Column: So, what happened to all those electric cars?


The documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006. The film, which received multiple award nominations and was widely watched, explores the demise of General Motors’ EV-1, a vehicle that ran purely on electricity and produced no emissions. 

The cars first appeared on California roads in 1996.

Twenty years have now passed and a decade since the film premiered. The question remains.

Where are electric cars?

I bought a brand-new Hyundai Elantra in 2008. At the time, with gas prices soaring, so much of the conversation when buying a car seemed centered on gas mileage. How many miles per gallon can I get?

The Elantra, a modest entry-level, gas-powered compact, fit my budget and also provided the kind of fuel efficiency I needed. Nothing spectacular, but good enough that I could count on one fill-up a week. I imagined that by the time I bought my next car, standard fuel efficiency would be dramatically improved, even on a lower-end car.

Electric cars, I presumed, were the future.

Nearly eight years later, the market for electric cars appears so minimal it’s become an afterthought for auto makers and dealerships. Visit any auto company website and good luck finding an electric vehicle, or even a hybrid, prominently advertised.

With an overwhelming consensus among scientists on the effects of climate change, this appears to be a dangerous path.

In January 2011, about 100 electricians, some from as far away as New Jersey, turned out for a seminar in Riverhead to discuss the future of electric cars. Bob Dunigan, a co-owner of Schwing Electrical Supply, hosted the seminar at Riverhead’s Polish Hall.

Mr. Dunigan spoke about the demand he expected for electricians, who would be needed in coming years to install charging stations to accommodate the flood of electric cars hitting local roads. Mr. Dunigan, who lives in Riverhead, where one of his company’s seven stores is located, hoped to be out in front on the trend.

“It really hasn’t played out the way I thought it would,” Mr. Dunigan said in an interview this week. “Of course, what’s changed everything is the price of gas.”

Gas prices have declined steadily in recent years, with prices now under $2 a gallon for regular on the North Fork. The national average this week, according to the motor club AAA, is $1.827.

Mr. Dunigan had reason to be optimistic five years ago. After all, in October 2008, President Obama pitched a goal for a million plug-in cars to be on American roads in 2015. Instead, The New York Times reported in November, the number of electric cars on the road was about 330,000.

“It fell from grace, you could almost say,” said Mr. Dunigan. “There was such fanfare back during sky-high [gas] prices that this was going to help make America oil-independent.”

Two of the most popular vehicles for 2015 were trucks — the Ford F-Series and Chevrolet Silverado — and accounted for more than 1.3 million sales, according to online data. Sales for all plug-in vehicles for 2015 totaled just over 116,000, down from 123,000 in 2014.

A 2014 figure cited gas-electric hybrids as making up just under 3 percent of all light vehicle sales in the U.S. Light-duty trucks and SUVs both saw increases of more than 10 percent in sales from 2014 to 2015.

“It’s funny you read about all the car companies just boasting about their SUV sales,” Mr. Dunigan said. “I’m a believer in cycles. I truly believe that gas is at a low point and it’s going to go back up.”

Perhaps over the next few years the electric car will be resurrected. Federal fuel-economy standards are set to increase starting in 2017, putting more pressure on auto makers to produce cars with lower emissions. Of course, the electric car may be over altogether by the time it gains any mainstream popularity. Toyota has already introduced the Mirai, a fuel cell vehicle powered by hydrogen. The car features no internal combustion and produces no carbon emissions. It reportedly has a range of 312 miles on a full tank and an average fuel rating of 66 mpg. But with a starting retail price of $57,500, the Mirai is well out of range for most people right now.

In 10 years, maybe we’ll be watching a documentary called “Who Killed the Fuel Cell Car?”

There’s still plenty of oil that needs burning.

As for me, I’m still driving my Elantra, 136,000 miles and counting. I’m hoping to hang on as long as I can, at least until I can get one of those self-driving cars.

Photo Caption: The Toyota Mirai, a hydrogen-powered vehicle that retails for $57,500. (Credit: Toyota)

WerkmeisterJoe Werkmeister is the managing editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-354-8049.