By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

If electric cars are The Future, why are so many automakers — quietly — backing away from them?

GM has decided against mass production of its Adam electric city-car. Audi has kiboshed the Tesla-esque electric R8 that had been scheduled for a launch sometime this year or next. Nissan has slashed the base price of its Leaf electric car from $35,200 to $28,800 — hoping to defibrillate flat-lining sales.

But the real canary in the coal mine is Toyota, which has dropped plans to mass-produce the electric eQ — stating it had “misread” market demand for such a vehicle. Maybe 100 of these things will ever see the light of day, according to the latest statements from Toyota. “The current capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs, whether it may be the distance the cars can run, or the costs, or how it takes a long time to charge,” explained Toyota Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada. (Reuters news story here.)

Instead, the world-leader in hybrid cars will concentrate on bringing out … more hybrid cars. Twenty-one of them by 2015 — vs. one all-electric car (the electric version of the RAV4, which Toyota — optimistically — expects to sell about 2,600 of during calendar year 2013).

For some perspective, Toyota sold 37,000 Camry hybrids in a month (August, 2012).

Can you say, cut bait?

The future car is not an electric car — it is the internal combustion-engined car. The IC engine may be teamed up with electric motors and batteries (hybrids) or made more efficient via technologies such as direct gas injection (already becoming a de facto standard feature across the board, from inexpensive cars like the $13k Kia Rio I just tested to high-end luxury cars like the $75,000 Q56 Infiniti I had a few weeks prior) . . . but the IC engine itself is not going away anytime soon.

Gas-fired engines are getting smaller. But turbos are being added to make them bigger on-demand (a turbo temporarily increases an engine’s airflow capability — which is the same thing as having a larger engine, as far as power produced is concerned — but with the smaller engine’s smaller appetite for fuel when more power is not needed, as when idling in traffic or just cruising along in top gear). Turbos used to be almost exclusively used as power-adders for already-powerful engines. Now, turbos are being turned to as a way to maintain the power/performance level consumers expect from “everyday” engines — such as the engines in economy cars like the Chevy Sonic. And — in vehicles like the Ford F-series truck — to maintain V-8 levels of horsepower and torque with a smaller, less fuel-thirsty V-6 under the hood.

Many automakers are adding Auto-stop technology to their latest models (including the 2013 Rio I just reviewed). When the car rolls to a stop, as at a red light, the system automatically shuts off the engine to save fuel — then restarts it when the driver takes his foot off the brake. Expect this to become as commonplace as AC and power windows within a year.

Similar fuel-saving technologies include electric-driven power steering, water pumps and even air conditioning compressors. Eight and nine-speed transmissions are also coming online. Many of the latest gas engines have very high (almost diesel-level) compression ratios — which makes them both more powerful and more fuel-efficient.

And down the road a couple of years, we will see some really radical stuff in new car showrooms — including hybrids with hydraulic motors driven by nitrogen gas, compressed by the process of regenerative braking (capturing and making use of inertia), electro-pneumatic valvetrain actuation and micro-engines such as VW’s less-than-one-liter two-cylinder engine, currently in development.

But underneath it all — and powering it all — is gasoline (or diesel) and internal combustion. Because it works. Because it’s the most efficient, least expensive way to get things done.

Electricity isn’t.

Yes, great strides have been made as far as improving the efficiency/output of batteries — and reducing their weight. They’re still nowhere near efficient enough — or light enough.

Yes, the range/performance of electric cars is much better than it was 20 years ago. But it’s still not better than the range/performance of the average gas-burning car of 60 years ago.

This, despite literally billions invested in R&D and decades of brain-sweat. No one can fault the engineers for not trying hard enough to make it work. They’ve been at it for generations.

It’s time to take a breather. Time to stop trying to force a square peg into a round hole — which is what Dear Leader Obama, et al, are demanding when they insist that “we” must have 1 million electric cars in circulation by 2015. Wishing — and demanding — isn’t going to make it happen.

Some EV advocates reference the Apollo Program to argue the opposite. That — yes — it can be done. True. When cost is no object, a man can indeed be put on the Moon. But when it comes to electric cars — to cars, period — cost is very much an object. The reason the Nissan Leaf isn’t selling is — Rocket Science Moment — very few people are going to pay nearly $30k (and that’s the price-slashed 2013 model) for an “economy” car because — Rocket Science Moment II — while it may be almost cost-free to drive it, you still have to buy it. Money spent is money spent — whether it’s at the pump or at the dealership. This is a difficult concept for Dear Leaders to understand.

Well, they kind of understand it — which is why they throw other people’s money at it. The Leaf (and other EVs.) are massively subsidized both at the manufacturing and the retail level.

Even then, they are far too expensive.

But it’s more than just dollars and cents. There is a psychological component, too. Subsidizing a not-yet-viable technology turns people off to the technology. No one likes a lemon. Much less being forced to help pay for it. Why should Jones down the road get a $7,000 check from the government — that is, from taxpayers — to drive a new electric car when I am still making payments on my five-year-old Corolla? The market distortions — and bad press — that flow from these subsidies and the boondoggles they create (e.g., Chevy Volt, the Tesla fiasco) will make it that much harder for a viable electric car to make it, if one ever does become viable.

The subsidy gravy train needs to be sidelined. The political fatwas must cease.

If an electric car can be built, it will be built. Not because of some government edict, not because of open-ended subsidies — but because someone figures out how to make it work without either of them.

It’s that hard — and that simple.


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