Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A Mass-Market Electric Car?

I recently came across a news story on the Coda, a new electric car, and noticed that one of the few dealers was within a few miles of my house. Yesterday I stopped by, explained that I wasn't really in the market but was curious, and was given a chance to drive it.

The Coda claims to be a five passenger car, but looked a little cramped for four adults. Its general feel was respectable but not luxurious. What is interesting about it is the price—MSRP of $37,250. State and federal subsidies are supposed to total about ten thousand dollars, bringing the cost to the buyer down to not much more than a comparable conventional sedan.

Claimed range on a single charge is up to 125 miles, time to fully recharge on a 240 outlet about six hours. Allowing for a reasonable safety margin, that makes it good for a trip of forty to fifty miles each way or a commute of up to twice that distance with  a charging station at the other end. My guess is that that would make it an adequate replacement for something like half of U.S. autos—a car for someone who didn't take long trips, or the second car of a family that did.

If the figures I was given were correct, that 120 miles costs about four dollars worth of electricity, a third to a quarter the cost of gas for a similar car with a conventional engine. For a car driven ten thousand miles a year, that is a savings of about a thousand dollars a year, not enough to justify the list price of the car but sufficient to make it a reasonably attractive buy with current subsidies. 

The current subsidies may not—hopefully will not—continue indefinitely, especially if the number of cars being sold becomes large. But I was told that nearly half the cost is for the batteries, so if battery technology continues to improve the price without subsidy might fall to somewhere in the twenty to thirty thousand dollar range in a few years. And if improvements include an increase in energy density, the range could become adequate for all save long trips.

Which is interesting. The Tesla is a snazzy looking car, but definitely a luxury vehicle. The Coda, if it performs as advertised and no unexpected problems show up, could be a serious competitor in the mass market in not very long.


Mark said...

I'm surprised that you think $28k is comparable for this car. In 2009, I paid $15k for a brand new hyundai elantra touring that gets about 30mpg. I really like my car. I can't see paying $13k more for the coda.

Sure, my car's fuel costs for 120 miles of travel are about 4x the cost of the coda (per your estimates). But at $1000 per year it's going to take 13 years to break even on the price difference. And that doesn't take into account what are going to be certainly higher annual maintenance costs since the competitive market for maintenance of this car isn't there yet.

Daublin said...

You left out another major factor. Part of your argument is that battery technology will improve. However, you neglected to consider possible improvements in cars with internal combustion engines.

A more accurate way to describe your argument is as follows. If you look at a car that costs $30k today, and you fast forward 10 years, then it is plausible you can get a comparable electric car also for $30k. Looked at this way, though, it's not clear this is a good idea. Instead of packing in features and keeping the price the same, we could keep the feature set the same and allow the price to decrease.

In ten years, which world do we want to live in? The one where that $30k car still costs $30k but gives us warm fuzzies about Gaia love? Or the one where that $30k car costs $15k?

This pattern occurs for more than just cars. Appliances and lightbulbs are other good examples.

jdgalt said...

From what you've written, the car sounds worth buying until the subsidy runs out. But there may very well be hidden costs. I keep hearing that the Chevy Volt's battery pack must be replaced at 50k miles (a hard coded limit) and costs almost as much as a new Volt -- which means a conventional car will be cheaper no matter how many miles you drive it.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, off-topic, but...

I'm currently reading The Machinery of Freedom, and I wanted to thank you for your particular take on anarchy & capitalism. An interesting part was the idea of using consequential arguments instead of moral arguments (except, I assume, for negation of the latter).

I've come across some really effective but simple theories, analogies and evidence that support anarchy and capitalism (e.g. Peter Leeson's lecture on YouTube). I personally never converted to anarchism because of a moral theory; I wanted to be very sure it could work!

jimbino said...


I'd like you to apply some of your physics/economics wisdom to the issue of incandescent bulbs. A person who lives in a cold climate and heats by electricity would be idiotic not to use cheap 100W incandescents. He can't read at all by an electric space heater and can barely read by an expensive LCD or CFL.

Unknown said...

I wonder how much more efficient battery technology will get since it has essentially been around for over 200 years. Rather, how much more efficient it will get relative to combustion.

