The electric car has gotten a bad rap recently. Witness the furor over the Chevrolet Volt, which was evidently slated to be the next Ford Pinto. (Admittingly, the jokes were cheap and fun.) The Fisker Karma, the super-slinky, salacious supercar, is the new standard in ultra-luxury unreliability! And if we’re to believe the hype, Tesla’s batteries are bricking more than the third Little Pig’s house. The only reasonable suggestion we can make at this point is that this electricity thing is overrated, and it deserves to go back to its mundane duty of powering Lite Brites and animatronic fish.
Sure, all of these dramatic, scandalous! news stories are tempting, but like much of what passes for news these days, they rarely tell the whole story. Like any turmoil in the car industry, all of these happen at a frequent pace; it’s only when it concerns a technology still in its infancy do they take on a certain special level of significance. Are electric cars really doomed from this point?
We have spilled enough ink over the Chevrolet Volt’s sales figures to restore the Bayeux Tapestry. We’ve also mentioned its tendency to catch fire—you know, that time in a testing facility, by an organization that was trying to break a Volt to destruction, while in storage a week after the crash. It’s such a non-issue that it would be more surprising if, say, a company issued a recall because the instructions on the spare tire kit were printed incorrectly.
But failing sales projections—that is a far more pressing issue. Bob Lutz recently lashed out at FOX News for this exact reason: even with $7,500 in federal tax credits, GM has been forced to hold back production of the Volt. Companies do this all the time. Production schedules are altered, factory workers take another shift; maybe they’ll do double time the next week if sales pick up, or a car loses its sales momentum over time. In supply chain management, this is routine, and in a way it’s a healthy sign of the new GM management willingness to cut back, instead of inflating inventory to ridiculous proportions, as was the old way.
It may be rare for a company to miss the mark on their sales projections so much, but the early-adopter spirit of Americans falls dramatically when they’re asked to spend $34,000. It doesn’t mean the Volt is a bad car—far from it. And it’s not like the Nissan Leaf has necessarily taken the rest of the country by storm. If anything, it indicates GM’s pig-headed marketing strategy for the Volt, employing dopey fast-food wage slaves and shameless jingoistic proselytizing instead of anything genuinely attention-grabbing. But it’s clear that the blame for the lack of success with the Volt doesn’t lie within the technology itself—just the very human errors of politics and emotion.
The beleaguered Fisker Karma—employing the supermodel’s slogan of looking good while standing still—recently soiled itself in front of the unamused, tight-lipped staff at Consumer Reports, which is as appropriate as hitting on the First Lady or sneaking an overweight ferret into Westminster. The magazine—which famously pays for its test cars—bought a Fisker Karma for the not-insignificant tune of $108,000, and promptly enjoyed a period of not driving it. The car failed to start, necessitated a tow, and required a new battery from the dealer, among other things. A few thousand dollars later, it was up and running—right into the dealer again, when its gauges stopped working. But look on the bright side, Fisker said, “at least the dealer support is nice!” Plus, free cups of Keurig coffee in the waiting room!
Awkward? Sure. Consumer Reports is about as unforgiving as a Mossad agent, after all, and their job is to weed out weaknesses that would concern you, the fair consumer. A dying car would count as one of these flaws, and quite a notable one.
Yet, Consumer Reports, in all of its benevolence, also stated: “in fairness, the challenges Fisker has surmounted in going from a start-up to a bona fide automaker over a short period are monumental. Some birthing pains are not unexpected…further, the Karma is a leading-edge car. Check the reliability track record for other companies pushing tech boundaries (ahem, Mercedes-Benz) and you will often find hiccups.”
The problem with electric cars today is the perception of them, just like what domestic automakers suffered in the dark days before (and during, for entirely different reasons) the 2008 recession.
Let’s issue a knee-jerk reaction to the declining sales of a still-expensive technology, the owner’s ignorant abuse of a handbuilt product, and the unreliability of a boutique car built in even smaller numbers. Let’s disregard the unreliability of gasoline-powered cars that number in the millions, from established technology, from manufacturers far larger than these tiny start-ups and with what seems like infinitely more resources. We should all deign to forget that we’re issuing recalls for things like airbags and fuel sensors—all technology that’s been around since the 60s or earlier, unlike an entirely new propulsion system that hasn’t been in serious development since Will Smith had a sitcom career.
It’s the sort of attitude that kills innovation, mocks intelligence, sways public opinion, and represents the automotive industry (and its vanguard journalists) as a pack of Luddites. What is this newfangled electric technology? See, it clearly doesn’t work!
New technology will always be expensive, and shaky: some of the first cars came with horse heads bolted to the front as to not spook their four-legged archetypes. “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty,” said the president of Henry Ford’s bank, “a fad.” People once thought it was a bad idea for cars to drive more than 5 miles per hour, too—and we mock that today, just as we mock a puny 70-mile range and an 8-hour charge.
Will we do the same in 10 years? Fifteen?
Lastly, regarding the Karma, ExtremeTech saw fit to throw a zinger to our fine automotive journalism industry: “the biggest loser is the publishing business, which can’t seem to write a headline more original than ‘bad Karma.’” Ouch, guys, that cuts deep. I’m gonna go back to my grab-bag of Jaguar-related cat puns and try to get on the next press trip to the Côte d’Azur. Call me, Jag.