If you want to start a debate about electric cars, the easiest way to do it is to mention costs. The price of electric cars leaves many consumers scratching their heads and wondering why automakers can't produce an EV that sells for a more reasonable price. But if you're going to launch that discussion, then brace yourself. The subject of conspiracy isn't far behind.
Electric car conspiracy theories come in a variety of flavors, ranging from the simple (carmakers price their EVs to fail) to the elegant (involving the crushing of GM's EV1) to the far-fetched (involving the suppression of secret battery chemistries).
The first flavor of theory came up recently on this site, when we mentioned that Toyota is selling its RAV4 EV for $49,800. Commenters wondered how the price could be so high. "Toyota's created a self-fulfilling prophecy, that these are going to sit on the lot," one reader wrote quite logically. That comment closely paralleled one from another reader (about a different article), who took it a step further by arguing that today's EVs are "designed to fail by being overweight, overpriced, [and] overteched."
The crushing of GM's EV1 remains the most prominent of the EV conspiracy theories.
The debate over the RAV4 EV's price won't ever reach the fever pitch that has long surrounded the crushing of GM's EV1 (which must still be the most monumental public relations gaffe in auto industry history). When we wrote about the EV1 last October, one reader caught the spirit of the moment by saying, "GM tracked down and destroyed all but a few of the EV-1's and the few that remained were disabled so they couldn't run."
Such debates are likely to continue for a long time. Many of the EV cognoscenti still believe that the auto industry is in cahoots with "big oil," and that the partnership is preventing the best battery technology from reaching the streets. The movie Who Killed the Electric Car? was partially built on that premise. It mentioned that the progress of EV batteries was interrupted when Texaco bought a stake in GM Ovonics, which made the nickel metal-hydride batteries for the EV1. If you check out any of a number of Websites, you can read the entire blow-by-blow of the alleged GM-oil industry conspiracy.
I have to admit that I draw the line at that one. Yes, I know that automotive marketing ain't beanbag (apologies for changing an old political phrase). I also know that high-level executives have been known to break laws to get their way. But after years of talking to battery experts at universities around the country, I can't believe there's a cleverly suppressed, world-beating battery technology languishing in a lab somewhere. If someone could build a battery with an energy density even one-tenth that of gasoline, scores of university PhDs would know about it. No conspiracy is that big.
Toyota may not know it, but by pricing the RAV4 EV at $49,800, it's unintentionally keeping the conspiracy talk alive. Even the EV loyalists, who praised Toyota for its persistence with the original RAV4 EV a decade ago, are starting to wonder. In an article on the new car, Forbes.com called the vehicle "stratospherically priced," and a Wall Street Journal reviewer wrote, "Sure, lithium ion batteries are expensive, but prices are falling and, well, I just don't see where the expense lies."
It won't take much more than that to get the conspiracy buzz going again.