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How the Electric, Self-Driving Miracle Car Will Change Your Life

Electric cars have been competing with the internal combustion engine for more than a century, and they have never won. Batteries are more expensive, have less range, and require more time to recharge than it takes to fill a gas tank. In late 2010, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu himself articulated the challenge, stating that battery companies have to develop units that last 15 years, improve energy storage capacity by a factor of five to seven, and cut costs by about a factor of three in order for electric cars to be comparable to cars that run on gasoline and diesel.

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U.S. energy policy has tried to address these challenges. The Energy Department and other agencies have supported the development of battery and recharging technology. In addition, the U.S. government has provided financial support to Nissan, General Motors, Tesla, and Fisker to develop and manufacture commercial electric vehicles (EVs). The government hopes such investment can spur economies of scale, thereby reducing unit costs and making new technologies viable.

So far, though, these efforts have failed to produce any game-changing breakthroughs. Battery range remains strictly limited, and electric vehicles remain disproportionately expensive, with batteries alone costing as much as $15,000. The plug-in, hybrid electric Chevy Volt retails for $40,000 before a $7,500 federal tax credit, and the all-electric Nissan Leaf starts at $27,700 after the tax credit. These vehicles are also less capable than their gasoline-powered counterparts, prompting Johan de Nysschen, president of Audi of America, to observe in 2011, “No one is going to pay a $15,000 premium for a car that competes with a [Toyota] Corolla.”
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