TOPICS > Science > The Leading Edge

Are consumers ready to hit the gas on electric cars?

July 19, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Electric cars have a reputation for being a pricey, niche product that only a handful of people would want or could afford. But that reputation is starting to crumble as carmakers promise to put electric vehicles in reach for more consumers. Sonari Glinton of NPR joins William Brangham to discuss the realities of the market and how Tesla’s cheaper electric car could shape the industry’s future.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: Electric cars, are they the ride of the future?

Their potential to revolutionize the road is once again grabbing headlines, as some companies ramp up production plans.

William Brangham breaks down the realities of the technology and the market for electric vehicles.

He recorded this earlier for our weekly segment on the Leading Edge of science and technology.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The knock on electric cars has always been that they’re a pricey, niche product that only a handful of people would want or could afford.

But that reputation is starting to crumble, and fast. The electric car maker Tesla, which already has a bigger market value than General Motors and Ford, will soon be delivering its mid-priced Model 3 car.

Volvo just announced that, in two years, all of its cars will be hybrids or electric. And some major U.S. manufacturers have proven electric vehicles available right now.

So, are electric vehicles ready to go mainstream?

NPR’s Sonari Glinton has been covering the story. And he joins me now.

Welcome to the NewsHour.

SONARI GLINTON, NPR: It’s good to be here.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, electric car advocates have been saying for decades that these cars are the future. Why has it taken them this long to get to where they are today?

SONARI GLINTON: I would say low gas prices, the pickup truck, and America’s sort of dependency on the status quo.

When you look at an electric car, if you drive one — I used to have a plug-in hybrid — and I got to a point where I never went to the gas station, and I never thought …

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s got to be a great feeling.

SONARI GLINTON: Yes, and I never — yes, exactly. And I — when I switched — I’m one of the few people to switch, you know, from electric to a gas-powered car.

When I went to a gas-powered car, it’s a two-seater convertible, so like that’s the reason I did that. But I cannot imagine getting — I can’t imagine not having that convenience.

You always start the day with a full tank. It’s a simpler drivetrain, so it’s easier to fix. It has fewer problems. It’s quiet like a luxury car.

The problem is, is that the car companies, right, are building trucks that …

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That the market wants.

SONARI GLINTON: Desperately wants. And people are buying SUVs way more now than they’re buying cars.

The tipping point was reached a few years ago. And now we’re at about 60 — depending on what month, about 60/40 SUVs to cars. And that’s partially because we’re all realizing, like, I want to sit up higher. I want to …

(CROSSTALK)

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And if the gas prices aren’t killing you, there’s no reason to go into an electric.

SONARI GLINTON: Yes.

And, right now, to be clear, there are a lot of hurdles for electric cars. And, mainly, it’s the battery. It’s not necessarily figuring out how to move the car. It’s getting a lighter, cheaper battery is what’s at the crux of this.

So, the auto industry knows that that’s where it’s going, right? But Wall Street and customers say, well, we like those F-150s, we like those Chevy Silverados and those Dodge Rams, and we’re buying a lot of them. And they’re hugely, hugely profitable, while electric car profits are, A, they’re about 3.5 — the volume of electric cars …

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: A tiny sliver of the market.

SONARI GLINTON: Tiny, like less than 4 percent.

And it’s been stagnant for a few years because of those gas prices. So, there’s a lot of things. And, for the most part, in many places in the country — I live in California, where there are many, many charging stations and there’s rebates and things like that that you can get.

But if you’re in the middle of the country, the word may not have gotten to you. You know, there are so many hurdles.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The incentives just aren’t there.

SONARI GLINTON: The incentives aren’t there.

And we haven’t educated the consumer about the difference. If you — when people get into electric cars, they love them. When they use them in their lives, they love them.

But you look at the marketing and you look at the car companies, and your Super Bowl half-time commercial isn’t necessarily, you know, the latest, lightest, most fuel-sipping vehicle. No, it’s the big trucks and those things.

And, right now, that’s important in the short term. But every carmaker understands that electrification and autonomy are definitely the future. And they’re not the future like 30 years from now. They’re the future really, really soon.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So there are no Kodaks among the car manufacturers. They get that electric is the future, but they’re still making a lot of money off big, heavy trucks.

And is there an incompatibility there? Can you make electric cars and design and develop and push them out at the same time that you’re making big, heavy, gas-guzzling trucks?

SONARI GLINTON: Well, you can make the argument that companies like Ford or Chevy are already doing that.

Chevy has the Volt, which does what the Tesla Model 3 says it’s going to do. It goes over 200 miles per charge. It’s under $40,000, which is within range of the average American consumer. And then they build — some months, the Silverado is really, really a gangbuster for that company.

But when we talk to executives, you hear the pressure to keep those trucks going, to pump out those F-150 profits. You know, studies show that, for Ford, the F-150 is as much as 90 percent sometimes of profitability.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Wow.

SONARI GLINTON: So, you look at the F-150 …

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s a hard thing to argue against.

SONARI GLINTON: Hard to argue against.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As I mentioned, Tesla is about to roll out this Model 3, which, obviously, the big question for them is that they have been selling a very small number of very pricey cars.

And now they want to sell a lot of these cheaper cars to appeal to a bigger audience. What’s the big challenge for Tesla?

SONARI GLINTON: All the bets. For Tesla, it’s a bet inside of a bet inside of a bet.

They’re betting that more people are going to buy electric cars. They’re betting on the battery technology, which Tesla has one of the biggest factories in the world making batteries. They also bet on how they’re going to change the way people — how they sell the cars.

I mean, you look all across the board when it comes to Tesla, there’s this huge bet. Right now, they make 4,400 cars a month or so. And they’re looking to sell 500,000 Model 3’s.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It’s a huge scale-up.

SONARI GLINTON: And, at the end of the month, Tesla says it is going to deliver 30 cars to the buyers, and then 1,900, you know, later on.

The key is, how long are those customers going to wait for that car, and how long is it going to take to get there, and they are going to be able to scale up, and can they keep that quality that they were known for when they were selling 4,400?

I don’t know what the answer to those things are, but I do know that is going to be really hard.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: NPR’s Sonari Glinton, thanks so much.

SONARI GLINTON: Always a pleasure.

SHARE VIA TEXT