Why the Electric Car Mileage Debate Is Meaningless

Includes: F, HMC, NSANY, TM
by: Greentech Media

By Michael Kanellos

In the past few days, reporters and analysts have gone to great lengths to discuss whether the Chevy Volt will get 320 or 150 miles per gallon.

One fact, though, is entirely left out of the discussion: It's irrelevant.

Gas mileage is important for conventional cars because gas costs a lot. In the muscle car era, it wasn't discussed – automakers instead bragged about how many pistons and cylinders an engine had. Gas mileage only became important during the first Arab oil embargo in the early '70s. The fortunes of economy cars, and hence the importance of mileage, have waxed and waned with the price of gas.

In electric cars, it won't matter. Electricity costs vastly less than gas and almost any electric car will score better on efficiency than a gas engine. Electric cars will likely also require far less maintenance. And, except in corner case places like Pennsylvania (a coal state) or Hawaii (where electricity is produced by diesel generators) the carbon dioxide emissions will be far lower with an electric car.

No matter how you slice it, electric cars will win hands down in mileage and fuel consumption. Besides, do you think anyone is going to adequately be able to test if Aptera's electric three-wheeler gets 300 miles per gallon equivalent without a lot of extrapolation?

Consumers and analysts instead should focus on range.

Range is the Achilles' heel of electrics. The Tesla Roadster goes close to 250 miles. The Volt will go 400 with its on-board gas generator. Nissan's (OTCPK:NSANY) Leaf will go around 100 miles. While Tesla already has cars on the road that have been tested, the range on the rest of these is a mystery. Range will be the one area where differences in engineering and design will manifest themselves and where consumers will notice a palpable difference in cars from different makers. Consumer Reports and others will likely harp on this quite a bit. I wouldn't be surprised if the Department of Transportation spends a lot of time on this issue too.

And expect to see a lot of articles about people being stranded on the road after misinterpreting their "gas" gauge. Word-of-mouth on range will make or break cars. Companies will also compete on charge time, but, to be honest, charge time will mostly be out of the control of automakers. It depends where you plug in.

One could argue that gas mileage is an important component in determining the overall price of electric cars. Because batteries are expensive, electric cars will cost more than gas models. Low operating cost, but high capital cost: It's like owning solar panels instead of a gas heater. You could do an analysis to determine how many years it would take an electric car to "break even" with a gas car, but it's probably not a good idea if you want to go electric. Even if gas goes to $4 a gallon, the economic argument for electric cars will be difficult to digest. It will likely be even tough to justify buying a plug-in hybrid on a "cross over analysis" for a few years.

In the end, both consumers and car makers will turn a blind eye to economics. These cars will sell because they are fun.