NPR Story Misses the Mark on Electric Cars

It’s not surprising when one of the more reactionary media pundits criticizes electric cars or pans efforts to raise the fuel efficiency of America’s cars and trucks.  But when National Public Radio gets the story wrong on the 54.5-mpg target set for 2025, it’s time to set the record straight.

The premise of the NPR story on yesterday’s Morning Edition radio program appears to be that carmakers will need to sell a lot of pure electric cars in order to reach the 54.5-mpg target 14 years from now.  NPR said it will take “feats of engineering” to make it happen. 

First of all, there was no mention that the 54.5 mpg number is the one used for certification only—while 40 is the target mpg average for what appears on window stickers.   Moreover, as I blogged on last week, the reality is that we don’t need many EVs to reach this goal.  We can get close to the 2025 target by using well-known, affordable, off-the-shelf technologies—like downsizing, turbocharging, and direct injection—on about two-thirds of vehicles.  In addition, if one out of every six or so cars is a hybrid by 2025, then we’ll be 97 percent of the way toward the goal. 

The NPR story totally overlooks the reality that only about three percent of cars will need to be plug-ins—either pure electric vehicle or plug-in hybrids—by 2025.  Instead, he focuses his report on a set of tired negative misconceptions about pure electric cars.

The NPR story says that, “General Motors is struggling to sell 10,000 Chevy Volts this year, and Nissan has sold just over 8,000 Leafs. For context, about 13 million cars are expected to be sold in the U.S. in 2011.”  For a moment, forget the irrelevance of these 2011 numbers on the 2025 targets.  It’s backwards to say that G.M. and Nissan are struggling to sell their electric vehicles. 

It’s consumers who are struggling to buy these EVs.  In this early stage of the plug-in market, there appears to be a lot more demand than supply.  Consumers have to be placed on waiting lists—as long as a few months—to get a chance to drive off the lot with a car that runs on little or no petroleum. As of today, there are about 24,000 people still on the GM Volt waiting list.

Then, the story revisits the familiar hand wringing about access to public electric car chargers.  “The problem is that there aren’t yet enough places to go to charge the cars,” according to the NPR story.  Any of the nearly 10,000 U.S. owners of the all-electric Nissan LEAF will tell you that 99-percent of car charging takes place at home—and that it’s cheaper and more convenient than traveling to a gas station.  NPR cites 16 hours as the time it takes to fully charge, when nearly all EV drivers use 240-volt home charging that brings that down to less than eight hours (which almost always occurs at night while you’re sleeping.)

EV owners also fully understand the car’s 100-mile or so range capability, which meets nearly all commuters’ daily needs.  Yet, NPR makes driving an electric car seem like a great mystery to be feared.  “Oh, no. What if I can't make it?” worries Brian Moody of in the story.  "It's sort of like a microwave oven: You know what it does, but you don't know exactly how it does it.  It works by magic, and people don't like that."

Once again: no mention of the fact that electric cars use simpler technology than what’s found in vehicles using gas-powered internal combustion.  In an EV, you pull juice from a battery to drive an electric motor that turns the wheels.  Fewer moving parts.  Less maintenance.

Finally, Moody laments “the chances of there being a 500-mile range electric car, at this point, it seems pretty unlikely.”  Since when is 500 miles the required range of our cars and trucks?  Most gas cars, especially gas-guzzlers, don’t get anywhere near that. And even if 500 miles or range was the goal, the best way to offer more miles of driving in our vehicles is to make then go further on a gallon of gas. 

Helping Americans travel further while spending less money at the pumps—on mostly imported oil—is exactly the point of the 54.5-mpg target.  NPR needs to go back to the well on this story.