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Cost vs. Carbon: Should You Buy an Electric Car?

Dan Tynan
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech
July 22, 2014

Cost vs. Carbon: Should You Buy an Electric Car?

Dan Tynan
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech
July 22, 2014

We were driving a 2014 Cadillac ELR luxury coupe, about to enter the freeway, ZZ Top’s “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” booming through the speakers.

“Watch this,” my wife said. She tapped her foot ever so slightly on the accelerator. We zoomed from 40 to 85 mph in a heartbeat. I gripped the door handle tighter as she weaved around cars on Highway 13, laughing maniacally.

“Are electric motors awesome, or what?”

For years, my lovely wife has been giving me grief about my desire to own a sports car. After 172 years behind the wheel of a minivan, I think I deserve one. But just three days of driving a candy-apple-red ELR and she’d turned into Mario Andretti.

Cadillac ELR Luxury Coupe.

When she reluctantly relinquished the wheel, I understood why. This is not your daddy’s Caddy. As with most electric cars, the ELR’s acceleration was instantaneous — think the Millennium Falcon with wheels. It hugged the curves like it was never going to see them again. Driving the thing, I alternated between giddy exhilaration and sheer terror.

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But while the ELR is indeed a Cadillac, it appears to be built for speed, not comfort. We could feel every bump in the road, and everything inside the cab felt cramped or in the wrong place. My 6-foot-3-inch son had to fold himself into origami to fit into the back seat. And with a base price of $75,000, the ELR was out of reach as a way to assuage my ongoing midlife crisis. It’s a fun ride, but these thrills ain’t cheap.

Vroom at the top
A few years ago, after we test drove a Chevy Volt for a week (the Volt shares a lot of tech with the ELR) and loved it, we vowed that our next car would not be a carbon-belching fossil-fuel-devouring beast. Even with the federal tax credit for purchasing an electric vehicle, though, the Volt was still just a bit too rich for our blood. And the Caddy is twice the price of the Volt.

There are essentially three kinds of electric car, and they all come with gotchas. Most plug-in electric hybrids like the Volt and the ELR can run for up to 40 miles on a single battery charge before they switch over to a gas-powered engine. There are dual-fuel hybrids like the standard Toyota Prius and the Infiniti Q50, which use batteries and a motor to augment the gas engine while starting and idling, increasing your mileage by roughly 25 percent, but they’re still primarily internal combustion vehicles (there’s a plug-in version of the Prius, too).

(Tesla Model S)

Then there are all-electric vehicles like the Nissan LEAF and the Tesla Model S, which need to be recharged every 80 to 260 miles. They’re emission free on your commute, but you’ll need to plan your road trips carefully.

Stuck on gas
In 2015, car makers will be introducing more than 20 electric vehicles of one type or another. Yet they’re unlikely to have much of an impact on the environment, or the car market, says Gary Gauthier, director of transportation at NextEnergy, a nonprofit consortium created to promote alternative energy technologies and policies in the state of Michigan.

The reason? The total cost of ownership for a gas guzzler is far less than for an electric vehicle, he says. Unless some dramatic new technology emerges — or the price of gas hits $10 a gallon — that’s how it will remain for the foreseeable future.

“If not for government regulations, electric vehicles would not even exist,” says Gauthier, who says after 48 years in the auto industry he’s seen every possible alternative to gasoline but has yet to find one that’s actually viable. (He may also be the most cynical person I’ve ever interviewed; Gauthier prefers the term "realistic.") The media has overhyped EVs, he adds, but people vote with their pocketbooks — one reason why fewer than 5 percent of all cars sold in 2013 run on anything other than fossil fuels.

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However, Gauthier admits, if you’ve got $90K to drop on a car like the Tesla Model S, the cost advantages of internal combustion engines tend to evaporate. If you live in California, where high-occupancy vehicle lanes allow for single-passenger electric vehicles, you have additional reasons for going semi-electric (thus explaining why it seems like every third car on California freeways is a Prius).

I’m Dad, I’m nationwide
If and when Tesla’s $35K Model E arrives, that might help persuade more people to convert from cars running on Texas tea to those powered by electrons, but probably not in mass numbers. Still, there are other alternatives on the horizon. Sometime over the next 12 months Toyota will begin selling a fuel cell vehicle that converts hydrogen into electricity and water vapor. Toyota says the $70,000 car will offer the power of a gas engine, zero emissions, and a 300-mile range.

(Toyota)

The problem? According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are only 12 hydrogen fueling stations in all of the United States, and nine of them are in Southern California. The infrastructure build-out will be slow in coming, if it happens at all.

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Will non-carbon-belching beasts ever dominate U.S. highways?

“Not going to happen,” says the slightly less cynical Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor at Cars.com. “Battery-electric cars have too many limitations to have a real presence. I do think fuel cells have a chance … to make up a tiny fraction of the overall market.”

We know our next car won’t be hydrogen powered. Whether we’ll go electric or opt for a tech-savvy but fuel-efficient combustion model has yet to be determined. (I call this the cost vs. carbon conundrum.) If I won the lottery, though, I’d probably buy a Tesla. Actually, I’d have to buy two Teslas — one for my lovely wife and the other for myself, so I could actually get a chance to drive it.

Editor's note: This post was modified to more accurately reflect the quotes from Gary Gauthier.

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.