It is an easy time to be an electrification skeptic. Over the past two years the federal government has spent billions of dollars in grants and loan guarantees to produce technology for electric vehicles.  Last March General Motors sold a grand total of 608 Chevy Volts and Nissan a total of 298 LEAF’s. Plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) sales in the United States by other manufacturers were nominal.

There are, of course, good explanations for these low numbers. Both General Motors and Nissan are intentionally rolling out their electric products slowly and carefully. Any new technology that fundamentally changes a familiar consumer product takes time to catch on. Besides, in March General Motors sold less than twice as many Escalades and Corvettes, vehicles with much greater familiarity to and brand recognition among U.S. consumers. No need to panic just yet.

Still, the narrative does not sound good.  If the point of PEV’s is to reduce petroleum dependence and greenhouse gas emissions, what difference will even ten, twenty or fifty thousand PEV sales make in the context of a national automobile fleet of 245 million vehicles? And how can a meaningless difference justify the billions that have been spent? The skeptics are going to have a field day.

We must recognize that the skeptics are to some extent right.  A few thousand PEV’s will make little difference to American energy security or to the environment. Vehicle electrification only makes sense if it includes a significant portion of the national automotive fleet. PEV’s must be made attractive to mainstream consumers if our massive national investment in them is to be justified.

There is only one way for PEV’s to penetrate the mainstream consumer market:  the price of those vehicles, and the batteries that power them, must be brought sharply down.  Recharging infrastructure, demonstration communities, secure lithium supplies and the like are all important issues. But they are background noise.

The success or failure of electric vehicles in the United States will turn on one, and only one, factor:  the upfront price to consumers of the advanced batteries that power those vehicles.

We need a national strategy for bringing down advanced battery costs. That strategy must focus on three things:  Increasing the volume of advanced battery production, improving the energy density of the batteries themselves, and reducing the upfront price that consumers must pay for the vehicles that contain them. 

Make no mistake: the skeptics are sharpening their knives and hoping to destroy vehicle electrification or, more correctly, to delay it for several decades. Time is short; the skeptics will not be silent long. We need to focus on the real problem and get to work.