Can electric cars make it, even with a White House push?
President Obama tours the Edison Electric Vehicle Technical Center during a March 19 trip to Pomona, Calif. His energy goals could help revitalize the U.S. automakers.
WASHINGTON – President Obama’s campaign pledge to put 1 million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015 is fraught with difficulties, from technical and engineering hurdles to the realities of the economy and the price of gasoline.
It took eight long years to get 1 million hybrids on the road in the United States, and even a White House task force says one of the leading new plug-in cars being developed is too expensive to gain popularity any time soon.
Obama’s goal could help revitalize the struggling U.S. auto industry and begin shifting motorists away from the gas pump. But to many, it’s overly optimistic.
“The economics won’t make sense for the majority of Americans in the next several years,” said Brett Smith, who studies plug-in hybrids at the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Center for Automotive Research.
Plug-in hybrids allow motorists to drive a limited number of miles on battery power before the engine switches over to run on gasoline or other fuels. A driver can plug the car into a conventional wall outlet at night and be ready to go electric again in the morning.
The cars could dramatically reduce gasoline use because many commuters drive less than 40 miles a day.
Obama last month toured a California electric car facility where he announced $2.4 billion to develop advanced batteries and electric cars.
“Even as our American automakers are undergoing some painful adjustments, they are also retooling and reimagining themselves into an industry that can compete and win,” Obama said in Pomona, Calif.
During his campaign, Obama promised $4 billion in tax credits to automakers to revamp their plants to build plug-ins, and a $7,000 tax credit for consumers who buy early versions of the cars. He even pledged to convert the White House vehicle fleet to plug-ins within a year, as security permits, and require half of the cars bought by the government to be plug-in or all electric by 2012.
To automakers, battery makers and utilities, the pledge was akin to one made by President John F. Kennedy generations ago. “That’s a ‘Go to the moon’ kind of goal,” said Nancy Gioia, Ford’s director of hybrid vehicle programs. She said it would demand “unparalleled collaboration” among the government, the industry and academia.
Automakers are already committed to plug-ins and electric vehicles. Toyota Motor Corp. will produce a few hundred plug-in Prius hybrids later this year as a test fleet, General Motors Corp. plans to release an extended range electric plug-in called the Chevrolet Volt in limited numbers in late 2010, and Nissan Motor Co. is planning to sell an all-electric car next year. Chrysler LLC, Ford Motor Co. and Daimler AG are all developing plug-ins and electric cars.
But numerous questions remain about the cars. One of the biggest hurdles is whether their large lithium ion batteries are ready for mass production. Some analysts have pegged the cost of the batteries at $1,000 per kilowatt hour, which could add about $16,000 to the cost of a first-generation Volt and thousands of dollars to a plug-in Prius.
Conventional gas-electric hybrids account for less than 3 percent of the car market and it took about eight years to get 1 million hybrids on the road in the United States, according to consulting firm R.L. Polk & Co.
Obama’s own auto industry task force casts doubt on the Volt in a March 30 report which says while the car “holds promise, it will likely be too expensive to be commercially successful in the short term.” GM has not announced pricing for the Volt, but it’s expected to cost between $30,000 and $40,000.
The industry will also need a smooth transition for plug-ins to take off. Any hiccups along the way could hurt the vehicles’ image.
“They’ve got to be commercial-ready,” said Tom Stricker, Toyota’s director of technical and regulatory affairs. “You do risk having a negative response from the consumer if the technology doesn’t meet their expectation in terms of durability, cost and performance.”
The Chevrolet Volt
IN THE PIPELINE
Several automakers are developing plug-in hybrid vehicles and electric cars that could help meet President Obama’s goal of putting 1 million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015. Many industry officials say the goal is a worthy one but will be difficult to meet. A look at the work by some auto manufacturers:
GENERAL MOTORS CORP.: General Motors is set to produce the Chevrolet Volt, an extended range electric plug-in, in late 2010 in limited numbers. The Volt is the centerpiece of GM’s attempt to take the lead in electric vehicles and will have a lithium-ion battery and electric motor that can take the car 40 miles on a single charge. A gasoline engine will kick in to power a generator to extend the Volt’s range beyond the 40 miles. GM has not yet announced the price of the car, but the cost is expected to be $30,000 to $40,000.
TOYOTA MOTOR CORP.: Toyota will start global delivery of 500 Toyota Prius plug-in hybrids powered by lithium-ion batteries later this year. Of those, 150 will go to U.S. lease and fleet customers. The plug-in is expected to operate in a similar fashion to the current Prius model by using both gasoline and electricity to propel the vehicle. Toyota is also developing the FT-EV, an all-electric vehicle that is expected to have a range of 50 miles and be on U.S. roads by 2012.
CHRYSLER LLC: Chrysler has shown off five different electric-drive vehicles developed by its high-tech ENVI unit and said it plans to start selling one of the five models next year. The electric car prototypes include a Dodge sports car, a Jeep Wrangler and Patriot, a Chrysler minivan, and a concept version of an electric-powered sedan. The automaker is testing the vehicles simultaneously and recently announced that Massachusetts-based A123Systems will supply the lithium-ion batteries for the company’s extended range gas-electric cars and its all-electric cars.
FORD MOTOR CO.: Ford is planning to produce a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle beginning in 2012 and has been testing a fleet of vehicles through partnerships with several utilities around the nation. Ford has said it intends to bring a battery-electric van to market in 2010 for commercial use, a small battery-electric sedan developed with Magna International by 2011 and a plug-in electric car by 2012. Ford has said Johnson Controls-Saft will supply the battery system for their first production plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.
NISSAN MOTOR CO.: Nissan has outlined plans to mass-market electric vehicles by 2012, and to make the cars available on a wide scale in Israel and Denmark in 2011. Nissan’s all-electric car will be sold in late 2010 and have 100 miles of pure battery range. Nissan has developed partnerships with states and utilities to promote and develop electric vehicle charging networks.
TESLA MOTORS INC.: Tesla is selling the Roadster, an electric sports car which starts at $109,000 and can travel 244 miles on a 3.5-hour charge. The California automaker is developing the all-electric Model S sedan, which is expected to sell for $60,000 by mid-2011.
FISKER AUTOMOTIVE: The California automaker is releasing its $87,900 Karma plug-in luxury sports sedan, a four-seater with solar panels, in October. The plug-in can drive gas-free for 50 miles. Fisker is also developing the Karma S, a convertible expected in 2011.