2010 will be the year of electric vehicles for biggest automakers. This weekend’s Detroit Auto Show has offerings from some of the world’s major automakers, as well as exciting specialty cars like the fast California-built Tesla Roadster.
But is this phenomenon real, or could it be just an elaborate form of greenwashing?
Despite past discouragements like General Motors’ still-lamented EV-1, an unprofitable electric car sold for a few years, then discontinued in 1999, there’s evidence that today’s wave of interest will produce a more durable impact on the market for autos.
That’s true in spite of some significant problems, like the high cost of batteries and consumer concerns about the driving range and safety of electric cars, says Philip Gott, director of automotive Science and Technology at IHS Global Insight, a big economic consulting firm.
Before the end of this year, at least two big automakers expect to be selling electric cars in North America, the Leaf from Nissan and the Volt from General Motors. By next year, Ford plans to have an electric version of its compact Focus and Toyota a plug-in upgrade of the Prius.
Gott is one of the authors of a study made public yesterday that estimates by 2030, nearly 20 per cent of the global market for autos will be filled by plug-in hybrids and battery-powered electric cars. Indeed, electric cars of some kind could capture more than half the total market under ideal conditions of consumer acceptance and government support, although Gott made it clear that, right now, that looks like a stretch.
However, other recent estimates suggest that much earlier, by 2020, electric cars could capture seven to 10 per cent of the auto market, with plug-in hybrids capturing a similar or larger share.
And this doesn’t include the already big market for conventional hybrids like the highly successful Toyota Prius. These marry electric motors with gasoline ones to wring the maximum mileage from each litre of gas – a remarkable 4.7 litres per 100 kilometres, or 60 miles per U.S. gallon, for the current Prius.
When you add in these conventional hybrids, fuel-efficient autos using new technologies could capture 26 per cent of major world markets within 10 years, according to a recent report by the Boston Consulting Group.
The big obstacles to wider acceptance of electric cars are their cost and limited range. “Electric vehicles do meet most people’s needs most of the time, but people do not buy cars for most of the time,” Gott says.
What he means is an electric car with a range of 160 kilometres – like the Nissan Leaf – will handle most people’s daily commute and errands with ease, and that’s about all we need most of the time. But if we decide to visit someone in another city, it’s pretty inconvenient to stop every 160 kilometres for an eight-hour recharge.
On the other hand, the cost of fuel, compared with a gas-powered car, is next to nothing. But even here there’s a catch: the initial cost is thousands of dollars higher because batteries remain so costly.
If cost is no object, then you’re all set. The Tesla Roadster, a very fast sports car built in California, can reportedly go about 400 kilometres on a charge. But it sells for more than $100,000 U.S.
The likely solution: electric car producers will initially depend quite a lot on generous government subsidies and fleet sales to buyers like urban car-sharing organizations, where range is no problem.
And there’s no reason to believe that the electric auto won’t be able to become competitive within another decade or so, believes Gott and other experts.
“It’s early days for battery chemistry,” Gott says: “There’s a huge opportunity for cost reduction. Anything can happen in 10 years.”
If battery technology improves enough to permit long trips and simultaneously slash the big cost disadvantage of electric cars, it will bring a revolution in the way we travel, along with the opportunity to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
It won’t be a solution to the problems of peak oil, air pollution and global warming, but it could be a part of one.