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Electric vehicles are making real progress in the Netherlands. They are going mainstream and an ever growing network of charging stations has made the switch to electric driving easier than any other place in the world.

The Netherlands has proven to be the perfect testing area for electric vehicles. The country is only 100 miles across and sports gas prices of roughly $8.50 a gallon. The Dutch are also know for their environmental activism and are eager to embrace electric vehicles.

The government is helping expand the fleet of electric cars on the roads by quickly deploying a national grid of charging stations in both the cities and along the country’s highways. Amsterdam offers free street parking and charging to owners of electric cars. The government also offers big tax breaks, and promotional leases which bring the cost of an electric vehicle in line with the cost of owning and operating a gas powered car.

Over the last year the number of electric vehicles has gone up eightfold. There are currently about 7,500 electric cars out on the roads of Netherland and charging stations are readily available on the sidewalks.

While all of this is good news, there is still a lot of progress to be made. Sales are lower than automakers and the government had hoped, representing less than one percent of new vehicles sold. If sales fail to pick up it could result in investors pulling out, effectively ending the Dutch electric car experiment.

In 2012, there were a total of 120,000 plug-in electric cars sold worldwide according to Pike Research, an industry analyst group. Pike predicts 40 percent annual growth in sales between now and 2020. J.D. Power found that in the United States, 52,000 electric vehicles were sold and there were a total of 12,000 charging stations spread throughout the country. The major problem is that charging stations are few and far between making owning an electric vehicle difficult.

Most experts claim that electric vehicles are often used as secondary cars but a 2012 Accenture survey of Dutch drivers found that the majority of electric car owners ended up using them as their primary vehicle.

Electric Vehicle Owners Have to Plan

Experts say that electric vehicle owners learn to plan when they are driving, often starting off cautiously, driving well within the range of the vehicle and then heading out further as they gain more confidence in the vehicle. Charge points can actually be found using a smartphone app, which increase the range of the vehicle. Shops in the Netherlands have started offering parking spots with charging outlets so drivers can charge up while eating or shopping.

Unfortunately there is still a bit of guesswork involved. Finding a charging outlet can be a challenge and a bit like a puzzle. Driving hundreds of miles a day still requires a gasoline powered vehicle making electric cars unfit for many drivers. Charging a vehicle at home requires four to eight hours. While high-voltage rapid charging stations can get a car back to 80 percent charge in 20 to 30 minutes they are expensive and fairly rare.

The lack of a uniform charging model is hindering the adoption of electric vehicles. In some countries a charging contract is often sold with the vehicle which ties the vehicle to a charging network, much like cell phone contracts. This can limit the number of charging points as most networks are not nationwide or use different technology than other networks. Telsa Motors runs it own network of high performance superchargers. The uncertainty can be a turn-off to potential buyers.  A nationwide network would be a big boost to the industry.

While electric vehicles still have a ways to go, the Dutch have embraced the technology and have become a unofficial testing ground for the effectiveness of electric cars.