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Report: Plug-in vehicles slow to spark interest in Indy

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Plug-in electric vehicles, which are struggling to gain traction nationwide, have even less appeal in central Indiana than they do in most areas of the country, a new study says.

Indianapolis residents have less interest in buying plug-in electric vehicles than those in almost every other major city, according to a report released late last week by researchers at Indiana University and the University of Texas.

The city tied for second-to-last place with San Antonio, Texas, and landed just above the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area in a scoring system ranking drivers’ interest in buying the vehicles.

Nationally, even in the metro area where consumer demand was highest—the San Jose-San Francisco area—interest was still low enough to lead researchers to doubt the plug-in vehicle market will see considerable growth anytime soon.

"While plug-in vehicles provide considerable fuel savings, those weren't enough to offset the perceived disadvantages," the study's authors said in a release.

In a survey of about 2,300 people in 21 major cities, the study found that most automotive consumers cannot justify the high upfront costs for electric cars like the Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt.

“Keep in mind that Indy has not been a priority 'rollout city' for the Leaf or Volt, so part of the explanation is less familiarity,” study co-author John Graham, the dean of IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, wrote in an email to IBJ.

Motorists can get as much as 94 mpg in a Volt if they are willing to keep the car running on electricity without switching to gasoline.

With the Volt priced at about $40,000, more car shoppers are buying fuel-efficient, gas-powered cars such as the Chevy Cruze, which starts at about $17,000.

Also at issue, according to the report, are plug-in cars’ limited driving ranges and the inconvenience of recharging the batteries.

A lack of consumer awareness also hurts interest in Indianapolis, the study said. Consumers are subject to more information about the cars in bigger, media-saturated cities like Chicago, which ranked second in the university survey study, or places with tougher environmental regulations, like California’s.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office hopes to address that issue by making the vehicles more visible on city streets. Ballard announced Dec. 12 that the city plans to phase out gasoline- and diesel-power vehicles in its fleet by 2025 and replace them with alternative fuel vehicles.

“As charging technology continues to improve, as the range continues to improve, all those things will continue to increase consumer demand,” said Ballard spokesman Marc Lotter. “We’re mostly focused on showing that we can do this as a city government and showing other city governments that it can be done.”

Corporations and groups such as the Energy Systems Network have been investing in plug-in stations and other pieces of the electric vehicle infrastructure to boost the market.

ESN, an initiative of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership that focuses on the energy and clean-technology sectors, received $6.4 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for Project Plug-in to upgrade the infrastructure and boost consumer demand.

“Public charging stations do help in reducing range anxiety but they do not help in reducing ‘sticker shock,’” Graham said in his email.

To reduce the sticker shock, the government needs to continue offering incentives to lower company research and development costs, ultimately lowering vehicles prices, he said.

As long as prices stay high, most consumers just won't be interested. And companies involved in the industry will struggle.

Case in point being Indianapolis-based EnerDel Inc.

The company in 2009 received a $118.5 million grant to cover R&D and commercialization of electric- and hybrid-vehicle batteries. But, by 2011, the predicted market had failed to materialize and key customer Think Global went bankrupt.

EnerDel went into its own bankruptcy soon after. It emerged from Chapter 11 earlier this year with help from a Russian investor.

CEO David Roberts previously told IBJ that the company would continue supplying batteries for electric and hybrid cars, but not nearly at the same rate because the company was instead focusing on utilities markets.

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  • Electric Vehicle Battery Waste Stream
    Electric vehicle battery disposal does not appear to be a problem. Right now the price for even high mileage Prius battery packs is astronomical. When the batteries are truly shot and beyond use, one still has 400 lbs or so of valuable chemicals in a single compact package, the sort of waste stream recyclers dream about.
  • Total Carbon output
    Total carbon output is still lower for a plug in electric. Large stationary power plants running under relatively constant load are over twice as efficient as a small automotive engine in normal use, even when transmission costs are taken into account. There is a reason power is cheaper out of a wall plug compared to purchasing it at a gas station. Yes a lot of electric power comes from coal, but it also comes from natural gas, nuclear, wind and hydroelectric.
  • Not all it's cracked up to be
    I am lower-middle income, as are many, many of us. I can't even afford a good used traditional car, let alone an incredibly expensive hybrid. In addition, distance-before-charging is a major issue. Furthermore, it seems there is a lot of denial afoot even among smart advocates of "clean" tech: the electricity used to charge such a car is not magically produced, carbon free, clean energy. Most of it, in most parts of the country (especially in states like Indiana, which is specifically mentioned in the article), comes from burning huge amount of fossil fuel to produce the electricity that will be used to power "clean cars." I find it unforgivable that this fact is literally never brought into the discussion. I understand that the total carbon output is probably much lower from the beginning of the chain to the end in relation to plug in cars versus gasoline powered; nonetheless, commentators, pundits, consumers, and advocates alike should stop pretending these cars are utterly clean. The latter point doesn't even begin to scratch the surface in terms of safe battery disposal, not to mention environmental and concerns related to the processes and the energy required to bring the batteries to, through, and off the assembly line. Some studies show that the net reduction in environmental harm, including carbon output, is not all that impressive.
    • Google "Tesla Model S"
      The reason people aren't buying the Leaf and the Volt is because there are better cars rolling off the line this year. See Motor Trend and Automobile magazines' Car of the Year.
    • It's a dealer problem
      Tried to buy a Volt in Indy at full retail last year. Had the check already written. Turned out they wanted to charge me $1,000 for the 240 volt extension cord. What a rip off. My house is already wired for 240 in the garage and driveway. A grand for an extension cord is beyond belief. Plus GM was holding back important features for mid year, specifically bluetooth streaming audio support (a no cost mid year introduction). That would have devalued my car instantly: Same model, same model year, same price, more features. GM and their dealers here in Indy are the reason why sales are low.
    • Batteries don't work well in cold weather....
      ...which is why they don't sell well in the north. Makes sense for them to sell well in warmer climates. Unless they have come up with some technology to guard against that...

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