Plug in cars won't pay off for consumers for 15 years

The Obama administration wants to push plug-in electric cars as a means of saving energy, even while it contemplates burdening electricity producers with heavy penalties for using coal and other fossil fuels.  That would increase the cost of driving, but even without that kind of price pressure on energy, plug-in cars would be a bad bet for consumers.  The extra costs of the batteries alone will take 15 years to pay off from any savings on gasoline, according to the Detroit News:

As automakers aggressively pursue electric vehicles, a study released today shows the cost targets behind the plans are unlikely to be achieved, making it hard for consumers to recoup the extra cost of buying electric.

The study by Boston Consulting Group, released at an Automotive Press Association event in Detroit today, concludes the cost of electric vehicles is unlikely to drop to the $250 per kilowatt/hour threshold that is cited by many carmakers for these vehicles to be competitive in price. That benchmark is not possible without a major breakthrough in battery technology, and no such breakthrough is on the horizon, said Xavier Mosquet, the Detroit-based leader of BCG’s automotive group.

As a result, the payback time for an all-electric vehicle in the U.S. is about 15 years, and for an extended-range vehicle such as the Chevrolet Volt it would be 19 years, the study finds.

This is something to bear in mind while Obama launches his “green jobs” initiative.  We will spend $2.3 billion to fund 17,000 temp jobs in order to unlock the key to making this technology more efficient.  However, as Daily Tech noted last week, those breakthroughs aren’t even on the horizon, and notes that most people don’t have kind words for the long-term feasibility of plug-ins:

And it’s not just BCG that is predicting doom and gloom for the electric vehicle industry. DailyTech reported in late December that the National Research Council (which is funded by the U.S. Energy Department) also didn’t have too many kind words to say about the feasibility of electric vehicles. In addition, the relatively small $2.4 billion that the Obama administration has already funneled into the electric vehicle market would have to be expanded to hundreds of billions of dollars for the vehicles to proliferate in the marketplace.

With both of these studies coming to the forefront within weeks of each other, it’s hard not to look back at comments Audi of America President Johan de Nysschen made in September 2009. He commented on the Volt’s high asking price, stating, “No one is going to pay a $15,000 premium for a car that competes with a (Toyota) Corolla. So there are not enough idiots who will buy it.”

With regards to pure electrics, he added that they are “for the intellectual elite who want to show what enlightened souls they are.” More recently, de Nysschen commented that “paying customers to drive your cars is not sustainable,” in reference to the aforementioned $7,500 tax credit.

What will it take to make plug-ins more economically feasible?  Unfortunately, the only way to “bend the cost curve” in a manner that makes plug-ins more palatable for consumers is to have government intervene to make all of the other options so costly as to push people into the plug-ins, as the Detroit News reports:

For consumers to break even on their electric car purchase, one of the following things must happen:

• There is a chemistry breakthrough that keeps material costs the same while creating a battery that can store twice as much energy, reducing the cost from $400 per kW/hr to $215.

• A new $7,700 government incentive is offered.

• Owners triple the number of miles they drive annually so the extra cost pays for itself.

• Oil prices increase from $100 a barrel to $375 a barrel.

• A 210 percent incremental gasoline tax is implemented.

In other words, the only way this works is either a miracle breakthrough on something we’re not even approaching yet, or government taxes the hell out of all the other consumer options.  Don’t be surprised to see the gas taxes approach proposed by Congress or the White House in the coming months — while they still can pass it themselves.