In the face of their obvious advantages, I'm surprised at the headwind affecting what should be the booming popularity of electric cars. A friend emailed the other day to point out that Fiat had presented him with what was effectively a free Fiat 500 -- the cute little Italian "replicar."
What makes it free is that it is all electric and can be leased for $200 per month. This is less than what my friend's wife used to spend per month on gas and service on her clunker. The electricity, if not exactly free, is so cheap during the night that it is not a cost factor. So, she substitutes a lease payment for what she used to spend on gas and service. On that basis, anyone can argue that the car itself is free. Plus, she can drive all by herself in the commuter lane -- priceless.
Meanwhile, as a Tesla owner for the past six months, I received a petition to sign urging lawmakers to prevent automobile dealers from forcing Tesla to sell their cars through dealers rather than their current practice of selling directly to the public. The dealers' position is based on archaic antitrust legislation that originally barred manufacturers from creating a vertical monopoly in the automobile industry. The dealers' stance is equivalent to stores like Best Buy insisting that all Apple (AAPL) stores close because selling computers and iPhones directly to the public constitutes a monopoly.
Lots of people seem to hate Tesla and electric cars in general for a variety of reasons. For their part, the auto dealers hate the cars because they require no service work. At 12,000 miles, Tesla people just come to your home to replace the cooling fluid in the battery. Their engine has just 23 moving parts versus the 6,200 in a conventional engine that break and require service. If electric cars get traction, the auto dealership industry will be forced to reinvent its business model. Even if they get to sell Tesla products, there won't be much to service.
Be it Tesla, Fiat or Nissan Leaf -- all point to a future where electric automobiles will predominate. The battery technology is here and is expected to improve dramatically over just the next three years. Batteries will not get cheaper, but they will offer 50 percent more range in three years. Meanwhile, I have driven my car over 10,000 miles in six months and have never had "range anxiety" that I couldn't control. The smug satisfaction I get more than compensates. I'm spending next to nothing to power the car -- thanks to cheap nighttime power from PG&E.
The pretax equivalent guaranteed rate of return from an investment in a battery-powered car is off the charts if you assume that you would otherwise have spent the same amount on a conventional car. In my case, saving what would have been $6,000 per year in gas and an additional $2,000 to $4,000 in annual service bills saves about $8,000 to $10,000 per year of after-tax savings. This is equivalent to as much as $15,000 a year of pretax earnings for most Californians. And, the state throws in the use of the HOV commuter lane.
The argument from Tesla haters that these cars foul the air because coal-burning power plants have a heavy carbon footprint doesn't exactly hold water -- especially in California where only about 20 percent of our power comes from fossil fuels.
On sunny days for instance, Germany provides up to 50 percent of its power from solar, and they are on the same latitude as Maine. Imagine what can happen in our climate when we reach that tipping point of, to paraphrase FDR, "a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage and a solar panel system on every roof." While Dick Cheney once described solar power as "quaint," this year's solar panel sales are up 50 percent over last year. Their "quaint" owners are laughing all the way to the bank.
The final straw for Tesla haters was the fact that they were a success story coming out of the government's subsidy program for alternative energy projects. The company just paid back its $400 million loan many years early. What drives Wall Street nuts, personified by a Morgan Stanley guy I sat next to on a plane recently, is the contention that the company would have failed without the current subsidies that buyers receive. Hey. it does amount to about $10,000, but I contend that buyers of electric cars are not price sensitive. The cars would sell just as successfully without government assistance. As a nation, after all, we've always had a soft spot for cars that look cool and go fast -- and now ones that require no gas or service. Buyers don't need those subsidies. We should do away with them. Driving in the commuter lane is subsidy enough.
Stephen J. Butler is CEO of Pension Dynamics. Contact him at 925-956-0505, ext. 228 or email@example.com.