Under the radar, EV sales continued their positive trend through 2014. In the US, October and November were the 2nd and 3rd best months ever, respectively (the record month being August 2013). Sitting at 86k cumulative sales for the year, and considering that December sales are often buoyed by tax-credit considerations, EVs still have an outside shot at hitting the symbolic 100k unit mark for 2013 – a milestone that was considered out of reach back in the spring. Regardless, since June the average sales rate has been well above 100k/year.

And the giant European market, still in a recession-induced slumber, is showing signs of waking up. In November, EV sales exceeded 10% of all passenger-car sales in both Norway and Holland (by comparison, US EV sales are a little under 1.5% of passenger car sales). The larger markets, especially the UK and Germany, are dragging their feet. But at least Germany is sure to see better EV sales, now that the homegrown i3 and Volkswagen E-Up have hit the streets a few weeks ago, to be followed soon by Mercedes.

Electric buses, too, have been making steady progress, led by Chinese maker BYD whose 150-mile-range BEV buses are now making on-site evaluation runs doing real transit lines in major cities around the globe. BYD is starting to field larger fleet orders from transit authorities on a weekly basis.

On to the tech myths. Unlike the previous diaries, in this diary most of the contrast will be between “pure” electric-only BEVs and traditional ICE vehicles. Here’s why:

While for many purposes (e.g., demand for oil) PHEVs and EREVs are much closer to BEVs than to ICE, in terms of technology perception it is the BEVs that represent a much greater leap. Technologically conservative consumers might “dig” hybrids and their plug-in varieties even if they question their cost/benefit. But completely letting go of an ICE in your vehicle is still a bridge too far for many if not most people.

Myth 1: “BEVs are not Real Cars”

Our life experience shapes what we see as “normal” or as “a real car”.

Fact of the matter is: modern BEVs, from the 1990s’ “murdered” E.V.1 onwards, have been just as powerful, even more powerful in terms of acceleration from full stop, and arguably more convenient and smoother to drive than ICE vehicles. This information has been out there in the public domain. Yet the most common first question I field from newbies about our Nissan Leaf is“is it powerful enough?”

Let us drill down into this myth. What is the use case of a typical car in the US, or anywhere else in the urban/suburban industrialized world (where most private cars still are)?

1. Commuting to and from work (if it’s a commuting vehicle), usually to the tune of 50 miles round-trip or less.
2. Midday, after-work and evening errands or leisure drives to destinations around town.
3. Occasional (or rare) longer drives on weekends and vacations, for day-trips and road-trips.

How well-suited are ICE vehicles to these tasks? They literally suck at #1 and #2, our most common use cases. Not only do they waste energy and release pollutants while idling at stoplights and traffic jams; the stop-and-go is against their grain. It causes far more wear and tear on their engine, cooling and other systems than high-speed driving. Face it: ICE vehicles were designed for the wide-open road trip – a use pattern that most of them only experience rarely, if ever.

ICE vehicles were really not designed to do this – and yet, this is what most of them do most of the time.

By contrast, EVs are perfect for tasks #1 and #2. In reasonable weather they will spend no energy sitting in jams. In extreme weather whey will need some to keep you comfortable – but it will take hours for them to run out of juice on heating/cooling alone. In any case, while in traffic they will emit no tailpipe pollutants into the lungs of stranded drivers and pedestrians.

As to task #3, the capabilities of current first-generation modern EVs range from minimal to reasonable (the high-performers would be the Teslas). But to accomplish specific drives beyond your BEV’s ability, you can take an ICE vehicle (rented/swapped/your own) – or, if those drives are fairly common for you, get a PHEV/EREV.

In any case, insisting that ICE cars are “the only real car” because they’re better on road trips, is like taking an 80-liter rucksack to work and school instead of something more reasonable, and boasting that “this is the only real backpack”. Or – to use a more techhy example – haul a 20″ gaming laptop everywhere, because once in a blue moon you like to enjoy a round of gaming.

As it stands, current BEVs are already superior to ICE vehicles on every aspect except for these 3: range/charge, extreme weather, and off-grid/off-road. EV makers are hard at work improving the first two, making fast progress (see, e.g., the Supercharger map below). On the last front ICE vehicles are likely to retain a decisive edge: if you want to tour the back roads away for civilization for a week – an 4×4 ICE vehicle with a full tank and an extra jerrycan will remain your best bet.

But this drives home the point: ICE vehicles are really the “extreme-use cars”. The normal cars, the ones better designed for what most of us need most of the time, are EVs.

