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What Will It Take For Electric Cars To Make Great Family Cars?


2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

First, a disclaimer – I’m no scientist, not particularly good at math, and claim no expertise in dissecting voluminous data on the pros and cons of electric vehicles. But I am a writer who’s also a wife, mother of four, and live in a state and area (California/Los Angeles) where you have to have a car to get pretty much anywhere you want/need to go.

That said, I have followed the burgeoning debate in the blogs (particularly in GreenCarReports and TheCarConnection, but also elsewhere in the blogosphere and media) with great interest. Here, then, are my own conclusions about what it will take for electric cars to go mainstream as family cars.

Combating range anxiety will require EVs to achieve 150-200 miles on a charge. We’re talking about pure EVs here, so the anxiety that many Americans feel about having a car – such as the 2011 Nissan Leaf, which is 100 percent electric – that can only go a maximum of 100 miles without a charge is real enough to pose an impediment to purchasing such a car as a family vehicle. While the Leaf makes a great commuter car or in-town vehicle, a family would need to have another car (or rent one) to go on long trips. In my own case, since two of the four offspring live at opposite ends of the state, that means a car that can make it 300 and 150 miles (north and south). This also includes family trips to Mammoth or Las Vegas. Right now, the only pure electric vehicle is the Nissan Leaf, which doesn’t count as a transporter of the average-size American family in my book. We’ll need to have larger vehicles typically considered family cars – such as the 2012 Buick LaCrosse with eAssist – but that are all-electric and can go about 150-200 miles on a single charge. Why did I choose 150 to 200 and not 300 miles? Improvements come in increments, so I selected a range that, as a consumer, I believe is achievable in the somewhat near-term. I also thought that what would motivate my family to buy an electric vehicle might also persuade other families.

Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric car at quick charging station

Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric car at quick charging station

Enlarge Photo

Charging infrastructure needs to rapidly deploy. One way to ease consumers’ concerns over running out of “juice” is to have a public quick-charging level III infrastructure (80 percent charge in less than 30 minutes) strategically located. Right now, that’s woefully absent. That will change, of course, but we’re talking about what it will take to get electric cars mainstream. As a consumer, I want to know that if my family ventures out on the highway for a trip of any length, there’ll be a place where we can recharge an EV quickly and conveniently and then be on our way. As for charging at home, we’d opt for the quicker 240-volt set-up, such as the Coulomb ChargePoint Level II – even if we have to pay extra for it. We would, however, first investigate any state or other incentives to help pay for it.

Emissions at the source need to be reduced. After being convinced of the benefits of a zero-emission vehicle, it doesn’t make sense to ignore the pollutants emitted at the source – the electric utilities, many of which are coal-fired. In California and Washington, electricity is also produced using hydro, wind, solar and natural gas – less-polluting energy sources.

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

Enlarge Photo

Vehicle size needs to be able to accommodate families. The first point about range anxiety touched on this concern, and it is a valid one. To go mainstream, EVs need to be able to accommodate the average-size American family. In my book, that’s at least two adults and two children – even if they’re fully-grown. When automakers build EVs in the sizes that Americans traditionally buy to serve the family – mid-size and large sedans, mid-size crossovers, minivans, and so on – if the other concerns are met, that’s when electric cars will really take off in this country. 


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Comments (5)
  1. I agree with all of the above points, but would like to differ a little on the first. I understand the rationale of stating 200 vs. 300 miles on a charge, bbut if you're asking what it will take to make a greate FAMILY car, it will have to be something like 300. Families take vacations, on stops are not part of the fun. Also, if charging stations only reach 80% in 30 minutes, that is cut shorter. Better drink alot to fill the time!
     
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  2. @Damien - Thanks for the comment. I actually debated whether to put 300 miles on a charge in the story as I agree with you that the 300-mark is kind of the magic number. We will get there, and the automaker that builds family EVs that go 300+ on a charge should really wind up in the catbird spot.
     
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  3. There are issues with getting more miles from an electric vehicle. An electric motor is close to 100% efficient as it is. In order to get 200 versus 100 miles from your Nissan Leaf would be to have a battery that’s twice as big and take twice as long to charge. The amount of power that today’s plug in chargers consume is about as much as a space heater. If you put in a charging system that drew more power in order to charge the battery faster, you may have to modify your home’s wiring to accommodate the increased load. Unfortunately, there is no getting around basic physics, you can’t get more energy out of a battery then how much that you put into it.
     
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  4. @John - Good points, although technology does continue to improve in battery development. That, along with aerodynamic enhancements and a few other tweaks may result in better range for EVs. We'll just have to wait and see. Thanks for your perspective.
     
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  5. Range anxiety of EV's is the primary concern.
    Me personally I would not even consider buying an EV for a number of reasons:
    -It's a shotgun wedding when ya buy an EV(ya stuck with dealer for repairs). I've seen too many dealears even try to weasel their way into not paying for items that should be covered under warranty. So not only are you dealing with EV Range Anxiety but Dealer Anxiety.
    -EV's and Hybrids will always be worth less after the warranty is over. This especially applies to the battery pack.
    -LPG/Propane IMHO will be a better alternative to EV's & Hybrids.
     
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