle may be lack of charging stations.

"It's optimistic to think that you'll see as many charging stations as you do gasoline stations in mainstream America," Quincy said.

Mitsubishi, Ford and Toyota are all scheduled to come out with electric vehicles soon.

Electric cars can plug into a regular 110-volt outlet found in homes, but if you want to reduce charging time, you may have to install a 220-volt outlet in your home at a cost of about $2,000.

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