Stuttering Start for Electric Cars
You might get the impression, over the next year or so, that driving as you know it will never be the same again. The electric vehicle, you see, is about to arrive.
The much-heralded Chevrolet Volt, able to travel up to 40 miles on a battery charged through a household outlet, is set to go on sale late this year. So is the Nissan Leaf, with a range of up to 100 miles. A plug-in version of the Toyota Prius will be right behind them. Once the numbers are official, fuel economy for these newfangled machines, when converted to conventional measures, could easily exceed the mystical mark of 100 miles per gallon.
Such eye-popping mileage, plus a dramatic cutback in tailpipe emissions, represents the kind of automotive breakthrough that clean energy advocates have been seeking for decades. And now, they've got powerful allies in government and industry. The Obama administration has offered generous subsidies to manufacturers that build electric vehicles and consumers who buy them. In response, many automakers are ramping up their EV plans, with venture capitalists starting to gamble on electric cars, too. And a number of cities are developing plans to build charging stations and an EV-friendly infrastructure.
The only question is whether drivers will go along. They may just sit on the sidelines as electric vehicles start to roll off the assembly lines. Despite loads of hype and a government jump-start, price premiums will still be high, even with government subsidies. Practical limitations may force Americans to drive differently. And automakers themselves will develop other innovations that buyers may prefer. "Consumers are happy with hybrids and gas-powered cars that get 30 miles per gallon," says
On paper, the appeal of EVs is, well, electrifying. Unlike hybrids, which are powered by a gas engine and a battery-powered electric motor working more or less in tandem, electrics will run purely on battery power, at least part of the time. That will allow them to take advantage of electricity rates that, mile for mile, are significantly cheaper than gas.
The Prius Plug-In will go 10 to 15 miles on battery power before reverting to the same hybrid operation as in the conventional Prius. On the Volt and the Prius, the gas-powered engine spares drivers "range anxiety": the worry that your car will run out of juice before you reach your destination. The Leaf, by contrast, would be a "pure electric" vehicle able to travel 100 miles or so on a charge -- but without a second power source to prevent drivers from being stranded. "Don't worry, there will be lots of charging reminders," says
Saving money. The potential savings in fuel costs are dramatic. The government hasn't yet developed official mileage ratings for electric vehicles, but
Comparing EVs with conventional cars is bound to be confusing, with a learning curve that regulators and consumers will have to scale together. The fuel economy for the
Drivers may ultimately compare fuel efficiency through another measure: cost per mile. If gas costs
GM says that 100 miles of battery-powered travel in the Volt will require about
Potential problems. That's on paper. In the real world, lots of unanticipated things can go wrong.
Electric vehicles represent an entirely new set of hardware and software, and it could take years to work out the bugs. Lithium-ion batteries, for instance, have been used for years in cellphones and laptops, but scaling them up for use in cars is a technological leap that's only in the early stages. Poor driving techniques or other unforeseen factors could produce driving range that's lower than manufacturers expect. And any bad press could dent public confidence in the precocious cars.
Then there's the cost of the vehicles themselves. Consulting firm CSM Worldwide estimates that new EV technology generates a price premium of about
EVs could still change the automotive landscape, however, and the history of hybrids helps explain how.
A bigger impact.
EVs could make a bigger impact sooner. GM actually developed an electric vehicle in the 1990s -- the EV-1 -- which it abandoned because of low gas prices, weak consumer interest, and the lack of a backup engine. The technology is back because of tough new fuel efficiency and pollution requirements, adopted in both the Bush and Obama administrations, that will force automakers to find new ways to boost fuel economy 4 percent per year, on average, through 2015 -- an aggressive target that can't be met simply by tweaking existing engines.
But the American market may be the last to see a widespread rollout of EVs, largely because of low gas prices. In
CSM and other forecasting firms believe electric vehicles will start to penetrate the mainstream market by 2020 or so, as costs come down, the technology becomes more reliable, and consumers make the mental shift into a new driving paradigm. In the meantime, collateral benefits of electrification will filter into the mainstream fleet in smaller ways. More cars, for example, will start to feature "start stop" systems, standard on hybrids, which shut down the engine when the car is idling and can boost fuel economy by 5 percent or more. Virtually every automaker plans to roll out more hybrids. There will also be more "clean diesels" and perhaps ethanol-powered vehicles.
The most striking thing about the auto fleet in 2015 will be the shrinking proportion of conventional gas-powered cars, which
Auto - Stuttering Start for Electric Cars | Rick Newman
(c) 2010 U.S. News & World Report