2017 Is The Year The Electric Car Goes Mainstream

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With Jose Pontes from EV-Volumes.

Having been a car aficionado since I’ve known myself, I had already read about electric cars during the ’90s, but found them only suitable for hardcore fans, given that for double the price of a regular gas car, electric cars had only 100 kilometers range and 100 km/h maximum speed. I hadn’t given much thought to electric cars until one fine spring afternoon in 2002, when I had the chance to try a Citröen Berlingo Electric van, and then something clicked. Yes, the range was limited, but for small trips, like a work commute or to do the grocery shopping, it was more than enough, with the added plus that you could recharge it anywhere, as long you could find a socket.

The maximum speed didn’t make it highway suited, but for the urban environment, it was sufficient. Then, I found two virtues of electric cars I hadn’t read before: the instant torque and acceleration at low speeds. For a few seconds, it made the Berlingo van feel like a powerful hot hatch. While the absence of engine noise first felt strange, my mind quickly appreciated the added silence, making the driving experience much more serene. The shock came afterwards, when I returned to my diesel Fiat Uno, when I felt I had transitioned from an oasis of tranquility to an inferno of noise and vibrations.

From that moment on I became a fan of electric cars and believed that, even then, in 2002, if prices were reduced by mass production, there would be a selling case for electric vehicles (EVs). Unfortunately, neither carmakers nor governments were willing to push these kinds of vehicles into the mainstream, as shown in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car.

By then, I discovered that electric cars had a long history which in fact predated gas cars by two years (the Elwell-Parker electric car started production in 1884). In the first years of the automobile, at the turn of the century, EVs already had a Golden Age with a market share of something like 38% in the US auto market. But after World War I, the price of gasoline came down, which together with an extended road infrastructure and mass-produced cars like the Ford Model T allowed the cheaper gas cars to go faster and farther than in the past, effectively killing the business case for this first generation of electric cars.

After the failure of the 1990s EV revival, electric cars seemed to be put on ice for a long time, until in 2008 when a little-known startup company called Tesla presented a two-seat sports car, the Roadster. At first, it seemed like nothing more than a Lotus Elise conversion, but it was a real revolution in how people saw electric cars. Instead of being a slow, small-range conversion of a regular car, this was a sexy, Ferrari-quick vehicle (0–60 mph was achieved in less than 4 seconds), with a single-charge driving range close to 400 kms, thanks to the use of lithium-ion battery cells, a first for a production car.

At $109,000, it was expensive for the regular Joe, but comparing it to the equivalent Porsche, a 911 4S Cabriolet ($104,000 at 0–60 mph in 4.7 seconds), you could argue it was playing in the same league.

The Roadster showed EVs the recipe for success with quick 0–60 mph acceleration, at least 300 kms real-world range, and a competitive price. Dressed in a sexy outfit, making people associate Tesla with coolness, EVs finally started to get out of the treehugger-appliance niche it had lived in thus far.

After all, we all prefer to see a cool movie than do the house chores, right?

But the “Third Age of the Electric Car” only really started in 2011, when the Nissan LEAF and Chevrolet Volt started to be sold in the thousands. Meanwhile, in China, BYD made its first steps into electromobility with the F3 DM plug-in hybrid and the e6 full-electric models, resulting in the Chinese company registering its first 1,000 plug-in car sales that year.

Sure, these first models had little of the Tesla “cool factor,” but nevertheless were important to give visibility to plug-ins and create economies of scale (the Nissan LEAF has already surpassed 250,000 sales), with numbers jumping from 45,000 units in 2011 to 211,000 units 2 years later, and then to 539,000 in 2015.

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The Beam Magazine is an independent climate solutions and climate action magazine. It tells about the most exciting solutions, makes a concrete contribution to eliminating climate injustices and preserving this planet for all of us in its diversity and beauty. Our cross-country team of editors works with a network of 150 local journalists in 50 countries talking to change makers and communities. THE BEAM is published in Berlin and distributed in nearly 1,000 publicly accessible locations, to companies, organizations and individuals in 40 countries across the world powered by FairPlanet.

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