Test-driving the 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV through the winding roads of Napa Valley, I couldn’t shake the sense that I was being set up for heartbreak.
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For folks trained on combustion cars, trying out an all-electric vehicle can feel like taking a very fast, road-ready toy for a spin. Press the ignition button, and the car turns on without the telltale rumble of an engine bursting into action. Step on the gas, and the high-torque jolt of speed is surprisingly sudden. The untold story of the electric car revolution: These things are simply fun to drive.
For the RAV4 EV (photo below), the secret sauce comes from Tesla Motors. The vehicle is actually a collaboration between Toyota and Tesla, for which Tesla is providing the electric drivetrain and battery packs (I was told they were basically the same innards that are featured in the much-hyped Tesla Model S). The RAV4 is, quite literally, a Tesla vehicle in a Toyota shell.
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It’s also loaded with features that aim to quell the biggest problem with EVs: The omnipresent fear that you might accidentally exceed your range and be stranded on the side of the road. To this end, the dash GPS shows you a clear radius of your vehicle’s outer range (pro tip: expand this circle by cranking down the climate settings), as well as markers flagging nearby charging stations.
But here’s where the heartbreak comes in: I probably won’t be able to buy the RAV4 anytime soon. In fact, unless you live in California and are lucky enough snag one of the 2,600 of these babies Toyota is making, you won’t either.
Of course, if you’ve followed the EV market, you might have noticed that these speed bumps are far from unique: For all the attention given to EVs over the past few years, only a small number of models are actually available nationwide (or close to nationwide) and being produced in numbers that make them little more than boutique buys.
The auto blog Green Car Reports did the math and found that just four EVs are slated to be for sale in the U.S. in any real numbers by the end of 2012: ones from Nissan, Mitsubishi, Coda, and the aforementioned Tesla.
The blog characterizes others as so-called “compliance cars.” This basically means that they’re produced, at least in part, so their manufacturer can comply with California laws requiring large carmakers to produce at least some zero-emission vehicles.
EVs: Just California Dreamin'?
Now, there are two ways of looking at this peculiarity. Cynics might say manufacturers are just making compliance cars because they have to, with little intention of blowing out the tech into mainstream products.
I prefer the more optimistic POV: The California laws basically compel auto companies to work out the kinks in a new technology before bringing it onto a larger stage. For electric vehicles to take off, there’s going to need to be both a healthy demand and a healthy supply.
When the technology and infrastructure (and by this, I mean charging stations such as Tesla’s just-announced solar-powered super-charging stations) cause demand to eventually expand, the California law could ensure automakers are in a position to move into the market. In other words, they won’t be starting from scratch when it’s too late to catch up.
In the end, even if compliance cars are little more than vessels for research and development, research and development has a purpose.
This story originally published on Mashable here.