By Rick Newman

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 Mike Omotoso, a powertrain analyst with J. D. Power & Associates. "As long as gas stays below $3 per gallon, it will probably stay that way."

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. General Motors has designed the Volt to travel up to 40 miles on an electrical charge and be chargeable from a 120-volt household outlet, the kind you use to plug in your washer or dryer. Once the battery runs low, a gas-powered engine kicks in and powers a generator that can move the car for about 300 miles more.

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 Mark Perry, a top product planner at Nissan.

Saving money. The potential savings in fuel costs are dramatic. The government hasn't yet developed official mileage ratings for electric vehicles, but General Motors drew headlines last year when it said that the Volt could get the equivalent of 230 mpg in city driving. Nissan scoffed at GM's methodology, saying that by the same metrics the Leaf would get 300 mpg. Tony Posawatz of GM's Volt program acknowledges that the Volt's official mileage number could be lower than 230 mpg, because it will have to account for time spent tooling around on the less efficient gas engine. But overall mileage, he says, "will be better than any conventional car out there." That means the Volt would handily beat the current Prius, which has a combined 50 mpg and is the reigning gas-mileage champ among ordinary production cars.

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 $109,000 Tesla Roadster, for example -- the only full-speed electric vehicle on U.S. roads today -- is 110 watt-hours per kilometer, allowing it to travel 244 miles on a charge that takes about 3½ hours. Enthusiasts estimate that the mpg-equivalent ranges from 135 mpg to 400 mpg, depending on how the equivalency between gas and electricity is computed. (The Roadster also rockets from zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds, highlighting one feature of electric powertrains that drivers will love: instantly available torque, which translates into zesty acceleration.)

Drivers may ultimately compare fuel efficiency through another measure: cost per mile. If gas costs $3 per gallon and typical mileage is 25 mpg, it will take 4 gallons of gas to go 100 miles, at a total cost of $12. The per-mile cost is one hundredth of that, or 12 cents per mile. For the Prius, at 50 mpg, fueling costs are half that: 6 cents per mile.

GM says that 100 miles of battery-powered travel in the Volt will require about $2.75 worth of electricity. That adds up to less than 3 cents per mile based on average electricity rates of about 11 cents per kilowatt-hour. If drivers charge their Volt overnight, when off-peak electricity rates are much lower, the cost could be as little as 1 cent per mile, according to Posawatz. At those rates, the annual cost savings on fuel could easily be more than $1,000 in typical driving.

Potential problems. That's on paper. In the real world, lots of unanticipated things can go wrong. Toyota's recent recalls of millions of vehicles, for instance, involved gas pedals and brakes, hardly exotic components. Some experts think electronics may have played a role in the "sudden acceleration" reported by some Toyota owners, which highlights the risks that come even with the gradual introduction of new technology.

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 $20,000 per vehicle, mostly on account of the costly batteries. With gas at $3, it would take nearly 15 years, longer than the life span of most cars, to earn that back through savings on fuel. That's why manufacturers will eat some of the cost, and a $7,500 federal tax credit will bring prices down further. But EVs will still be expensive compared with regular cars. Manufacturers haven't announced prices yet, but the Volt is likely to cost about $40,000 before the tax credit. The Leaf could be $30,000 or so. Consumer reluctance to pay extra for unproven technology is one reason the take rate for EVs is expected to be very low. J. D. Power estimates that by 2015, plug-ins and pure electrics will account for just 0.3 percent of all car sales, or approximately 50,000 vehicles. The Prius alone tallies about 150,000 in annual sales today.

EVs could still change the automotive landscape, however, and the history of hybrids helps explain how. Toyota and Honda began developing hybrids in the early 1990s, with help from the Japanese government. In the United States, the Honda Insight appeared in 1999, the Prius in 2000. While praised for their fuel-sipping engines, as automobiles, they were widely panned. The Insight two-seater was odd and impractical. The pod-shaped Prius was slow and unsure on the highway. Still, some environmentalists flocked to the hybrids, and the unexpected endorsement of a few celebrities pushed Prius sales above expectations.

A bigger impact. Toyota lost money on the Prius for at least a decade, and only now does it say its hybrids are profitable. And the Prius has grown from a niche vehicle into Toyota's No. 4 seller. The Prius also paved the way for hybrid versions of the Camry, Highlander, and several Lexuses. Competitors like GM, which once dismissed hybrids as a glorified science experiment, now embrace them. Overall, hybrids represent nearly 3 percent of the market today, and J. D. Power predicts they'll account for nearly 9 percent of sales in 2015.

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 Europe and Japan, high taxes keep gas prices well above $6 per gallon, which cuts in half the "payback period" required to recoup the added cost of new technology. With gas prices at $6, for example, an EV would pay for itself in fuel savings after 6.2 years, according to CSM; with $8 gas, that drops to 4.5 years. And greater sales always bring down the cost per unit. If EVs catch on, the added cost could fall by 15 percent a year or so, which is similar to the cost decrease for hybrids and other new technology.

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 J. D. Power expects to be just 73 percent, down from 89 percent today. That in itself could foretell an automotive revolution. But what will fuel it is unknown.



© U.S. News & World Report


Auto - Stuttering Start for Electric Cars | Rick Newman