The electric car boutique

Guest post by Lucia Green-Weiskel, project manager at the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation (iCET).

An artist friend of mine was visiting me in New York recently. I took her to the art galleries on the west side of Manhattan – our ritual when we have time together in the city.

Some of the art demonstrated clear talent and skill; other galleries I found clearly provocative and obscure. I was getting accustomed to transitioning between different styles, approaches, colours and materials as we walked from gallery to gallery, so when I entered a showroom of Tesla electric vehicles (EVs) I thought it was some clever artist’s idea of ironic commentary.

But, more shocking to me than the painting of the Holy Virgin Mary made from elephant dung, was the fact that the electric car, the symbol of the new green economy, the longest-promised innovation of the twentieth century, is now – in the twenty-first century – sitting in an art gallery. How can this giddy hunk of aerodynamic steel that looks like art (and is priced like art) actually be, as American writer Thomas Friedman puts it, the “pivotal” piece of the new green economy?

Not that I didn’t admire the Tesla. It was a beautiful thing to look at.

One might argue that Teslas are in art galleries because they are a high-end car (starting at US$101,500 – around 676,000 yuan) but this is just an extreme case in the dominant trend in America. Instead of being the “car of the people”, EVs are often prohibitively expensive, rarely available second-hand and difficult to find. (Some starting prices for US-made hybrid and electric cars: Ford Fusion hybrid US$27,950, Chevy Volt EV US$40,280; and their foreign competitors: Toyota Prius hybrid, US$22,800, Nissan Leaf EV US$32,780.)

I couldn’t help but think back to my tour just two months earlier of the south China plant of Chinese electric car producer BYD (Build Your Dreams). A young enthusiastic worker, Ren, met me at the gate with a warm grin, wearing a lab coat. As we toured the immaculate facility, with white floors and walls, high ceilings and a constant flow of smiling purposeful workers all dressed in the same suit bustling to and fro, I thought I was in a dream.

Ren explained BYD’s founding principles: equality, innovation, passion and factuality. Their goal is to produce electric vehicles and make them available for less than their fossil-fuel competitors. He showed me a diagram – set under glass in the centre of their showroom – of what the complex will look like in five years: completely run on solar and wind power, with staff dorms, recreation facilities and fitness centres, linked to the outside world by state-of-the-art public transit, supplemented with all-electric taxis and tree-lined bike lanes. I can only find one word to describe it: utopian.

The difference between the American and Chinese electric car company has everything to do with each country’s respective government policies. China generously subsidises all aspects of the EV industry, including the developers, manufacturers and consumers as well as the development of a network of charging stations at feasible distances from one another across China. As a result, EV and hybrid cars in China range from US$15,000 to US$22,000 without consumer subsidies, and up to half that with the subsidies.

The United States meanwhile is subsidising battery technology and consumers get a tax credit with the purchase of an EV or hybrid car (US$7,500 for EVs and US$2,500 for hybrids) but it’s not enough. We must also adopt the utopian attitude. Like his counterpart in China, Obama must approach the EV market as a whole and consider subsidies for all aspects of the industry, including manufacturing and the construction of charging stations. For the United States to stay afloat in the economy of the twenty-first century, Obama must think and plan for large-scale change. As Thomas Friedman says: “The country that replaces gasoline-powered vehicles with electric-powered vehicles — in an age of steadily rising oil prices and steadily falling battery prices — will have a huge cost advantage and independence from imported oil.”