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Are consumers ready to hit the gas on electric cars?

Are consumers ready to hit the gas on electric cars?

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.

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