Toyota sees the market bifurcating between short-range battery-electrics + long-range fuel-cell carsEnlarge Photo
Plug-in proponents: Electric cars = iPads
The key lesson from disruptive innovations is that you can seize a market with a product that is inferior in several aspects, as long as it does one thing spectacularly well.
Take the first Apple iPad: it had a smaller screen than most laptops, and typing on it was cumbersome. But its touch interface more than made up for all of that, and successive generations of iPads have been spectacular hits.
Judging by the metrics Toyota cares about, battery-electric vehicles are inferior, with less range and longer recharge times than their combustion-based cousins.
This should be enough to consign pure electric vehicles to niche status–except that they do something spectacularly well, something that more than makes up for everything else.
Though they offer a superior driving experience, I'd argue that home recharging is the key.
2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt, with charging station visible; photo by George ParrottEnlarge Photo
I'd bet you a second bitcoin that if electric-car owners were wired up and asked how they felt about recharging their cars, scientists would detect an endorphin rush in the pleasure centers of the brain.
Progressives may feel good about having chosen a more climate-benign vehicle; conservatives might feel they've helped with their country's (or community's) energy independence. Regardless of political leanings, I'm sure many buyers delight in keeping their money away from Big Oil.
Since most electric-car owners plug in every night, their vehicles give them this positive reinforcement hundreds of times per year.
Is it any wonder that in every year they've been eligible, the Consumer Reports customer satisfaction award has gone to a plug-in electric vehicle? (The Chevrolet Volt won in 2011 and 2012; the Tesla Model S grabbed the trophy in 2013.)
Chevy Volt recharging on the street in Cambridge, MA [photos: John C. Briggs]Enlarge Photo
This is why I think battery-electric vehicles are like iPads: It's unlikely they'll ever match the range or refueling specs of gasoline (or fuel cell) vehicles – but they don't need to.
They do something else spectacularly well, instead. The iPad didn't (and still doesn't) need a physical keyboard to be an industry-upending success.
Battery vehicles aren't for everyone
As revolutionary as tablets are, we still continue to buy hundreds of millions of desktop and laptop computers every year. For many people (among them most professional writers), bigger screens, faster processors, and keyboards may still be essential.
Similarly, there are car buyers for whom battery-electric vehicles may never be practical.
About 15 percent of American households live in apartments or condos, and the trend toward increased urban density means this will probably increase, going forward.
While some forward-thinking cities now require developers to include charging infrastructure in new projects, it takes decades for housing stock to turn over, and landlords or condo councils tend to be–let's put this politely–frugal.
2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, Catskill Mountains, NY, Oct 2012Enlarge Photo
That means "outlet orphans" will be with us for a very, very long time. In the near term, plug-in hybrids are a fantastic way to electrify some of these drivers' miles, perhaps via charging at work.
The big opportunity for fuel cells–one that complements battery-electric vehicles instead of competing with them–comes in the longer term.
Fuel cells may one day displace gasoline engines in plug-in hybrids and range-extended electric cars, which will remain a massive part of the plug-in market for years to come. They will give drivers for whom battery-electric vehicles just aren't practical totally emission-free propulsion of their own.
Which may mean that Toyota's statement about its fuel-cell vehicles--it's the technology "for the next half-century"--could be true.
Even if the company doesn't see it quite the way that electric-car proponents and advocates do.