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How the e-car revolution ran out of juice

A small, blue Chinese-built electric car lives on a narrow street around the corner from my apartment, in Rome. There is no charging post or electrical outlet nearby. So how does the owner juice up his car? He simply dangles an extremely long cord from his balcony and plugs it in.

That's how recharging works for almost everyone who owns an electric car or scooter in Rome – an exceedingly small club, smaller even than the number of Roman drivers who stop at crosswalks. And that's one of the main reasons why the e-car revolution has burnt out before it even started. In old, marginally solvent, tightly-packed European cities like Rome, there's no way to recharge a battery-powered car and no municipal money to dig up streets to install a charging network.

The e-car revolution was supposed to be a sort of Manhattan Project for Europe, creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs devoted to e-car development, from creating long-life batteries to charging systems that could draw their power from solar or wind energy. Emitting less carbon into the environment was the other big attraction, since Europe takes climate change more seriously than the Americans and Canadians. To be sure, e-cars are not pollution-free. The electricity to recharge the batteries often comes from dirty coal, or natural gas-fired, plants. But an e-car's construction-to-scrapyard cycle is certainly less carbon-intensive than that of a regular internal combustion car.

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Various governments threw billions at e-cars (or e-mobility, to use the bureaucrats' preferred jargon) and set outlandish targets for e-car sales. In their utopian, smog-free vision, millions of silent, zero-emission vehicles would fill the streets and gasoline- and diesel-powered cars would politely go to rust heaven. Up yours, OPEC.

Now those very same countries are rolling back or killing e-car purchase subsidies and industrial development loans and grants while quietly scaling back e-car use targets. In 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she wanted to see 1 million e-cars on the road by 2020. In early last month, she admitted the goal was impossible and the figure came down to 600,000. Even that may be ambitious.

According to Germany's Spiegel Online, there are fewer 5,000 battery-powered cars in Germany, a country normally obsessed with green-tinged technology. E-car penetration in the rest of the world is equally negligible. In China, they're dudsville. China produced 18.5 million cars and commercial vehicles last year of which a mere 9,000 were electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, according to The Australian newspaper. In the United States, 18,000 electric and plug-in hybrids were sold last year.

Hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius, which combine a gasoline engine with batteries, are the one bright spot on the green-tech spectrum. More than 2 million Priuses have been sold.

E-cars have already become the classic example of "push" industrial policy gone wrong. Governments, and some car makers, notably Nissan, were pushing a technology onto the market that was not ready for prime time. The cars were (and are) way too expensive, the infrastructure – urban and rural recharging stations – virtually non-existent and the battery technology, though improving, was not good enough to eliminate "range anxiety." The best e-cars have a range of about 100 kilometres, though the marketing bumpf would make you believe it's longer. If you own an iPhone and your battery is going dead just as you have to download a crucial hunk of data or send an e-mail to an impatient boss, you get the idea. Except e-car batteries can go dead in the middle of winter in the middle of nowhere.

The trickle of e-car sales is all the more unimpressive when you consider the taxpayer loot flung at the industry. Germany has funnelled about €500-million ($640-million) into e-mobility promotion and tens of billions into subsidies for solar and wind energy that, theoretically, could have powered the nation's bumper-to-bumper fleet of battery-powered cars. In the United States, obscene amounts of money, probably $5-billion (U.S.) or more, has been thrown at battery and e-car development and to three auto makers – Nissan, Tesla and Fisker – to establish e-car production plants.

To be sure, e-cars have enormous potential. But until breakthroughs are made on costs and batteries, and charging networks become extensive, they will remain ultra-fringe products. The one pure battery car that may buck the trend is the tiny new Renault Twizy, a tandem two-seater that is a cross between a scooter and a car. It is not outrageously expensive (partly because you have to rent the battery), is narrow enough to thread its way through traffic like a motorcycle and is light enough to have decent range and acceleration.

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The e-car disappointment shows the futility of trying to pick a winning technology, that is, foisting a technology on consumers that don't want, don't need or can't afford it. There was a better way, one that was ignored. Governments instead could have seriously tightened up fuel economy and carbon-dioxide emissions standards and the market would have sorted out which technologies and fuels would have been best suited to achieve that goal. Fuels such as natural gas and ultra-efficient diesel might have competed with fuel cells, hybrids and battery-only cars or an entirely new propulsion system. The internal combustion engine will be around for a long, long time and that's not entirely the car makers' fault.

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About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More


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