A potential nightmare scenario has arrived for the electric-car industry

The Tesla Model 3. Image: Supplied

Half a decade ago, electric cars looked as if they were finally going reverse a century of history and take their rightful place as the transportation choice of the future.

But the financial crisis killed off numerous startups, leaving Tesla and the only major player.

Traditional automakers rolled out their own electric vehicles, but consumers didn’t buy them in significant numbers; only 1% of the current global car market has gone electric.

We’re now in a second wave of EV enthusiasm, as longer-range cars are coming to market, addressing what many observers felt was the weakness of the previous generation of vehicles. It’s costing automakers billions to develop and produce these cars, on the assumption that demand will evolve over the coming years.

But beyond designing and building EVs that can travel more than 200 miles on a charge, car companies are also dealing with the other major hurdle that EVs face: charging times.

Charging networks required

Tesla has constructed an extensive Supercharger fast-charging network that can restore one of its vehicles to full charge in about an hour. Access to the network was free for all Tesla owners, but Tesla recently announced that going forward, it would charge a fee for new owners, in an effort to preserve the network for longer trips and discourage it as an alternative to much slower home charging.

Mark FieldsFordFord CEO Mark Fields, an executive trying to lead the carmaker into the future.

It was expensive but necessary to build the Superchargers as part of the overall Tesla ecosystem. However, imagine that a traditional automaker had to drill for oil and refine it into gasoline to get people to buy cars.

That’s what the electric-car industry is now confronting: a potentially nightmarish extra cost. But they’re moving forward. Ford, Volkswagen, Mercedes, and BMW just partnered to develop a fast-charging network in Europe. Here’s Bloomberg’s Tom Lavell, reporting the news:

“The partnership … aims to establish “thousands” of stations along European highways by 2020, the automakers said Tuesday in a statement …. The rare broad-based cooperation shows the strains on carmakers as they invest billions of dollars to develop battery-powered vehicles to comply with tighter environmental regulations. Buyers have so far shown little interest in the models because of limited driving range, the time needed for recharging and the high price of vehicles. BMW sold fewer than 24,100 of its i3 electric city car last year, out of the company’s total 2.2 million deliveries, while the Renault-Nissan automaking alliance has only handed over 350,000 electric vehicles to customers since 2010, versus a target of 1.5 million by the end of 2016.

These challenges are nothing new for EVs. For a hundred years, they have been more expensive, offering less range and more difficult “refuelling” than gas-powered cars. That’s why it’s taken so long for them to grab even a tiny slice of the market.

But on paper, they make more sense than old-school autos. They’re easier to build, easier to maintain, and they themselves produce no tailpipe emissions (pollution generated by the plants that make the electricity that powers them is another story). Tesla has shown that they don’t need to be glorified golf carts — they can serve up supercar-beating performance.

Chevrolet Bolt EV 2017ChevroletThe Chevy Bolt EV.

Tipping point?

Getting them to a tipping point — say, 10%-20% of the global car market — is turning out to be extremely difficult. The sequence of problems that Tesla has had to solve is being replicated as more manufacturers enter the market, starting with the simple fact that gas-powered cars are cheaper and extending to the patchy, inefficient charging infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the big narrative in transportation has shifted, from EVs to self-driving vehicles. Self-driving tech is far less expensive than the engineering required to make a car run on electricity, and at this juncture, consumers don’t even expect full autonomy in cars. Advanced cruise control is good enough.

In any case, bringing self-driving tech to gas-powered cars doesn’t ask the automakers to create an entirely new fuelling system. The winners in this space could be new entrants who avoid the “old” futurism of EVs and concentrate on the brave “new” future of autonomous mobility. I’m looking at you, Uber.

It’s becoming clear that the legacy problems of EVs are proving to be just as daunting as they always were. For automakers that have already committed to substantial EV programs, the risk is that they will be stuck with vehicles nobody wants to buy — and charging networks that nobody wants to use.

NOW WATCH: Tesla reveals how your self-driving car sees the road

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