Electric cars, driverless cars, and Cal Worthington

driverless5.jpgFor all the talk about bikes and trains, L.A. is still land of the automobile - and it's likely to remain that way for a while. Actually, emerging vehicle technology is far more exciting than any public transportation plan - not to mention more applicable to the way we lead our lives. Anyway, we do car talk in this week's Business Update on KPCC. (Also a remembrance of Cal Worthington.

Susanne Whatley: Across the country, the sale of electric cars is sluggish. But business analyst Mark Lacter, that's not quite the case in California...

Mark Lacter: Well, comparatively speaking, Susanne. L.A. and San Francisco alone made up 35 percent of the electric cars sold in the entire U.S. during the first half of the year - 35 percent! Keep in mind that statewide just 9,700 electric cars were sold in that six-month period, which translates to a little over 1 percent of all car sales in California. So, they're not exactly lining up around the block, even in a region that's known for its early adopters. Of course, electric cars were always going to be a tough sell -

Whatley: I've been driving one for about half a year now... and I absolutely love it. But they ARE expensive, and I'm sure that's a factor.

Lacter: - and that's even after a federal tax credit. They also require drivers to learn about recharging the battery and from a design standpoint, most of them don't stand out, although I'm sure your car does, Susanne. Now the one notable exception is the Tesla - so long as you have at least $90,000 to shell out, and are willing to wait a while to get your car delivered. In affluent sections of L.A., this is truly the hot car - just 600 or so Teslas have been sold in Southern California during the first seven months of the year. It's also received rave reviews from all the big automotive publications.

Whatley: And perhaps most surprising of all, Tesla has been making money...

Lacter: That's right, although the stock price is ridiculously overvalued at around $20 billion (that's one-third the market value of General Motors, even though Tesla cranks out all of 21,000 vehicles a year while GM produces almost 5 million). People seem to love this car almost in spite of it being battery powered, which gets us back to the challenges in trying to sell these things. Elon Musk, who founded the company, has managed to win over customers because the car itself is so much fun to drive. The other makers of electric cars - still a work in progress.

Whatley: So, for the folks still on the fence... might it be better to wait until driverless cars become available?

Lacter: That's going to be quite a wait, although all the automakers are working on their versions of self-driving cars. The Mercedes people just announced plans to launch in 2020 - the same year that Nissan wants to bring out its car - and Google, which has had self-driving cars tooling around California for several years, is looking at 2017. So, what we're seeing is real, but the question is what sort of real it'll turn out to be. Certainly, the possibilities are revolutionary - you're looking at, potentially, faster commute times because cars will be able to travel closer to one other (reaction times would be faster than with a human behind the wheel). But, how well the vehicles work once they get beyond the testing phase is anyone's guess. California does allow self-driving prototypes car for testing purposes, but that's far different than full-scale authorization.

Whatley: What if something goes wrong?

Lacter: Well, that's one of the big concerns - liability, but the real issue is public acceptance. Already, surveys are finding reluctance to buying a driverless car, or even having them on the road. That's not a huge surprise considering how novel the concept still is - and all it takes are a few mishaps to affirm the skeptics. It's not unlike the early days of the passenger plane, when most folks couldn't imagine getting into a flying machine. Eventually, they got used to them, but it took time.

More by Mark Lacter:
American-US Air settlement with DOJ includes small tweak at LAX
Socal housing market going nowhere fast
Amazon keeps pushing for faster L.A. delivery
Another rugged quarter for Tribune Co. papers
How does Stanford compete with the big boys?
Those awful infographics that promise to explain and only distort
Best to low-ball today's employment report
Further fallout from airport shootings
Crazy opening for Twitter*
Should Twitter be valued at $18 billion?
Recent Business Update on KPCC stories:
Naysaying emerges in wake of LAX shootings*
Holiday shopping: On your marks, get set... spend!
What to do with all that bad chicken?
Why it's hard to gauge progress of health care programs
Why L.A. isn't being hit too hard by shutdown - for now

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
The multi-talented Mark Lacter
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