Tesla Supercharger Map as of December 20, 2013
Tesla’s existing Supercharger map for North America, December 20 2013. You can now drive a Model S on a Great American Road Trip from Vancouver to Tijuana, needing to stop only every ~3 hours driving to get a free 30-40 minute quick charge courtesy of the automaker. If you are brave you might continue on to Phoneix, and from there all the way to Ohio (you will need to count on some well-placed overnight L2 charging stops and occasional slower charging in some regions; the map is a bit optimistic). Coming very soon: Coast to Coast.

Capabilities aside, there is nothing really “natural” about the ICE vehicle. In a perfect fit to its extreme nature, it is closely tailored to an extreme and unique biogeochemical phenomenon: the ultra-concentration of energy in liquid petroleum distillates. The ICE is essentially a mobile thermal power plant, converting this energy to linear piston movement (losing a ton to waste heat in the process), and then to the circular motion needed to turn the wheels.

By contrast, a BEV has one-third the moving parts of an ICE vehicle, and requires far less cooling and lubricating fluid.

Myth 1: “EV Technology is not Ready for Prime Time”

You can’t read a mainstream-media expose of EVs without encountering this myth either explicitly or between the lines. Obviously given that, e.g., Tesla was the most Google-searched auto brand in 2013, EVs are already in Prime Time (even without Tesla, btw; but Tesla definitely helps). But that’s not what pundits mean when they say that.

What they mean, is that EV tech is still half-baked, risky, unreliable, untested, short-lived, maybe even – [ cue in “vid of Tesla on Fire!!!” ] – too dangerous.

Bullshit. Here’s my non-expert 1-minute explanation of EVs. It’s an integration of:

1. The “glider” or the vehicle body: – the frame, steering, wheels, brakes, etc. – essentially the same for any car regardless of motor type. This is tech that has been around for >100 years;
2. The electric motor – tech that has been around for >100 years;
3. The rechargeable battery-pack – tech that has been around for >150 years;
4. Computerized control and coordination of the whole thing – younger, but still tech that has been around for decades and is easily doable.

The smartest comment I read about the Tesla Model S phenom was made by an anonymous talkbacker to some article. It went something like this:

If during EVs’ first decade in the mass market, an EV already takes the crown for “Best Car Ever” – it means that the technology itself is superior, not some extra genius on the part of the specific automaker.

Bingo. With all due respect to Tesla (and respect is certainly due), the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, too, have won many awards and enjoy very high driver satisfaction. An even better testimony is what the supposedly anti-EV automakers have managed to do with their “compliance EV” models produced to avoid paying fines in California. The Fiat 500e got rave reviews. The Honda Fit EV seems like a good drive. And the Chevy Spark EV, GM’s “other” EV which the outgoing CEO wasn’t keen on selling anywhere except in California and Oregon (hopefully this idiocy will be undone by the new female, electrical-engineer CEO) – was declared by Consumer Reports to be the best type of Spark you can get.

So… take an existing ICE vehicle, yank out the ICE, EV-convert it with the smallest possible investment – and you got yourself a better car. Sure doesn’t sound like a risky, not-ready technology to me.

Chevy Spark EV
The 2014 Chevy Spark EV, described by Consumer Reports as the best Spark ever made. Incoming GM CEO Mary Barra says she loves it. Will she also let Americans buy it?

On the contrary, EV technology is so ready, it’s over-ripe, literally falling off the trees into the hands of automakers that are not too stupid or craven to embrace it. Only vested interests have kept it from becoming mainstream sooner. Now hopefully – within a year or two max – EVs as mainstream will have become an irreversible fact.

Terminology and some News Updates

Some acronyms:

EV – an umbrella term for any vehicle that can drive based on electric power charged from a plug. This includes the “pure” electric-only BEV (battery EV) like the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla S, the PHEV or plug-in hybrid like the plug-in Toyota Prius, and more exotic beasts like the EREV(extended-range EV) like the Chevy Volt, whose gas engine’s passes power to its electric drivetrain, rather than directly move the car.

ICE – internal combustion engine.

Now… for some EV news. In the time passed since Diary 3B, EVs have been in the mainstream news on several occasions:

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee presents Steve Marsh with a special pin as Washingtonian of the Day in celebration of Marsh reaching 100,000 gas-free miles in his 2011 Nissan LEAF. Marsh, a Kent, Wash., resident, is the first known LEAF owner to drive 100,000 miles.  (PRNewsFoto/Nissan North America)
December 16 2013: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee shakes the hand of Steve Marsh, the first American to reach 100,000 miles on his Nissan Leaf.