Venture Capitalists Kill (Optimism Around) the Electric Car

Photograph by Michael Grecco/Getty Images

Actor and environmental activist Ed Begley Jr. with his Bradley electric car in 1989.

(This blog was corrected to show that Jurvetson owns an electric vehicle.)

Still wondering who killed the electric car? How about some of the country’s most powerful venture capitalists.

OK, so they didn’t really kill the electric car, to reference Chris Paine’s 2006 documentary about the silent and systematic destruction of thousands of electric vehicles. But during a panel discussion at the Churchill Club in Silicon Valley last night, the VCs did overwhelmingly dismiss the notion that within five years, there’s going to be a radical shift away from gas-powered automobiles in the U.S.

The occasion was the 14th annual Top 10 Tech Trends dinner held at the Hyatt Regency in Santa Clara, Calif. Five investors were each asked to provide their top two predictions for where technology is headed in the next five years. The panel was then asked to vote if they agree and provide commentary, followed by voting from the audience.

Steve Jurvetson, managing director at Draper Fisher Jurvetson, argued for the massive adoption of electric vehicles and not just because they’re better for the environment.

“It’s going to be cheaper, more convenient and give you all kinds of interesting new design options,” said Jurvetson, whose firm invested in Tesla Motors. “These are cars people are going to want.”

The other four panelists disagreed with the prediction, and it was the least popular of the 10 themes based on audience participation.

Kevin Efrusy, who co-led Accel Partners’ investment in Facebook, said natural gas is the likelier transition given the decline in costs and powerful forces standing behind the traditional energy industry. He’s sympathetic though.

“I’m rooting for your trend,” Efrusy said. “I’m just a little more cynical.”

For Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder who got to Facebook even before Efrusy, the problem is the technology itself. Batteries have to be recharged too often and die too quickly (a claim that Jurvetson refuted), thus driving up the costs of ownership. Furthermore, Thiel points to some countries in Western Europe where gas is more expensive and electric still isn’t gaining mass adoption.

Greylock Partners’ Reid Hoffman, also the co-founder of LinkedIn, expects electric drivetrains to catch on but for hybrids to be the more dominant type of car. Meanwhile, Bing Gordon of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers said the political forces behind protecting the climate aren’t strong enough to make people change their behavior.

“The only thing that would cause America to be all electric cars is to lose the economic trade war with China and have it imposed on us,” said Gordon, whose firm is even an investor in electric carmaker Fisker Automotive.

Maybe it won’t happen in five years, but Jurvetson sees the move off oil as inevitable. That’s not just because of the environmental implications, but because electric cars are up to 80 percent more efficient, he said. And with 29 electric vehicles coming to market in the next 18 months, it’s no longer just for the rich, Jurvetson said.

Then came the telling question from Forbes magazine’s Eric Savitz, who co-moderated the event. He asked if any of the panelists actually own electric cars.

Only Jurvetson raised his hand.

 

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