Fall/Winter 2015 Vol. 15 Number 2

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Moving From the Pump to the Plug

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What Would Put More Plug-ins on the Road?

Compared with gas-powered cars, plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) offer lower operating costs, at-home refueling options, and zero tailpipe emissions when operating solely on battery power. Despite these advantages, PEVs have not been widely adopted since they entered the market.

According to a recent Academies report, consumer attitudes and lack of information about PEVs have slowed the acceptance of the new technology. Furthermore, current battery technology -- which determines how far a vehicle can travel on a single charge -- and the high vehicle cost are major barriers to wider adoption of PEVs. The report recommends continued federal investment in battery technology research, as less expensive, better performing batteries will help bring down the overall vehicle cost.

It should be noted, however, the study committee that wrote the report found that except for limited-range battery electric vehicles (BEVs), the travel range for most PEVs on a single charge is comparable to that of a conventional vehicle using one tank of gas. And although limited-range BEVs are not practical for long-distance trips, their ranges are more than sufficient for the average daily travel needs of the majority of U.S. drivers.

The home is the most important place for charging infrastructure, followed by the workplace, in and around cities, and, lastly, on interstates. Local governments could encourage greater plug-in adoption by streamlining permitting processes and building codes and offering incentives that support future installation of infrastructure. The federal government and proactive states should use incentives and regulatory powers to ensure that plugs and charging stations are uniform and that universally accepted payment methods can be used at all charging stations, as is the case with conventional gas stations.

The federal government should refrain from directly investing in the installation of additional public charging infrastructure, however, until more research has been done to understand what role it would play in encouraging adoption and use of PEVs. Given that most PEV owners recharge at home or at work, research should also be undertaken to determine how much public infrastructure is needed and where it should be built.

One of the committee's most important recommendations is continuing the federal financial purchase incentives and re-evaluating them after a suitable period because PEVs are not currently cost-competitive with gas-powered cars without them. Other incentives to boost the purchase of PEVs include temporary exemptions from special roadway or registration fees and utility rate structures that allow owners to recharge when energy supply costs are low.

-- Lauren Rugani

Overcoming Barriers to Deployment of Plug-in Electric Vehicles. Committee on Overcoming Barriers to Electric-Vehicle Deployment; Board on Energy and Environmental Systems, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences; and Transportation Research Board (2015, 152 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-37217-6; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $59.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The study was chaired by John G. Kassakian, professor of electrical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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