NHPR’S Rewind: Alternative Fuel Vehicles

Aug 1, 2017

Last month, NHPR’s Laura Knoy hosted an Exchange discussion on electric cars and their challenges. Interestingly, the worries and obstacles of alternative fuel cars discussed in this episode were also present in previous Exchange shows aired some 20 years ago.

All three shows note low emission vehicles are gradually becoming more available to the public. In 1996, Knoy noted that there were almost 30,000 natural gas vehicles in America at the time, and that all of the major car companies had some type of electric car in production. She opened the 1998 episode by saying “the big three” US automakers had announced cleaner burning cars would be in Northeast showrooms that fall and that Honda already had a low emissions vehicle on the market. And most recently, she told us that Volvo had announced plans to design only electric and hybrid vehicles after 2019.

However, despite the growing availability of electric and low emission cars, people are not buying them. Regardless of the time that has gone by, the same reasons always come into play.

With their lower carbon footprint, the idea of electric cars is appealing. Yet the range of these cars is not as high as gasoline cars. Potential consumers are worried about having to constantly recharge, or not being able to travel great distances. The act of recharging the batteries is another issue. This charging time can be up to 20 minutes (for electric vehicles that are equipped with fast-charging), an amount of time that people may not be willing to wait at a refueling station. And if someone else is already at the charging station, this time can be doubled. Also, potential consumers worry that it will be difficult to find these stations. 

Additionally, electric and hybrid cars tend to be small and may be unsuitable for many Americans, such as driving around big families or carrying boats or other large objects. Another issue, especially for people living in colder climates like New Hampshire, is having heat in a car. Generating heat uses battery power, reducing further the range that the car can travel.

Beyond drivability issues, the 1996 and 1998 episodes also discussed the environmental, political and technical dynamics behind these cars. Guests also made predictions for the future of the automobile. These 20 year old predictions included people using a mix of electric, hybrid, and gasoline cars.

The unfamiliarity of alternative fuel vehicles and their lack of accommodating the American lifestyle led to the imperative question in all three episodes: how to encourage people to buy alternative fuel cars.