Hardwired habits hamper electric cars

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct Mark Hildebrandt's name.

Mark Hildebrandt, a two-time Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid owner, likes to play a game with his car’s battery range.

When the battery starts draining, he starts turning knobs, shutting off the heat or the radio, trying to “eke out every electric mile possible.” The goal is to avoid switching from battery power to the small gasoline engine under the hood.

Unlike average drivers, early adopters like Mark Hildebrandt of Saline are willing to live within electric vehicles’ range limits. “There are still a lot of things that stand in the way of consumer adoption,” said auto analyst Dave Sullivan.

“I’ll tell my daughter or son, ‘OK we’re going to try to get home now,’ but of course the comfort of the gas engine is always there in the Volt,” he said.

Automakers are placing big bets on electrification as the wave of the future, but consumer adoption may take time because the average driver might not find Hildebrandt’s game quite so entertaining. Early adopters will weather all manner of changes and inconveniences — like poking along in the slow lane or switching off the heat to save precious electrons in a low-battery situation — in the name of technological advancement and environmentalism.

But most drivers of conventionally powered cars might not be ready for all the adjustments that come with the switch from petroleum to electrons, especially when long-standing conveniences like a five-minute trip to the gas pump is replaced with a 30-minute session at a charging station.

“There are still a lot of things that stand in the way of consumer adoption,” said Dave Sullivan, an auto analyst for AutoPacific.

The foremost barrier is reduced driving range.

“I think people are used to getting at least 250 miles of range out of gasoline vehicle regardless of driving style, and a consistent 250 miles of range out of electric car is not realistic today. There are too many variables,” Sullivan said.

The best way to offset those inconveniences might be for carmakers to offer convenience-technology on electric vehicles in the future.

“Automakers need to offer some kind of tech, maybe it’s autonomy or something else, that will make a consumer say ‘I may not get the traditional range on this car, but I want that technology and I’m willing to pay for it,’ ” said Devin Lindsay, an analyst for IHS Markit.

EV prices are already prohibitive, though, with the sting eased by the $7,500 federal tax credit offered on environmentally conscious cars. With that credit potentially in jeopardy — House Republicans want to eliminate it as part of a sweeping tax bill — EV sales could slow significantly.

“Look what happened in Georgia. They used to have a huge tax credit and Nissan Leafs were everywhere,” Sullivan said, referring to a $5,000 state EV tax credit that Georgia lawmakers eliminated two years ago. “After that, EV sales went off a cliff.”

Hildebrandt of Saline didn’t seem much worried about price or inconvenience. The early Chevy Volt adopter — he owned one of the first to hit the ground in Michigan nearly seven years ago — claims the only way his plug-in hybrid has changed his driving routine is that he “doesn’t watch gas prices anymore.”

With a plug-in hybrid, Mark Hildebrandt says he has “doesn’t watch gas prices anymore.”

And despite his reliance on the Volt’s small gas engine when he loses at his battery-saving game, Hildebrandt said he’d trade in his plug-in hybrid Volt for an all-electric Chevrolet Bolt in a heartbeat. But he just purchased his second Volt before the Bolt rolled out nationwide in August.

He’s not exactly the average consumer, though. Hildebrandt owns a solar business in Ann Arbor and his house is virtually off the power grid thanks to a solar panel network that covers his home and his Volt’s at-home charging station.

The automotive industry has made recent advancements in battery technology that can help broaden widespread adoption. Some carmakers are already heralding the end of range anxiety. The Chevrolet Bolt is the first affordable all-electric car to break the 200-mile range at a promised 238 miles of range with combined highway and city driving.

Others in that price range, like the Nissan Leaf and Hyundai Ioniq, have already surpassed the 100-mile mark and are promising to close in on 200 miles in the next few years. Of course, all of these ranges are best-case scenarios, not factoring in a lead foot or a Midwestern cold snap.

The advancements, coupled with dropping battery prices, have industry experts and investors feeling bullish about the future of electrics. Some forecast the death of the internal combustion engine as soon as the 2030s. GM is planning to introduce at least 20 new all-electric, zero-emission cars by 2023 — including two new vehicles in the next 18 months — and forecasts 1 million in annual EV sales worldwide by 2026.

But the numbers don’t lie.

Electric vehicle sales still only account for less than 1 percent of retail sales in the U.S., while pickups and SUVs fly off dealer lots. For at least the foreseeable future, plug-in hybrids will make more sense to consumers looking to electrify than battery-only EVs, Sullivan said.

Bruce Westlake, president of the Michigan Electric Vehicle Association, owns a battery-powered Tesla Model X and Ford Focus EV. He said his first electric car didn’t pose an easy transition.

“I have 10 years of owning electric cars under my belt. With the very first EV I owned, it was a challenge, but it has gotten easier as time goes on,” he said.

It has taken time for technology and charging-infrastructure to improve, and there’s still more to be achieved, he said. But his real issue lies with the state of Michigan’s electric vehicle registration fee, designed to make up for lost gasoline taxes to maintain roads. He calls the 20 percent-higher registration fee — plus a $135 fee for all-electric vehicles — a “punitive” cost.

Driving an electric vehicle means replacing a five-minute trip to the gas pump with a 30-minute session to recharge the battery.

Volt owner Hildebrandt admits trips to the gas station get more frequent in Michigan winters. Battery range is significantly diminished by the cold air and the power drawn to heat the cabin. Tricks like turning down the heat and relying on seat warmers can save battery reserves in a pinch, but the reality is electric cars don’t travel as far between charges as they do in summer.

A high-speed trip tends to drain his Volt’s battery, too.

“Batteries are the Achilles’ heel, but it’s getting better,” he said. “As soon as batteries get less expensive and range is up there, there is no reason why people wouldn’t want to switch.”