Electric Cars: Too Early to Market?

Recent string of set-backs suggests that the market and/or technology might not yet be ready, in the view of writes Steve LeVine for Slate.

Published: 15-Mar-2012

Is there pent-up demand for a $75,000 electric SUV that can outrun a Porsche? South African entrepreneur Elon Musk is gambling that there is. Other entrepreneurs are making similar bets: More than a dozen countries and thousands of incumbent and startup entrepreneurial companies around the world have placed competing chips on the table with the conviction that advanced batteries and electrified vehicles are the next new thing. All together, they will park some two dozen models in Asian, European, and U.S. showrooms in 2012 and 2013.

But a nagging dread is creeping in among the first-mover electric crowd. GM and Nissan, the first out with new electrified vehicles, had combined sales of just 26,000 Volts and Leafs last year. On March 4, GM announced a five-week suspension of Volt production because of low sales numbers. Startup Aptera Motors shut down in December; battery-maker Ener1 filed for Chapter 11 protection in January; and Bright Automotive—spun out of a consortium consisting of Google.org, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and the Turner Foundation—announced its closure on Feb. 29. These troubling signs have led some with skin in the game to start doubting their investment.

There are three ways to look at the slump electric cars are experiencing. It could be a premature innovation, like Édouard Belin’s 1925 fax machine. Science, medicine, and technology are filled with examples of legendary premature inventions. In addition to Belin’s early fax machine, Charles Babbage invented a working computer in 1834, and Leonardo da Vinci designed the parachute in the late 15th century.

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