10 Signs Your Next Car Won't Be Electric

A new generation of plug-in vehicles designed for mainstream U.S. consumers is slated to roll out over the next five years — giving car buyers more electric options than ever before. But while automakers are racing to develop models that could eventually see mass market adoption, car companies’ inaugural electric efforts are widely expected to make up only a small portion of the auto market. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett recently predicted that all cars will be electric by 2030, but most forecasters anticipate a slower rate of adoption for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Electric vehicles on the world’s roadways could number in the hundreds of thousands by 2015, as Pike Research put it last week, but “the full effects of this automotive revolution will take years to be realized in the mainstream market.” What are some of the factors that could keep prospective car buyers from going electric in the coming years? Here are 10 signs you probably won’t be first in line for a gen-1 EV.

  1. Your budget’s already tight. A $7,500 tax rebate will be available to help bring within reach some of the earliest electric vehicles targeted for mainstream consumers. (The government will reduce the max credit offered for a given manufacturer’s vehicles after the company has sold at least 200,000 vehicles.) But with prices falling mostly into the $40,000-and-up range, first-gen plug-in models will be too expensive for many.
  2. You live in an apartment. While homeowners with a personal garage can have a charge point installed and see the electricity costs added to their regular utility bill, apartment complexes will require a smart charging system with secure login and billing features so that residents are charged accurately. That means renters will be at the mercy of building owners’ enthusiasm (or lack thereof) when it comes to having access to a charging station at home.
  3. You’re waiting for a gas tax hike. General Motors’ (s GM) Bob Lutz and Ford (s F) Executive Chairman Bill Ford have suggested that gas taxes may need to be hiked up for U.S. consumers to cough up the extra dough for an electric car. But at least two factors counter the idea that a jump in gas taxes will push a typical consumer in the next few years to invest in a plug-in vehicle. First, it’s unlikely that in this time frame we’ll see a gas tax hike — most politicians would rather keep a safe distance away from taxing Americans’ fuel. Second, fuel makes up a relatively small portion of the total cost of ownership for personal vehicles. So a gas tax hike probably won’t be the last straw that spurs purchase of first-gen electric vehicles.
  4. You just threw down for a Prius. Consumers who just joined the hybrid bandwagon and invested in a third-generation 2010 Prius this year have a car that should last well beyond the introduction of plug-in models in the 2010-2015 time frame. The new Prius starts at around $22,000, and fully loaded costs a little over $32,000. Most electric models coming out in the next few years will likely start around $40,000, with luxury models running up to more than double that price.
  5. You don’t live in California. Some of the earliest plug-in vehicle models will roll out to customers and fleet operators in California. The Los Angeles area in particular has attracted interest from EV developers for its high population density, notorious air pollution problems, large car market, affluent consumers and history of adopting new technologies early on. California has some public charging infrastructure from its first attempt at spurring EV adoption in the 1990s, and thousands more are slated for installation over the next few years. Plug-in vehicle developers eyeing California as their lead market range from Coda Automotive to BYD Auto to General Motors.
  6. You want a truly zero-emission vehicle. All-electric vehicles may lack an exhaust belching tailpipe, but they’re only as green as the source of their electricity. If you’re waiting for an electric vehicle that can plug into a zero- or low-emission grid (powered mostly with renewable energy sources like wind and solar), keep waiting. Cleaning up the power grid will take many years after the launch of the earliest electric models.
  7. You want an “all-American” model. The earliest electric models to hit the market will be largely international efforts. General Motors is getting the battery cells for its Chevy Volt from South Korea’s LG Chem, for example. And Tesla Motors, the poster child for a new American auto enterprise, gets its lithium-ion cells from Japanese suppliers and has contracted manufacturing out to the UK’s Lotus. If stimulus-funded projects go according to plan, more manufacturing will be done stateside for later models, but factories for models like the Tesla Model S and Fisker Nina aren’t scheduled to begin producing vehicles until 2011. Other companies, like Think and V-Vehicle aim to set up manufacturing in the U.S., but they have yet to secure financing.
  8. You demand triple-digit MPG. If you expect to test drive a Chevy Volt, Nissan (s NSANY) LEAF or Tesla Roadster and experience miles per gallon in the triple digits — as advertised — you may be sorely disappointed. Measurements of a car’s efficiency in terms of how far it can go on a gallon of gasoline, when it really runs (at least in part) on electricity, have dubious relevance. More realistic shorthand for how much you will end up spending on electricity for different plug-in vehicles may come in the form of electricity per mile ratings.
  9. You’re not on the list. Some electric vehicle makers are already taking reservations and pre-orders for upcoming models. Not every vehicle slated for production has been spoken for — but some models in small initial rollouts could go quickly. BMW fielded at least 1,800 applications this year for the 450-vehicle field trial of its electric Mini E.
  10. You’re so over ownership. If you (and your city or college campus) are really ahead of the curve, your next set of wheels won’t come in the form of vehicle ownership at all — you’ll buy mobility as a service instead, taking advantage of car- and bike-sharing networks and improved public transit, plus smartphone apps and online tools for managing it all.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user CoreForce