Electric car excitement remains limited in Maryland

Marylanders slow to plug into electric cars

For Tom Blanks, driving an electric car came down to pure mathematics.

Blanks, of Rodgers Forge, converted the miles per gallon and kilowatt hours per charge (the measure of electric fuel efficiency) of each option he was considering into a simpler statistic: dollars per mile. With only a short commute downtown from Towson, he leased a Nissan Leaf.

Next year, he'll buy a Tesla.

Known for its electric luxury cars, Tesla garnered a lot of attention after unveiling the more affordable Model 3, which will be out next year. Customers have pre-ordered nearly 400,000 of the cars, but consumers — in Maryland and around the country — have been reluctant to wade too deep into the nascent electric car market, concerned about their price and range.

"When I did the spreadsheets, I showed the savings in gasoline paid for my lease payment," Blanks said. "It made the car almost a wash by trading in my old commuter car."

Sales of plug-in electric cars account for only 1 percent of the U.S. market. In Maryland, only 2,282 electric cars were registered in the state as of December, while more than 350,000 new and 690,000 old vehicles were sold statewide last year, according to the Motor Vehicle Administration.

Sales of the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S outstrip other electric vehicles in Maryland, accounting for about 70 percent of the electrics registered in the state as of December 2015, according to the MVA. But many automakers — including BMW, Dodge, Chevy, Ford, Mitsubishi and Volkswagen — offer cars in the category, which doesn't include hybrid vehicles, which run on both gas and electric power.

Despite hefty tax breaks subsidizing them, most of the electric vehicles on the market today have been too expensive and underperforming to be feasible for the average consumer, said George Hoffer, an automotive economist at the University of Richmond.

Instead, he said, most models have been little more than "a toy to show how green you are."

"The electric car — with the exception of the Tesla, which is kind of a toy — has been a flop to date," Hoffer said. "And rightfully so. They haven't had the range. They've been overpriced."

Plus, gas prices have been low, charging stations remain few and far between compared with their gas station counterparts, and the cars aren't yet a viable transportation option for people with longer commutes and long-distance needs, he said.

That might not be the case for long, though.

Next-generation models, Hoffer said, are expected to far outpace the current ones in terms of how many miles they can get per charge, without much of an impact on price. Charging stations, including thousands of rapid-charge sites Tesla plans to open, are becoming more common.

"For lots of people, the new electric cars, the ones that are coming in the next year, have some viability," he said. "The price point is roughly staying about the same, but you're clearly getting much more car."

Oliver Hong, internet manager at Leckner Nissan of Ellicott City, said customer interest in electric cars is sporadic. He once went a month without leasing a Leaf, then leased five in one week, he said.

Most customers usually lease the compact Nissans, which retail for between $29,000 and nearly $37,000.

Those customers who do want to go electric have usually shopped around and driven other companies' versions for comparison, Hong said. They're generally knowledgeable — and particular — about what they're looking for.

"Most customers will do their research, but [electric vehicle] customers really do their research," Hong said. "They come in with a clipboard, knowing more than I do. A lot of them are repeat customers who owned an EV or hybrid already."

Shayne Wilson, in sales and leasing at O'Donnell Honda on U.S. 40, said under a pilot program, a handful of electric cars were sent to area dealerships in 2013 and 2014.

O'Donnell got about 15 blue Honda Fit EVs under the program, he said. They were for lease only, not for sale, he said, because "the electrics are so new." Honda ended up killing the EV model of the Fit for its 2015 model year but said it remained committed to "electromotive technology."

Electric vehicles still face an uphill battle, especially on the technology and infrastructure fronts, said Alex Vinogradsky, another O'Donnell Honda salesman.

Someone commuting to Washington from Columbia, he pointed out, would have to carefully plan their daily route to make sure they had enough power to make the trip there and back: "What if you get stuck in traffic on [Interstate] 495?"

"An electric vehicle right now makes sense in huge metropolitan areas," he said, where the charging stations are most concentrated and drivers aren't driving very far.

Baltimore was ranked among the top-10 friendliest cities in the nation for electric vehicles by Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, which cited the relative abundance of charging stations. The city has installed them near City Hall and in municipal garages.

Tesla apparently likes the market. The company, which bucks auto industry retail norms by selling directly to the consumer instead of through dealerships, plans to open an Owings Mills location in an old dealership on Reisterstown Road soon, according to its website.

The company did not respond to requests for an interview or to say when it might open in Owings Mills.

Blanks, who has a relatively short commute to his job at the energy giant Exelon in the Inner Harbor, said he still uses his family's minivan for long trips with his wife and three children. But he envisions a time in the not-so-distant future when they can visit family in North Carolina without using a drop of gas.

He has pre-ordered the Tesla Model 3, set to come out in late 2017, when his lease on the Nissan is up. The car starts at $35,000.

Tesla expects to have built thousands of additional "supercharging stations" by then to increase their vehicles' range, he said.

"If I want to make a trip down to North Carolina, the charging infrastructure will exist," he said.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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