As electric-car charging stations sprout up across New England, local auto dealers say improving the range and cost of battery-powered vehicles is the real key to improving their popularity.
“Horribly,” is how Brian Benoit, vice president of Anchor Nissan in North Smithfield describes how sales of the all-electric Leaf have gone so far. “Even sales of hybrid models aren’t what they hoped they would be. With the improved mileage of gas vehicles now, it is difficult to make more expensive electrics or hybrids pay off.”
Using federal electric-vehicle stimulus money, Rhode Island is building 50 new charging stations at locations across the state over the next three months.
Benoit said while those new stations, and similar facilities being created in other states, will help electric-car viability somewhat, its well below the level of infrastructure needed to make a large difference.
“I don’t think we are anywhere close,” Benoit said. “They would have to be in enough public places – malls, Home Depots, supermarkets – enough places where you’d be running into them often. For 100 percent electric vehicles there is still range anxiety: ‘How far can I go?’ ‘Can I charge it?’ ”
Anchor has sold five Leafs in the past two years, Benoit said, and for the cars to break through to a larger market, another leap in battery range and charging speed is needed from Nissan and other manufacturers.
“If you had a 300 mile [per charge] radius, instead of 100 to 130 miles, then it becomes something you don’t have to think about,” Benoit said.
For any alternative to the gasoline-powered car to gain traction, infrastructure is essential. After all, traditional gasoline automobiles would never have become ubiquitous without the independent service stations that dot roads across the country.
But it’s unclear whether the kind of charging stations being set up now are the essential infrastructure to make plug-in cars work.
Unlike gas refueling, most electric charging is designed to occur wherever the car is parked at night, not necessarily the places they drive during the day.
“As the battery technology improves and costs go down, you will see longer-range batteries in vehicles and then less of a need for public charging stations,” said Al Dahlberg, founder of Project Get Ready Rhode Island, a group advocating for electric vehicle adoption.