While Hurricane Sandy forced me out into the night to sit in '70s-style gas lines to fill my truck's gas tank and a couple of cans to power my generator, I got to thinking that, in addition to feeling like I was in Soviet Russia waiting for my ration of toilet paper, maybe I should have bought an electric car instead of the pickup I did. Rather than sitting in miles-long gas lines, I'd be driving by them, waving smugly at all the fools still bitterly clinging to their gas-hogging cars.

Of course, it then came to me why I was in line for hours on end: I was using a generator to provide a modicum of electricity to my house that had been left powerless by the storm. A Chevy Volt or Nissan (NASDAQOTH: NSANY.PK) Leaf might have bypassed a whole bunch of gas stations, but eventually it would need to be recharged, and without power I couldn't do that. Possibly I could use my generator to recharge the batteries, but I'd still be sitting in line to get gas for it.

One hot car
There are other environmental concerns as well with EVs that aren't in the owner's manual. The auto blog Jalopnik reported that 16 Fisker Karmas, the sleek luxury electric hybrid, were parked at Port Newark and were flooded by the hurricane's storm surge. While any car, gas or electric, would suffer significant damage and probably be totaled as a result, it seems the Karmas "caught fire and burned to the ground."


That's not something that typically happens to a gas-powered vehicle, but it is something that's happened previously to Fiskers and General Motors' (NYS: GM) Volt, as quite a few of the cars have spontaneously combusted. And EVs require special maintenance, like not allowing the battery charge to get too low and not parking it for extended periods of time without recharging it. Otherwise, as one Tesla (NAS: TSLA) owner found out, you run the risk of turning your high-priced auto into a "brick."

Many of the problems associated with the self-combusting autos were due to batteries produced by the now-bankrupt A123 Systems. It had to recall its entire production run consisting of tens of thousands of batteries because of faulty manufacturing issues, costing it tens of millions of dollars.

Yet Nissan also had battery problems for its cars operating in Arizona. Seems they experience a greater-than-average battery capacity loss because of a "unique usage cycle": Higher-than-average operating miles in high-temperature environments over a short period of time causes them to burn out. I guess Arizona businesses that are reliant on their cars shouldn't plan on switching to EVs anytime soon -- or should buy a Volt or Tesla instead, since they use battery-cooling technology .

A blackout on gains
Alternative-fuel vehicles are still selling well, so long as you count hybrids like Toyota's (NYS: TM) Prius in the mix. The Fool's Chris Baines points out that EVs and hybrids are the second biggest-selling vehicles in the U.S., behind Ford's (NYS: F) F-pickup series (that's what I ended up buying). When states like California are experiencing gas prices of $5 a gallon (and not even from shortages caused by a major hurricane), there may still be some sense to it all.

Yet if you exclude the Prius, then the market continues to show that EVs are still a fringe niche. Chevy may have sold more than 19,000 Volts this year, certainly moving a lot more than it had in 2011, but it remains a tiny fraction of the overall car market and it's only because the company is virtually giving them away that it can claim the sales-leader title. Reuters estimates that GM is losing $49,000 on every Volt it builds, and it's had to resort to extremely low-cost lease deals -- $199 a month! -- to move them off the lot. While GM may dispute the actual loss per vehicle,Nissan and Toyota aren't willing to bleed themselves to move their cars, and that probably explains why their sales numbers are a lot lower.

Fill 'er up!
From technological issues to cost to environmental challenges, the EV and hybrid market still can't compete with its fossil-fuel rivals. Whatever the future holds for the niche, I think we'll look back on the current alt-fuel car market as one that wasn't capable of rising to the challenge and still not ready for prime time.

My guess is that the alt-fuel vehicle that will catch on will be natural gas ones. Although engine maker Westport Innovations (NAS: WPRT) reported bleak guidance as OEMs cut back on production, it will ultimately power the car that's able to make its mark on the auto market. As the infrastructure is built up to support the industry, we'll see nat-gas vehicles proliferate. Until then, however, I'll sit in my pickup waiting for my ration of gas to get me through the cold night.

Get your motor running
Ford has been performing incredibly well as a company over the past few years -- it's making good vehicles, is consistently profitable, recently reinstated its dividend, and has done a remarkable job paying down its debt. But Ford's stock seems stuck in neutral. Does this create an incredible buying opportunity, or are there hidden risks with the stock that investors need to know about? To answer that, one of our top equity analysts has compiled a premium research report with in-depth analysis on whether Ford is a buy right now, and why. Simply click here to get instant access to this premium report.

The article Long Gas Lines Still Don't Make EVs a Buy originally appeared on Fool.com.

