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EV Like It's 1910 Again

Will the electric vehicle survive its current round of technological success?

Whether the electric vehicle will survive its current technological success is an important question. The design advances evident in modern EVs aren't being matched by a commensurate surge in consumer uptake.

Sure, sales of the hybrid electric Chevy Volt have broadened beyond cutting-edge early adopters. Unfortunately, the sales haven't been high enough to stop GM from idling production for five weeks and laying off more than 1,000 workers.

Another high-flyer is the Nissan Leaf. This is a true, all-electric where there's no backup if battery anxiety becomes discharge reality. The Leaf is billed as the first affordable electric, yet its MSRP starts at $35,000, offset by a $7,500 tax credit. The Leaf is a good-looking city driver, and sticker shock may be in the eye of the beholder, but it doesn't escape me that, for the money, I could buy two new Sentras to replace the 2004 model I currently drive.

That calculus is obvious to most consumers, the savings on gas notwithstanding. As senior technical editor Chuck Murray has chronicled, a patchwork of buyer incentives and federal and state tax subsidies are constantly being pitched or revised in a bid to move more EVs off dealer lots. Most recently, President Obama proposed raising the federal tax credit to $10,000. Personally, the extra $2,500 wouldn't get me out of an Altima (my next planned upgrade after the Sentra) and into a Leaf.

Most aggressively, the California Air Resources Board is stiffening emission regulations, which will force more electrics on to the roads later this decade.

Yet neither government nor industry can impel consumers into EVs until they become an organically appealing purchase option. In this sense, it's like 1910 all over again.

In the early decades of the automobile industry, electrics were competing with gas- and even steam-powered cars. For a while, they did quite well. Thomas Edison even set up a factory that manufactured EV batteries.

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