The electric car is about to conquer the world … again.
Every time there is an oil supply crisis, the price of gasoline jumps, or warnings about carbon dioxide (CO2)-induced global warming hit new hysterical highs, the electric car solution isn’t far behind.
It usually doesn’t last long. Battery-powered cars in the past have been too expensive, too heavy, too ugly, would leave you stranded if you turn the air conditioning on, and just couldn’t perform like a regular gasoline-powered automobile. They mostly still rely on energy from coal-fired power stations, so the CO2 source is merely moved, not eliminated.
But news of the imminence of electrification is everywhere. Could this finally be the hour of the electric car? The almost messianic nature of the enthusiasm for all things electric suggests an overwhelming success. The harsh reality of market forecasts by organizations like CSM Worldwide suggests the opposite.
Meanwhile, Nissan of Japan said it aims to produce 100,000 electric cars a year at its U.S. factory by 2012. The U.S. government has started dispensing money from its $25 billion loan program to kickstart carbon-saving development, with Nissan, Ford and Tesla Motors Inc among the first beneficiaries. General Motors plans to launch its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid late next year. President Barack Obama wants 1 million plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015.
Here in Europe, governments are also getting ready to push electric cars with loans and subsidies. Some are trying a little friendly persuasion to show electrification makes sense, by opening congestion charging zones to battery or hybrid cars for free, allowing electric cars in bus lanes, exempting them from tolls and offering free parking and refueling at state-funded power points. Tax breaks are expected to boost the buying of electric cars.
Some Europeans think that electric cars just need one more heave to make the breakthrough into the mainstream.
“The technology is ready. If governments come out with significant incentives for an initial period, we will get the critical mass needed,” said Jacques de Selliers, managing director of Green Mobil SA of Brussels, Belgium, which imports battery-powered cars like the G Wiz.
De Selliers is also president of the European Association of Battery Electric Vehicles. He wants European governments to fund battery and plug-in hybrid vehicles for a short time, so that manufacturers can get production up to a scale where they can compete on price with regular automobiles.
De Selliers reckons that a battery car would fit in well with two-car families, where one bigger vehicle is used for longer journeys and holidays and the smaller runabout does the shopping and the school run.
“In Germany, 95 percent of car trips are less than 50 kilometers (31 miles). In Belgium, 30 percent of families own two cars,” de Selliers said.
Battery vehicles are powered just by the electric power plant on board. BMW is testing an Electric Mini, which it says can achieve 150 miles on a single charge, enough to drive all the way around Lake St Clair, or so it claimed at the Detroit Car Show in January. This claim reminds us that battery-only vehicles are subject to the dreaded “range anxiety” syndrome. Will the claimed range always be attainable, or will battery-only car drivers find themselves occasionally stranded? More important; will the price be an instant deal breaker?
Plug-in hybrids, like the Chevrolet Volt (rumored price before tax, and government incentives $40,000), are driven by a battery that can be topped-up on the road by an internal combustion engine, and refueled with electricity from home or at a parking lot. The claim is 40 miles range from the lithium ion battery alone, and more than 300 miles with help from the gasoline engine. Hybrids, like the Toyota Prius, use electric power generated on the move to boost the gasoline engine, but have very limited electric-only capability. Honda hybrids just help the gasoline motor, but can’t move just on electric power. Range is the same as a regular automobile.
Manufacturers aren’t sure exactly which new technology will end up being a winner, and are desperately hedging their bets.
Wankel engine a warning
“Look at the Wankel engine. All the manufacturers jumped on that bandwagon, and it proved not to be,” said Ian Adcock, author of SupplierBusiness’ forthcoming report on electric vehicle trends and technologies.
In the 1960s, the Wankel rotary engine, invented by Felix Wankel of Germany, was used in the NSU Ro80 and NSU Wankel Spider. The rotary engine wowed car buyers with its performance, but the motors were unreliable, guzzled gas and died on the vine. “They had to invest in the rotary engine in case it worked. The same goes for lots of technologies we are seeing today. They cannot afford to back the wrong horse and be left behind. Meanwhile, manufacturers won’t stop development of petrol and diesel engines,” Adcock said.
Close to acceptable
Roger Thornton, Global Product Group director for Hybrid and Electric Vehicles for automotive consultant Ricardo Co., said battery-powered cars and plug-in hybrids are getting close to having an acceptable performance for prospective buyers.
They face two big tests.
“There are two huge issues: the cost of the battery and range, which for battery vehicles is very specific and limited. There’s no reason an electric car should be more expensive than a regular car but for the battery. Solving that would be a big driver in getting costs down. As for range, buyers will have to manage that and get used to it,” Thornton said.
Will batteries or plug-ins be the most successful in luring customers?
“You will see a number of different powertrains competing alongside each other for a significant period of time. Different solutions will appeal to different people with maybe four or five different types,” Thornton said.
Will electric power just be limited to a small niche, or make big inroads into internal combustion engines’ share of the market?
“The truth is somewhere between the two. The idea that electric will displace internal combustion engines is wrong, and vice versa. You will see continued expansion of the power train mix, and there will be lots of different types. What’s right for middle America won’t be right for India or Europe. We expect from 2015 and beyond 2020 that internal combustion engines will still be numerically dominant, but there will be a very distinctive change from where we are now,” he said.
No contact with reality
This is too modest a target for Green Mobil’s de Selliers.
“The producers are ready, the technology is ready, and all they are waiting for is the buyers, and that will only come with (government) incentives. As soon as you get this, it will take less than 5 years to get 20 percent of the (European) market (with battery powered cars) and 20 percent with hybrids,” said de Selliers.
Projections from automotive consultancy CSM Worldwide suggest that enthusiasm for electrification has lost all contact with reality.
CSM said it reckons global production of battery and plug-in hybrid vehicles will reach 132,000 in 2015; that’s barely featuring on the market radar and a derisory market share of about 0.1 percent. That total includes major manufacturers, but excludes small, niche manufacturers of little city cars like Norway’s Th!nk, and the NICE (not internal combustion engine). Hybrids — that’s including so-called strong hybrids like the Toyota Prius, and mild hybrids like the Honda Insight — will reach just over 3 percent of global production.
Alex Woodrow, director and head of research at British consultant Knibb, Gormezano and Partners, also downplays electrification.
“My view is that vehicles such as battery electrics and plug-in hybrids will only have small volume through 2015, growing past 2015, but still relatively low overall. Battery costs will remain high for the foreseeable future, which means for 2015, at least, evolutions of current power trains (internal combustion engines) will be the norm,” Woodrow said.