GM EV1 and Tesla Model S electric cars, at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA, Oct 2013

GM EV1 and Tesla Model S electric cars, at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA, Oct 2013

Last week, we were struck by a single photo that captured electric cars across two decades.

The image, showing a GM EV1 and a Tesla Model S on the Worcester Polytechnic Institute campus, was posted on Facebook by Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA].

More than anything we've seen in a while, that photo showed how much progress electric cars have made in less than 20 years.

From EV1 to Model S

The GM EV1, the most advanced electric car in the world when it launched in 1996, was a sleek two-seat coupe with a very low drag coefficient and--according to its loyal drivers--delightful power and acceleration.

The range provided by its 18.7-kilowatt-hour lead-acid battery pack was given at 70 to 100 miles. But each one cost General Motors far more than it could ever recoup from lease payments.

When California lifted the zero-emission vehicle sales mandate the EV1 had been designed to meet, GM took back the EV1s and crushed them--as documented in Who Killed The Electric Car?

Fast forward to June 2012, when the very first Tesla Model S was delivered.

Tesla's all-electric luxury sedan seats five, can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds, and delivers an EPA-rated range of 265 miles.

Chelsea Sexton

Chelsea Sexton

Veteran's perspective

To get a sense of what has changed over those years--and what hasn't--we reached out to electric-car advocate Chelsea Sexton, one of the stars of that EV1 documentary.

We asked her to compare the EV1 and the Model S, the best-known and most iconic electric cars of their times, and to reflect on the intervening years.

"It's not really fair or productive to try to compare the EV1 and Model S as vehicles," Sexton riposted, "though many do so anyway."

"But the EV1 was never positioned as a luxury or long-range vehicle," she said, "or even as a sports car--though its acceleration hit that mark for some."

The most visible improvements since the EV1's day, Sexton said, have been in vehicle technology. All cars, including plug-in electric vehicles, are "quieter and more comfortable, and vehicle accessories and infotainment have come a long way in general."

Range mostly unchanged

But aside from Tesla's Model S, she said, the current crop of electric cars "looks a lot like the last one."

Specifically, their EPA-rated ranges--62 to 103 miles--haven't changed much.

In fact, they're lower than either the first-generation Toyota RAV4 EV (stated as 100 to 120 miles) or the GM EV1 updated with a larger 26.7-kWh nickel-metal-hydride battery pack (100 to 140 miles).

And while today's lithium-ion batteries are clearly better, Sexton said, "that's less visible to the buyer since the range is roughly the same."

Prices clearly have improved, "due in part to economies of scale that were never pursued in the last generation," she acknowledged.

GM EV1 and Tesla Model S electric cars, at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA, Oct 2013

GM EV1 and Tesla Model S electric cars, at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA, Oct 2013

As it was then, Sexton said, the prices paid by consumers remain "partly fictional numbers based on what carmakers think the market will bear--and their willingness to lose money" in early years.

Those losses, she proposed, are either to invest for the long term or to avert even higher payments to cover fines under state or Federal compliance rules.

Challenge: the non-car issues

The big problem now, just as it was then, Sexton emphasized, is that "the industry is stumbling the most on the things that aren't specific to electric cars: marketing, communications, dealer experience, etc."

And ironically, she said, "it's the persistence in treating electric cars as if they're appliances, instead of cars," that's the biggest marketing gaffe.

'Revenge of the Electric Car' premiere: consulting producer Chelsea Sexton

'Revenge of the Electric Car' premiere: consulting producer Chelsea Sexton

With the proliferation of plug-in electric cars on the market (14 today), Sexton said, "the industry is more fractured now."

Neither carmakers nor utilities are "nearly as engaged in and with the market and community as before," she said, "and it's reflected in the lingering mistrust" of carmakers' efforts and commitment by utilities.

Worse, Sexton sees "more of an Us versus Them attitude," and less of the 1990s sense that "we're all in this together" to pioneer something radical and new.

Furthermore, the introduction of plug-in hybrids--a type of electric car nowhere near production not even envisioned 20 years ago--adds new layers of complexity, she said, over everything from regulation to charging-station etiquette.

Sexton used an unprintable word when describing the state of charging infrastructure this time around.

The universal charging standard for 240-Volt Level 2 charging is helpful, she agreed, but infrastructure remains perhaps the biggest area where the lessons learned 20 years ago--on location, number, and pricing of charging stations--aren't being heeded now.

2013 Nissan Leaf, Nashville area test drive, April 2013

2013 Nissan Leaf, Nashville area test drive, April 2013

Good electric cars: not enough

To sum up the many themes touched on during the interview, Sexton stressed that "building a good car is neither the hardest part, nor enough" to ensure successful adoption.

"The last generation didn't end because drivers were disappointed in the cars," she pointed out.

The cars' popularity with owners is "evidenced by the various vigils and such held to save them" (some of which can be seen in Who Killed The Electric Car?).

And that applies again today: Tesla Model S owners almost universally rave about their cars, the Chevrolet Volt has the highest owner-satisfaction ratings of any car GM has ever built, and so on.

Ecosystem required

Instead, it's the ecosystem around plug-in electric cars that's the biggest challenge.

Carmakers know how to build good electric cars, Sexton said--but it will take much more than that to foster wide-scale adoption of electric cars.

That includes marketing that makes buyers want an electric car over a gasoline car--even before "butts in seats"--and hard discussions about what need really exists for charging stations, and how to pay for them.

How far have we come, and what's left to do before plug-in electric cars go mainstream?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.


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