Electric cars catch fire, sales not so much

Visitors admire U.S. auto giant General Motors' plug-in electric vehicle 'Chevrolet Volt' at the annual auto engineering exhibition in Yokohama, suburban Tokyo on May 19, 2011.

Kai Ryssdal: Oil closed up today about a buck and a half, just shy of $100 a barrel. Gas averages $3.31 a gallon nationwide.

There will come a day when motorists aren't dependent on fossil fuels to get where they want to go. But the journey from here to there is going to be a bit bumpy.

GM is moving fast to handle customer concerns over its new electric car, the Chevy Volt. They're giving loaners to Volt owners while the feds investigate a couple of battery fires that occurred after crash tests. Not exactly the ad campaign they'd have hoped for.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sarah Gardner reports.


Sarah Gardner: Electric car advocate Tom Saxton says he's not worried about the Volt fires. Saxton says 250,000 gas-powered engines catch fire every year in the U.S.

Tom Saxton: And in fact, if you listen to morning DJs, they make fun of car fires. They call them 'carbeques' and such. It's just such a common occurrence that everybody accepts as normal.

But until regulators determine their cause, the Volt fires may give car buyers one more reason to shy away from electric cars and hybrids.

Tim Dunne at JD Power says, for one thing, they still cost too much.

Tim Dunne: Let's face it: Engineers have been working on electric vehicles for more than 100 years and there's a reason why electric vehicles haven't become mainstream.

Hybrid and EV sales haven't met initial expectations. GM sold about 5,000 Volts in the U.S. the first 10 months of the year. Its sales target for 2011 was more than three times that.

Dunne: At some point, it's going to have to make a return for the automakers and their suppliers. And that's not going to happen unless volumes go up substantially.

No one knows when that will happen. But automakers need to sell more hybrids and electrics if they're going to meet long-term fuel efficiency standards.

Michelle Krebs at Edmunds.com says that's why carmakers will give them a fighting chance.

Michelle Krebs: I think they're down the road enough that we will not see them, so to speak, pull the plug on these kinds of technologies in the near future.

But automakers are hedging their bets. They convinced regulators to revisit stricter fuel efficiency standards in seven years.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.


Ryssdal: You should know Chevrolet is one of the underwriters of this broadcast.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk.

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