Will car buyers ever plug in to electric vehicles?


Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Wednesday, Nov. 21 2012, 6:00 AM EST

Last updated Tuesday, Nov. 20 2012, 5:11 PM EST

Here’s the latest bad news for electric vehicles and their promoters: the world is absolutely swimming in oil.

The International Energy Agency says the United States alone is sloshing around in so much newly found oil, the world’s thirstiest oil consumer will be pumping more oil than Saudi Arabia by 2017 and will be energy-sufficient by 2035.

The even worse news for EVs is that car shoppers aren’t going to buy them in significant numbers unless battery-powered cars become cheaper. This is obvious from the sales numbers: EVs account for less than one per cent of all new-vehicle sales in both Canada and the United States, according to sales numbers from J.D. Power & Associates.

But in case you needed more evidence, J.D. Power & Associates 2012 Electric Vehicle Ownership Experience Study has found that those shopping for an EV didn’t buy one because of price.

“The only way to address the price is by improving the technology to reduce the overall cost of the vehicle,” Neal Oddes, senior director of the green practice at market researcher J.D. Power, recently told The New York Times. “The manufacturers have a huge task to be able to do that.”

Optimists believe car companies will find a way to cut costs, thus making EVs affordable and appealing for the masses. Carlos Ghosn, the CEO who runs the Nissan/Renault Alliance, is perhaps the biggest EV optimist of all and he is confident that costs are coming down, and sooner than naysayers believe.

“Zero emissions, for me, is here to stay, even though it’s not selling as well as we thought,” he recently told Automotive News. “You’re going to see more and more zero-emissions cars.” But perhaps not sales of 500,000 cars a year combined for the Alliance alone. Not yet, at least.

“We feel very comfortable in the potential for at least 500,000 cars a year,” he added, noting that demanding government regulations for fuel economy and emissions in China, the United States and elsewhere will “encourage” EVs. “No matter what, the United States is going to have to embrace electric cars in a way that is more sustainable. Japan is already doing it.”

Also bullish on EVs is BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer. “We consider electric mobility a technology with the potential to achieve emission-free driving pleasure,” Reithofer said in a recent statement that actually focused on BMW’s third-quarter earnings.

The Bavarian luxury car company believes it can charge a premium for its coming line of EVs with their racy, up-market performance and advanced carbon-fibre structures – all tied into a bigger effort to be “green” that includes, but is not limited to, using more recycled materials and renewable energy to manufacture vehicles and such. The city-friendly BMW i3 EV is coming next year and the i8 super sports car will follow. The i3 will list for $50,000 or so, while the i8 is intended to compete with the slickest Ferraris and the like.

Among the Detroit-based car companies, General Motors and Ford are both moving steadily and thoughtfully ahead on the so-called “electrified” vehicle front. Last week, at a seminar in San Francisco intended to underscore GM’s commitment to vehicles using some sort of electric power, Mary Barra, the company’s head of product development, said GM plans to focus on plug-in hybrid technology on the road to having as many as 500,000 vehicles in service using “some form of electrification” by 2017.

So far, GM’s most-visible electrified gamble is the Volt, which combines battery drive with an on-board gasoline engine to charge a drained battery pack and extend range to 600 km.

“What started out as a technology proof point … has turned into a real-world starting point to push EV technology further and faster than we thought possible five years ago,” she said.


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