When the first U.S. auto show was held in New York in 1900, motorists had several dozen models to choose from. They could opt for steam-, gas-, or electric-powered cars, though it was widely expected that either steam or battery cars were eventually going to win out. It was only when Spindletop, the first big oil gusher, came in that the internal combustion engine began to come into its own.
Steam cars had plenty of problems. They took time to heat up, and their boilers could explode. Battery cars were quick, quiet, and clean, but they also had major issues: short range, long charging times, and high prices. Even Thomas Edison couldn’t find a solution to those quandaries.
A century later, driven by worries about smog and global warming, battery cars are coming back into vogue. There are now several dozen hybrids, plug-ins, and pure battery-electric vehicles on the market, with more being released all the time. Yet, add them all up and they account for barely 4 percent of the American new-car market, and the reasons are largely the same as they were a century ago.
But that may soon change. Several breakthrough products will be coming to market in the coming year that can just about match the range of conventional gasoline vehicles. While they can’t charge up quite as fast as you can fill up a gas tank, you’ll be able to get another 150 miles or more in as little as 15 minutes. And, perhaps best of all, prices are plunging fast.
To put things into perspective: Batteries that cost $1,000 a kilowatt in 2010 are now going for about $150. In a long-range electric vehicle that uses, say, 60 kWh of lithium batteries, that’s a $51,000 price cut. And costs could drop to $100 or less by the end of the decade, many experts predict.
You can already get more than 300 miles on a full charge with the Tesla Model S P100d, though the car costs more than $100,000. But by late 2017, the California carmaker plans to introduce the 200-mile Model 3, and after factoring in a $7,500 federal tax credit, you’ll pay around $35,000. The Chevrolet Bolt, meanwhile, will get you 238 miles on a charge and costs barely $30,000 after the federal incentive.
“This takes battery power into the mainstream,” said Ron Cogan, publisher of Green Car Journal and the organizer of the annual Green Car of the Year award. “This is the transition year. Green technology is no longer for early adopters.”
Why does this matter to a real estate pro? Well, it allows you to go green — something that many potential clients might appreciate — without sacrifice. The Bolt not only is reasonably priced and roomy but also offers the sort of range that will meet the needs of the vast majority of practitioners. Better yet, you’ll pay significantly less to keep it running: The electricity needed to power the battery-car costs as little as 10 percent per mile of what you’d pay for gasoline.
Nissan, Ford, Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz are just some of the other established automakers planning to add new battery-electric vehicles that should eliminate so-called “range anxiety.” Volkswagen, long committed to diesel power, has shifted gears and plans to add 30 new battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, to its lineup by 2025. The maker hinted at what’s to come during the recent Paris Motor Show with the I.D. concept vehicle, equipped with a 125-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion pack capable of as much as a 375-mile range. “The I.D. stands for a new era of electric cars,” declared VW brand chief Herbert Diess.
At the same show, Daimler AG revealed its long-range Generation EQ concept vehicle. It will go into production before the end of the decade. Rival BMW already has two battery-based models, the i3 city car and i8 sports car, on sale through a new brand dedicated to electrified models, with two more coming.
However, some of the most intriguing products could come from new entrants to the automotive world. There’s Tesla, which plans to build as many as 500,000 battery cars annually by 2018 — a whopping tenfold increase from its 2015 volume. There’s also Faraday Future and LeSee, both based in California but funded by Chinese billionaire Jia Yueting.
Then there’s Henrik Fisker. The Danish designer had a spectacular meltdown with Fisker Automotive, which produced the stylish but technically flawed Karma plug-in hybrid. It went bust in 2012. He’s ready to get back in the game with a new company promising to produce a 400-mile electric vehicle called the Fisker EMotion. Instead of a battery, it will use a novel technology called an ultracapacitor.
But the reality is that it could be years before the best green alternative vehicle shakes out, much as it took some time for gasoline power to win out over steam and electric in the early 20th century. When it comes to green alternative powertrain technology, says former General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, “there is no silver bullet.”