Wayne Conrad said...

jimbino, By the same token, someone who lives in the desert may do well to pay extra for more efficient lighting: We pay twice for our lighting. Once to burn the bulb, and once more to run the air conditioner to remove the waste heat. said...

@jimbino: Someone who is still producing heat by running electricity through a resistor is wasting a lot of energy. The way of the future is to insulate a house so it doesn't need space heating, produce hot water using a heat pump, and light using leds...

@david: Renault has started to sell electric cars in Europe without batteries. You lease the batteries. That removes a lot of uncertainties for the car owner. Renault has plans to install battery swap stations along the freeways so that long trips would not be a problem. I don't know if that will be needed however, as fast charging a battery to 80% in a few minutes is becoming possible, provided you have a big enough power supply.
Having to interrupt a long trip for 10 minutes every 2 hours is something I assume most people would be able to live with.
If you have a chance to test drive an electric car do so. They are often quite fun to drive, with their high torque motors.

Mark Horning said...

I would think that the all Electric Nissan Leaf, or Ford Focus Electric would be a better buy if one were to insist on an all Electric.

Better range, larger interior (though not much). The Ford fully charges in 4 hrs, the Nissan a bit longer.

I'd still pick the gas Focus over any of them though for cost over lifetime.

Anonymous said...

Some of the newer compact diesels get 70 mpg. That to me is a much more attractive and realistic option.

kebko said...

Electric cars are basically a regulatory arbitrage, since, in addition to getting the subsidy, you avoid paying taxes imbedded in the price of gas which are used to fund roads.

Anonymous said...

I haven't been able to find hard figures, but the impression I get is that batteries aren't improving in cost efficiency exponentially, in the way for instance solar panels are.

Electric cars are very neat if they work but I think that synfuel produced thermally in power stations is a more likely outcome in the long term. That requires big capital investments though so it will need the real price of fuel to rise high enough, as opposed to the car schemes which can be safely subsidised due to low uptake.

Mercy Vetsel said...

> so if battery technology continues > to improve

Actually, battery technology has not improved. The Tesla would need gas at $15-$20/gallon to be viable without subsidies and the Leaf would need $10-12/gallon gasoline and consumers willing to limit their driving to about 70 miles per day.

Consider how far you can go on $10,000. At 40 mpg and $4/gallon, that's 100,000 miles without considering the cost of financing.

I could go through the calculations and the battery tech and have done so on other sites, but I have a much more elegant proof. If battery cars were economically viable at $9/gallon, then they would be the dominant mode of transport in countries where gasoline is artificially held at that price.


Anonymous said...

I own a 1973 GE electric garden tractor and a 1973 Sears gas garden tractor.

I do all work on both tractors myself. I flatter myself that I am rather skilled at such work. In any case, no part of my experience is theoretical; this is real data in a field of competitive hand-waving.

In the simplest analysis, the electric tractor has required less investment over its 40 year service life, and retains more value today, than its gas equivalent.

These are straightforward facts; more money has been spent on the gas tractor over the same period of time, and the electric tractor can be sold for more money today.

I like facts over hearsay. I also own a 2002 Prius and a 2003 SUV, both of which I bought new. Empirical data is the only real data.

Unfortunately bare facts can be easily misinterpreted - for example, there are many tasks for which one or the other vehicle is completely unsuited. Anyone who says either one is "better" than the other, without specifying in excruciating detail exactly what service profile is required, is selling you something. Namely, a pig in a poke.

Also, the up-front cost of the electric vehicle and the periodic battery replacement costs are extremely high, relative to gas. The normal running cost, when compared to constant expenditures for gas and oil, is extremely low. This has many ramifications (but no effect on anyone who constantly replaces vehicles, of course, since the electric has high trade-in value and gas doesn't). The most obvious effect is that without external sponsorship the frontloaded investment is unreachable or too risky for most families, and thus there will never be economies of scale such as exist for gas vehicles.

Finally, many modern Americans have a deep and almost instinctual understanding of the service needs of a gas vehicle, and nearly all are utterly clueless concerning electrics, and thus will almost certainly ruin their first set of expensive batteries through gross ignorance. We've grown up in and around cars, we use phrases like "he's not hitting on all eight cylinders" but we'd never say "his specific gravity isn't too high".