Rich Duprey has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford, Tesla Motors , and Westport Innovations. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Ford, General Motors, Tesla Motors , and Westport Innovations. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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philblock

Charlie: The whole problem with battery powered EVs is, "the battery." It is a power plant just waiting for the right time to blow its top. At present, there are not eneough of them on the road to prove my statement. Salt water is a good conductor, and when it hits those buss bars, shorting them out, boom! Li batteries fairly well keep their voltage level over discharge, one of the many advantages of Li cells, but a disadvantage when shorted out. The lead/acid (LA) battery is just the oposite, when shorted, will drop its voltage upon discharge. One reason it is not much good as an EV power supply. The LA in the ICE is 12 V and so when the salt water hits the terminals, will probably discharge as a slow rate, or just enough to melt the plates. Salt water is not a perfect conductor and so provides a certain resistance across the terminals, slowing the discharge. On the other hand, the voltage of the Li pack is higher, so has a tendency to overcome the resistance of the salt water. If any of the cells of the battery split open, the salt water attacking the Li will probably cause an explosion. The care and feeding of Li batteries, is tricky and we are still going through a learning stage. The RCBEV proponents usually get bent out of shape upon ANY criticism of RCBs. Ther can be no progress if we do not correct the problems but cover them up by intimidating the critics.
Your comment on ICEs "catch fire every day." There is an old saying "familiarty breeds contempt". We use our cars every without giving a thought to the bomb sitting in the gas tank. In my short life of 83 years I have witnessed enough of that with the hope that the EV, battery or Fuel Cell powered, will be a improvement in that area. But we dont want to replace one bomb with another.
Enjoy!

November 05 2012 at 8:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Charlie Styr

With regards to the fires, the only maker with a problem here is Fisker, and it is unfair to group the entirety of electric cars under the umbrella. A chevy volt set on fire in one case after it was crash tested by the NHTSA, and that was after being left in the junker yard for a few weeks... try as they might the fire situation could not be replicated, they eventually conceded "no discernable defect trend exists". Fisker certainly do have a build quality issue, and you will find that many electric vehicle advocates are not a fan of the company.

Needless to say, how many gas powered cars catch fire every day?

Futhermore the 'bricking' of the Tesla car that you mention is an extreme case. You have to leave the car unplugged for months (not many people can afford to do that!) and ignore repeated warnings from the car, including if I remember correctly text messages/emails and communication from Tesla as the car reports its low battery state.

Your argument on the inability to charge an electric car during a hurricane is valid, but hopefully not many people make their car decision based on whether they want to drive a limited distance after a hurricane, or sit in gas queues...

November 05 2012 at 2:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
philblock

Cars with their 12 volt lead acid battery are also subcepticle to the salt water. Salt water is a good conductor of electricity and when the water rises to the terminal level of the battery, it will cause the battery to discharge. Due to the low voltage, and the tendency of the battery voltage to drop upon discharge, the battery may not over-heat enough to explode. But left in the water long enough, may discharge to the point of no return. The salt water will also eat the brass rings on the altenator and the copper communtator of the starter. Left long enough, the salt water will just about eat up all the other unprotected metals. The junk yards are going to have a feast. Connecting an MG set to a battery is not a good idea, as it could damage the electronics. The best way is to plug an 120V charger into the MG set (if it has an 120V outlet) and charge the battery that way . The charger acts as a filter on the MG set output. Also, it is best not to drive through the salt water, as splashing onto the engine and battery could cause problems.

November 04 2012 at 11:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ron Wagner

Honda makes a CNG Civic, and is currently giving $3,000 worth of fuel with it. Dodge makes a heavy duty
CNG pickup on its manufacturing line. Ford and Chevy send their heavy duty pickups out for conversion.
All these pickups are bifuel, that is they also have a gasoline tank, and switch to gasoline seamlessly if no CNG is available. Ford makes dedicated , full size, CNG vans.

November 04 2012 at 4:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ron Wagner

Nice article. Very perceptive. The reasons that natural gas is preferable to gasoline include being about two thirds the price of natural gas and diesel. About one eighth at wholesale, so there is plenty of profit margin potential. Far more than gasoline and diesel. It is cleaner, and gives longer engine life.

Natural gas is the future of energy. It is replacing dirty old coal plants, and dangerous expensive nuclear plants. It will fuel cars, vans, buses, locomotives, aircraft, ships, tractors, engines of all kinds. It costs far less. It will help keep us out of more useless wars, where we shed our blood and money. It lowers CO2 emissions. Over 2,400 natural gas story links on my blog. An annotated bibliography of live links, updated daily. The big picture of natural gas. https://www.ronwagnersrants.blogspot.com

November 04 2012 at 4:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply