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NPR Story Misses the Mark on Electric Cars

Roland Hwang

Posted November 22, 2011

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It’s not surprising when one of the more reactionary media pundits criticizes electric cars or pans efforts to raise the fuel efficiency of America’s cars and trucks.  But when National Public Radio gets the story wrong on the 54.5-mpg target set for 2025, it’s time to set the record straight.

The premise of the NPR story on yesterday’s Morning Edition radio program appears to be that carmakers will need to sell a lot of pure electric cars in order to reach the 54.5-mpg target 14 years from now.  NPR said it will take “feats of engineering” to make it happen. 

First of all, there was no mention that the 54.5 mpg number is the one used for certification only—while 40 is the target mpg average for what appears on window stickers.   Moreover, as I blogged on last week, the reality is that we don’t need many EVs to reach this goal.  We can get close to the 2025 target by using well-known, affordable, off-the-shelf technologies—like downsizing, turbocharging, and direct injection—on about two-thirds of vehicles.  In addition, if one out of every six or so cars is a hybrid by 2025, then we’ll be 97 percent of the way toward the goal. 

The NPR story totally overlooks the reality that only about three percent of cars will need to be plug-ins—either pure electric vehicle or plug-in hybrids—by 2025.  Instead, he focuses his report on a set of tired negative misconceptions about pure electric cars.

The NPR story says that, “General Motors is struggling to sell 10,000 Chevy Volts this year, and Nissan has sold just over 8,000 Leafs. For context, about 13 million cars are expected to be sold in the U.S. in 2011.”  For a moment, forget the irrelevance of these 2011 numbers on the 2025 targets.  It’s backwards to say that G.M. and Nissan are struggling to sell their electric vehicles. 

It’s consumers who are struggling to buy these EVs.  In this early stage of the plug-in market, there appears to be a lot more demand than supply.  Consumers have to be placed on waiting lists—as long as a few months—to get a chance to drive off the lot with a car that runs on little or no petroleum. As of today, there are about 24,000 people still on the GM Volt waiting list.

Then, the story revisits the familiar hand wringing about access to public electric car chargers.  “The problem is that there aren’t yet enough places to go to charge the cars,” according to the NPR story.  Any of the nearly 10,000 U.S. owners of the all-electric Nissan LEAF will tell you that 99-percent of car charging takes place at home—and that it’s cheaper and more convenient than traveling to a gas station.  NPR cites 16 hours as the time it takes to fully charge, when nearly all EV drivers use 240-volt home charging that brings that down to less than eight hours (which almost always occurs at night while you’re sleeping.)

EV owners also fully understand the car’s 100-mile or so range capability, which meets nearly all commuters’ daily needs.  Yet, NPR makes driving an electric car seem like a great mystery to be feared.  “Oh, no. What if I can't make it?” worries Brian Moody of in the story.  "It's sort of like a microwave oven: You know what it does, but you don't know exactly how it does it.  It works by magic, and people don't like that."

Once again: no mention of the fact that electric cars use simpler technology than what’s found in vehicles using gas-powered internal combustion.  In an EV, you pull juice from a battery to drive an electric motor that turns the wheels.  Fewer moving parts.  Less maintenance.

Finally, Moody laments “the chances of there being a 500-mile range electric car, at this point, it seems pretty unlikely.”  Since when is 500 miles the required range of our cars and trucks?  Most gas cars, especially gas-guzzlers, don’t get anywhere near that. And even if 500 miles or range was the goal, the best way to offer more miles of driving in our vehicles is to make then go further on a gallon of gas. 

Helping Americans travel further while spending less money at the pumps—on mostly imported oil—is exactly the point of the 54.5-mpg target.  NPR needs to go back to the well on this story.

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Ed TownesNov 23 2011 05:45 AM

Excellent rejoinder. I notice you do not speculate on the reasons why what seems like so sloppy and poorly researched a piece may have aired. You're right, I'm sure, not to have done so, but I think YOUR piece would be stronger if you pointed out why the industry and trade magazines are awfully far from "getting on board" here.... And your final couple of paragraphs need almost desperately some amplification!

That is, while 2 and 3 car families have gotten very common in the last 30-50 years, one has to speculate that this is a lot like birth rates. I have to believe that the cars per household number will likely decline, perhaps substantially, between now and 2025.

If I'm right, of course, "range" becomes a great deal more of an issue. But this does not undercut your argument. Perhaps the simplest response on this point is to note that the network of gas stations that dot the world did not precede - or even coincide with - the invention of gas-powered vehicles.

This *IS* a case of "if you build it, they will come." Where the "it" is a critical mass of electric vehicles and the "they" are enhanced gas stations offering good recharging options.

A change of this magnitude DOES have a host of uncertainties, but the upward trajectory of "range," made possible by the addition of an "electric pump" or 2 at existing facilities - just as one can get "diesel" fuel in many but not all facilities - is NOT one of them. Replacing coin-operated parking meters with ones relying on credit cards is HARD (but proceeding at breakneck speed) - upgrading a few thousand gas stations borders on child's play.

AlexNov 23 2011 09:54 AM

If you're dismissive of 500-mile range vehicles, you've never been on a road trip.

Gearheads have no voice in this debate, and it makes me sad for the future of the car. I guess I better get one of the new Ford Shelby GT500s before they're legislated out of existence in the name of political correctness.

fran sullivan-fahsNov 23 2011 03:44 PM

Thanks for stating the obvious - that this was a very pointedly biased article with the purpose to totally criticize EVs. Now we have listened to NPR and donated to them for decades. No more. I am sorry that they have come to this. I don't mind hearing the other side in a debate. But this is totally a Fox News type of coverage!

Ron FahsNov 23 2011 04:48 PM

My wife failed to mention that we have had a plug in Prius for over 3 years with the A123 extra power pack of 5k. It works great. The other thing she didn't mention is that we are now proud owner of a Nissan Leaf. We love it! It is so fun to drive. (Of course that is when I get a chance to drive it) It IS Fran's car understand. We have over 3,000 miles of it already. GO ELECTRIC!! For the good of the country.

Paul ScottNov 23 2011 09:41 PM

Roland, thanks for your blog on this egregious NPR story. (for the record, I sell the LEAF).

After this thing aired on Monday, EV proponents slammed the journalist in the comments section for not even bothering to interview an EV owner. As the Fahs mention, they love their plug-in car. I've delivered more LEAFs than any other salesperson in the U.S. and every one of my customers is ecstatic over their LEAF. I know lots of Volt and Tesla owners and it's the same with them. Buying one of these cars is a life-changing event. The benefits are enormous and will bring about significant change in the environmental, economic and national security sectors.

For NPR to broadcast this hit piece is both troubling and seriously wrong.

mmfyNov 25 2011 06:41 PM

"The NPR story says that, “General Motors is struggling to sell 10,000 Chevy Volts this year, and Nissan has sold just over 8,000 Leafs. For context, about 13 million cars are expected to be sold in the U.S. in 2011.” For a moment, forget the irrelevance of these 2011 numbers on the 2025 targets. It’s backwards to say that G.M. and Nissan are struggling to sell their electric vehicles. "
How is it irrelevant? You can only go 80 miles if that before you have to plug it in again.

conusamNov 26 2011 08:41 AM

Hey Paul good advertisement buddy. Great how you managed to get that in there.

A care salesman - yippee!

ThalassNov 26 2011 10:53 AM

mmfy: Because that is such a horrible thing to endure. This is how hard it us:

(Though i must say, i'd never drive an iMiev. I'll have a Tesla Model S, thanks.)

paul Rindfleisch Nov 26 2011 01:04 PM

While reducing dependence on petroleum is great, where does the electricity come from? Most likely from burning coal or in some places from burning oil. What's the net benefit? Depending on what part of the country you live in, you may actually be increasing your carbon footprint with a plug-in EV. Until greater renewable sources of energy become available, the source of electricity needs to be given careful consideration.

conusamNov 27 2011 08:24 AM

To Thalass - yes dearie it is! Big brother is alive and well right here - it's called the nrdc

mmfyNov 27 2011 08:26 AM

There is very little advantage to driving a car that only gets 80 miles or so.

mmfyNov 27 2011 08:29 AM

I will not be trading in my XI for a volt anytime soon and I sure don't want big brother here (nrdc) telling me what I should or should not be doing. Pay me John adams - you make enough money.

rfkNov 27 2011 12:12 PM

Oil funds global terror. Getting off oil and onto more efficient and self-sufficient energy sources is a national security issue.

katNov 27 2011 01:41 PM

"Oil funds global terror. Getting off oil and onto more efficient and self-sufficient energy sources is a national security issue".

Yes especially from Canada. hehe haha

Paul GraceyNov 30 2011 11:29 PM

I note the gaggle of sophomoric comments with the usual ignorance of the facts. Electric cars are more efficient and thus cleaner even with the dirtier power plants as a source. This is because those power plants will themselves be more efficient charging electric cars at night at their best efficiency setting rather than being throttled back for lack of a market to a less efficient setting.

And as usual in their thinking, they neglect that the energy costs of mining Canadian Oil Sands is prodigious even before the extra costs of its difficult refinement. And that is to say nothing of the carbon footprint.
Now back to your regularly scheduled carping about the wrong things.

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