One-Million Car March?

BY Paul Solman  February 2, 2011 at 10:42 AM EST

A warning to those expecting EVs (electric vehicles) to clog the roadways anytime soon, or even to meet President Obama’s stated goal of one million by 2015: it’s not likely to happen, despite the fact that the U.S. has as many as a quarter of a billion gas-powered vehicles on the roads right now.

So admonishes a panel of industry experts from Ford, the government, academia and elsewhere, with input from Nissan and GM.

“The finding is based on the manufacturers’ announced production numbers and an analysis of consumer demand,” writes Peter Whoriskey in the Washington Post.

“The federal government is already offering incentives as high as $7,500 for consumers to buy plug-in cars and putting up $2.4 billion for battery and electric-car manufacturing,” Whoriskey continues.

“But even with that encouragement, the public’s adoption of electric vehicles could be slow. The $32,780 Leaf and the $41,000 Volt cost far more than a comparably sized car with a gas engine, which typically sells for $20,000. The battery range of the Leaf, which is all electric, is less than 100 miles, and places where batteries can be replenished are sparse at best. Also, it can take hours to recharge.”

The clincher may be that, “under existing laws, sales for both companies could drop after each one sells 200,000 plug-in cars, because at that point the $7,500 federal tax-credit incentive for purchases expires. New bills in Congress would lift the cap on the tax incentive from 200,000 to 500,000 per manufacturer.”

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(Watch a larger version of ‘GM, Detroit Pinning Hopes for Future on Chevy Volt’ here.)

We also received a range of responses to our NewsHour stories on the Chevy Volt and the EV more generally.

(Watch a larger version of ‘Better Batteries Enhance Electric Car’s Promise’ here.)

One, via Twitter from “John_T_Eyre_MD,” wrote:

How is it that Volt is rated so high when Nissan Leaf and Tesla model S get hugely more distance per charge?

The answer is “range anxiety” and, in the case of Tesla, price. GM thinks the key to the Volt is that while its battery gets enough mileage on one charge to cover most metropolitan driving (about 35 miles), it can range as far as any other car because its gasoline-powered engine automatically (and silently) kicks in when the battery drains. This is obviously not true of an all-electric, even one with the considerable range of the Tesla, said to be 200 miles on one charge.

It may also be that the Volt’s spiffy features charmed those evaluating it, as they did me when I test drove one. But then, I haven’t driven a Leaf lately, or ever. Same for the Tesla.

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There were also a number of enthusiastic responses which pointed to other EV developments. Michael Boychyn, for example, emailed:

Great report on the future of electric cars and batteries! You may want to also note a recent advancement in the energy density of solid state batteries, recently reported by The Economist.

The Economist focuses on the same key question we did: will efforts to improve battery technology progress with sufficient speed? Its upbeat report:

“(O)ne of these efforts is coming to fruition. That promises smaller, cheaper, more powerful batteries for consumer electronics and, eventually, for electric cars.

“The new development is the work of Planar Energy of Orlando, Florida–a company spun out of America’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2007. The firm is about to complete a pilot production line that will print lithium-ion batteries onto sheets of metal or plastic, like printing a newspaper….

“If the pilot production line is successful, the company hopes to begin operations in earnest in about 18 months. To start with it will make small cells for portable devices. It will then scale up to larger cells and, in around six years’ time, it hopes to be producing batteries powerful enough for carmakers. If, by then, anyone needs a replacement battery for a Chevy Volt, such technology may offer a solid-state alternative that could increase that car’s all-electric range from about 65km (40 miles) to some 200km. Lack of range is reckoned one of the main obstacles to the widespread use of electric cars. If solid-state batteries could overcome such range anxiety that would, indeed, be a revolution on a par with the silicon chip.”

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Patricia Maier’s email led in a different direction:

Might Paul Solman investigate the Chinese development of fully electric cars made in a southern Chinese city near Hong Kong, the subject of a WBUR (BBC?) article last week. That city has a fleet of electric taxis already running, made in a huge new factory that produces almost everything for the cars.”

Well, for Patricia and the rest of you, here’s a link to the transcript of the intriguing report of Jan. 24.

The city is Shenzhen. The company is BYD, in which Warren Buffett has held a 10 percent stake since 2009. The ambition is boundless.

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Daniel Florek points us in a domestic direction:

You have done an excellent piece on the electric car and the associated batteries. How about a piece on the next bus revolution? Proterra makes and has delivered three fully electric buses to Foothill Transit in the Los Angeles basin. This bus may be fully charged in ten minutes and may directly replace the diesel bus.

I think we’ve shot our wad on EVs for awhile, Dan, but if asked to pursue the story further, it looks like Proterra might indeed be a way to go. This was posted on the While House Blog on Jan. 28 by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood:

“Yesterday, Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff and I toured the Greenville, South Carolina, bus manufacturing plant of Proterra, Inc. And I don’t think you could find a better demonstration of the American innovation President Obama invoked in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

When the President said that America’s small businesses need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build their competition, he must have had Proterra in mind.”


Transportation Sectreatry Ray LaHood speaks at Proterra, Jan. 27, 2011. Photo from the Department of Transportation.

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A more skeptical note was sounded by Jozef Gluszyk of Houston:

I watched the program about the electric car — I do not understand why you have not mentioned TESLA. I understand TESLA is making an electric-only car (two seats) with a range of 200 miles, and they are working on a family electric car that also will be in the range of 200 miles (plus).

I do understand the drive is to promote GOVERNMENT MOTORS, but please be balanced. Every time I hear VOLT it seems to get less and less miles per charge, the latest is down to 35 miles. The first time I heard of VOLT it was going to be a ELECTRIC CAR. Perhaps you could consider running a short reminder of what was promised and what has been delivered.

CAR OF THE YEAR – WHAT A JOKE.

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Finally, David H. writes:

Two things I rarely hear discussed are the low cost of operating an electric or hybrid compared to an all gas vehicle and also the low repair costs.

I saw on another website where a reader was complaining that the battery only lasted ten years. I don’t get that. If a vehicle can be operated at 1/3 or 1/4 the cost of a gas-only car and repairs are few and far between because electric vehicles are basically a battery and a motor (which is one reason automakers don’t really want to make them — they can’t make money selling repair parts), then why don’t I hear more about that?

I realize that many of us were raised on the smell of gas and we love to tinker with motors and such but I don’t see any good reason why we can’t do both.

Green technology is not about replacing all of our current forms of power. It’s about intelligent and wise supplementation of those more wasteful energy supplies.

It’s happening now because some large corporations are finally moving on with things. Other corporations still want us addicted to oil and coal, though. It’s a struggle.

BTW – power mat…think about it.

My only response is to define “power mat”: wireless charging. And to remind readers about yesterday’s Tool$ post, which enables you to gauge the efficacy of the electric car for yourself.