Electric cars seem like the socially conscious, feel-good investment among environmentally friendly consumers. In corporate boardrooms, the innovation seemed well liked indeed.
What’s not to like? Cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt reportedly can drive for a day or more on a full electric charge. The Toyota Prius reduces a tank full of exhaust to the whir of a hybrid electric/ gas engine.
The numbers are astonishing. The Nissan Leaf is considered the most fuel efficient vehicle in the U.S., tallying 106 mpg on the highway, and 92 in the city. The Volt gets 95/90. The Smart fortwo electric drive gets 94/79. Compared with the 16-cylinder, eight liter Bugatti Veyron, which chugs one gallon for every eight miles, the electrics and hybrids are downright stingy.
Manufacturers are riding the hype to strong brand awareness. Nissan’s international brand appeal accelerated at 17% – more than that of any other automotive brand, notes Millward Brown Optimor-devised’s “BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands” . Analysis attributed the growth of Nissan’s brand awareness to the debut of the Leaf. After all, it had been named both European Car of the Year and World Car of the Year, both for 2011.
Turn back the leaf – or look behind the hard-to-find recharge stations – and you’ll find deeper questions about electric cars. Prices are high, charging stations remain scarce, re-charge cost is unknown, batteries are expensive to replace – and environmentally costly to dispose of.
The real question to ask: Is society being “greenwashed” into accepting electric cars? Like whitewashing, greenwashing is the process of covering up a questionable product’s failings in the cloak of environmental friendliness. Buying products made of recycled packaging; ethanol-enhanced gasoline or an electric car is a good first step toward environmentally friendly consumer practices.
Just know the whole story. Consider “range anxiety.” This new mental issue plagues owners of electric cars. Owners wonder how long their vehicles will last on a charge. In Europe, a variety of facilities have been built (or are under consideration) to charge vehicles away from home.
To that end, the availability of a charge remains a persistent challenge to full consumer acceptance. In Europe, charging stations are comparatively more easily available than in the U.S.
The key issue for any concerned consumer is: Where’s the power coming from? Most electricity in the U.S. comes from nuclear facilities or power plants that burn coal or fossil fuels. If an electric car consumes electricity from a charging station itself fueled by a power plant that uses fossil fuel, isn’t the car essentially consuming fossil fuels?
What are the “true green” alternatives for today’s electric cars? Solar panels on the roof of homes, feeding power directly to the charging station are one option? Another could be solar panels incorporated into the roof or body of the vehicle itself. Or wind powered recharging stations? We’d first need widespread use of wind farms to bring that solution to bear.
Apparently, American consumers aren’t buying it. Sales figures remain soft, leading some to surmise that these vehicles are slow to turn the corner toward broad acceptance.
More than innovation will be needed to charge life into the electric car. One only hopes that from the boardroom to the garage to the neighborhood charging station, solutions emerge that shift these vehicles into the next gear.
Written by Robert Brands, veteran corporate executive and author of Robert’s rules of Innovation.