The respected British news agency Reuters ran a really pessimistic and widely reprinted story last week alleging that electric cars are headed "toward another dead end." The story said that moves by Nissan and Toyota demonstrate that EVs are still "not ready for prime time — and may never be."
According to Reuters, "The reality is that consumers continue to show little interest in electric vehicles, which dominated U.S. streets in the first decade of the 20th century before being displaced by gasoline-powered cars." That's definitely true about first decade, because electrics were plainly better vehicles than the hard-cranking, noisy, smelly, undependable gas cars on offer then.
The agency is right that many of today's electrics are overpriced and range-challenged. But that's only part of the story. The Tesla Model S, for instance, represents a new wedge vehicle — a battery electric that's plainly better than most of the high-performance competition, which is why it was 2013 car of the year for both Automobile and Car and Driver magazines. That takes us back to 1905, doesn't it?
I'd make that point even more forcefully if I knew exactly how many cars Tesla has sold, but the company is being somewhat cagey about that. Marketing guru George Blankenship said last week, "We went from zero production in May to a production flow in December capable of delivering 20,000 cars this year." OK, 20,000 a year would be very good validation, if it happens.
The Reuters analysis focuses heavily on Nissan and Toyota. Nissan is a fair focus, because it really bet the farm on the Leaf, and had U.S. sales of 9,819 in 2012, far below the 20,000 it wanted. Nissan responded to those results by lowering the car's 2013 entry-level price fairly dramatically (Ford has done the same with the Focus Electric), and we'll see if that has the desired effect.
But Toyota, famously the creator of the Prius, has always been lukewarm at best about its battery car commitments. Its Scion-based EV was never more than a "compliance car" to satisfy California regulators. Toyota plainly prefers hybrids and plug-in hybrids, so its moves aren't particularly relevant. If General Motors stopped selling the Volt, that would be a big deal.
Reuters thinks that automakers are recalibrating, and focusing more on hydrogen vehicles. I've followed fuel cells for many years, and they were a focus of my 2000 book Forward Drive. It's encouraging that Nissan, Daimler and Ford have formed a hydrogen alliance, as have BMW and Toyota.