Will plug-in vehicles be just a passing novelty in the United States, or will they spark a dramatic transportation shift that ultimately affects everyone?
Both scenarios, and others in between, were posited at a recent Advanced Automotive Battery Conference in Pasadena, Calif.
At the conference, panel speakers offered starkly different takes on the future viability of plug-in electric vehicles.
How Californians take to electrified automobiles will help to set the tone for the nation.
Tom Cackette, chief deputy executive officer of the California Air Resources Board, told a symposium audience that “you basically don’t need” electric vehicles to meet existing state standards for greenhouse gas reductions to 2016.
In 2010, at least 15 conventional hybrid models were available in the marketplace, he said, and nearly 20 models of plug-in hybrids or all-electric vehicles are coming in the next few years.
The foremost technology for reducing greenhouse gases emanating from the transportation fleet at present is the use of lighter-weight materials in automotive manufacturing, he said, while improved efficiency of gasoline engines is second.
The topic of Mr. Cackette’s presentation was the “Impact of Future CO2 Emissions Standards on Passenger Vehicles.” He suggested that after 2020, increasingly strict emissions standards would result in a dropoff of gas vehicles and a dramatic rise in the use of vehicles powered by fuel cells, with plug-in cars as niche vehicles.
John German of the International Council on Clean Transportation said that “modern” internal combustion vehicles are generally 15 to 20 percent efficient at energy conversion, while noting that “these have been around for 120 years.”
“There are still huge losses” in energy efficiency, he said, with the potential for improvement through the use of computers, including computer-aided designs that can reduce vehicle weight.
Mr. German said that as a percentage of disposable income, Americans have been spending less on gas since the mid-1970s, and he expects that “gasoline is going to be very, very cheap in the future” per mile as a result of rising efficiency and fuel economy.“
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“Consumers are going to severely discount the value of fuel economy,” he said, while continuing to demand performance, features and utility. He was not optimistic about the future for electric vehicles, which are new and unfamiliar to consumers. “No one wants to spend $30,000 on the Betamax” of automotive technology, he said.
Doug Coleman, Prius product manager for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., said the company has gained information from a demonstration program in which consumers have driven plug-in versions of the Prius hybrid.
More than 150 Prius plug-ins are in use in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley region in the San Francisco Bay Area, he said at the symposium.
The plug-in Prius allows about 13 miles of electric-only driving before its conventional engine takes over to power the car. The car can be charged in about three hours using a standard outlet, he said.
The program participants, consisting mostly of high-income, well-educated drivers, have been extensively questioned, he said. One finding so far is that people charge the battery more often than they expected they would – without realizing it – because charging is very convenient, he said. Consumers also have reported that electricity costs were lower than they expected.
The plug-in hybrid cars prompted few changes in trip behavior, he told the audience.
Mass-market consumers will have a different mindset than early adopters, said Mr. Coleman, who sketched out a future in which a variety of automotive technologies co-exist.
Menahem Anderman, founder of Advanced Automotive Batteries, the sponsor of the industry conference, discussed the safety and costs of the lithium-ion battery packs to be used in most of the new plug-in cars.
Safety, performance and cost are key variables, he said, and the need to make safety a priority requires greater expenditures.
For a 24-kilowatt-hour battery pack – the size used in the all-electric Nissan Leaf, which offers a range of about 80 to 120 miles – costs should range between $475 and $675 per kwh at a production rate of 50,000 annually for a battery pack with a 10-year life that meets safety standards, he said.
The “value proposition” of electric vehicles is poor compared with internal combustion or hybrid vehicles, he said, because of limited driving range, slow refueling, a higher overall cost of ownership and unproven reliability, durability and safety.
The value of EVs rises, he added, with shorter driving distances, smaller vehicles and a combination of higher taxes on internal combustion vehicles and incentives for electric autos.
Mr. Anderman said he expects the U.S. market for electric vehicles to be very small, with Europe likely to become the biggest market. He said it’s difficult to predict the market in China, which has surpassed the United States in annual auto sales.
He predicted that electric vehicle sales will be less than 10,000 annually for most manufacturers by 2015, with the possible exception of Nissan, which is establishing a Tennessee plant that the company says will be capable of producing 150,000 all-electric Leafs each year at full capacity after it opens in 2012.
The combined market share of plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles is likely to stay well under 2 percent through 2020, Mr. Anderman told the audience.
Stephen Popiel, senior vice president of Synovate Motoresearch, a global market research firm, spoke on the subject of “From Nozzle to Plug: Changing the Consumer Mindset.”
“Consumers tell us one thing, and what they do is a different thing,” he told the audience, which included many representatives of foreign-based enterprises who listened on wireless devices to translations of the presentations.
He said plug-in vehicles may well pose “the single greatest marketing challenge the world has ever seen.”
One problem, he said, is that most people believe electric vehicles pollute more than conventional vehicles because of the need to produce electricity to charge them.
“Everyone tells me that electricity pollutes,” he said. “What they don’t ever tell me is that there is an environmental cost to producing gasoline.” People seem to believe that a pool of naturally refined gas permanently sits beneath the pumps at gas stations, he said.
He said that battery-electric cars are primarily going to be charged at night, during off-peak times, when power plant capacity is underused. Numerous studies have shown that EVs pollute less than internal combustion vehicles even when electricity from coal-fired power plants is used to charge the batteries.“
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In California, which is expected to be the largest U.S. market for EVs by far, coal-fired power is delivered only to a minority of households, while solar electricity is rising prodigiously.
Mr. Popiel said reliability is a top issue for new-vehicle buyers, and “reducing fuel costs is significantly more important than the environment” for most consumers.
Does the low rate of adoption of hybrid vehicles mean that the rest of the people don’t care about the environment? he asked rhetorically.
“Unfortunately, it does,” he said.
Drivers of conventional vehicles “don’t see themselves as responsible” for the health and environmental effects of their choices on others, he said.
“Getting to the mass market is going to require a value proposition,” Mr. Popiel said, but most consumers “are very bad at doing the arithmetic.” Many will spend an hour haggling at a car dealership over a $50 amenity, he said, while giving short shrift to gas mileage figures for similar models that could save them hundreds or thousands of dollars.
The final speaker at the symposium, attended by several hundred people, was the only one with an unabashedly optimistic view of the future of plug-in cars. He also was the only person in the room with long-term experience owning and driving an electric vehicle. Paul Scott, a co-founder of the group Plug In America, also uses solar electricity to charge his EV. A longtime owner of a Toyota Rav 4 electric, he now drives an all-electric Leaf, and recently began working for Nissan as a Leaf salesperson in Santa Monica, Calif.
Mr. Scott rails against polluting conventional vehicles with the same fervor and logic that have worked in the past to rein in other sources of dirty air: Polluters don’t have any inherent right to harm others.
“I’m here to tell you the market is way bigger than you’ll ever be able to supply for the next five to 10 years,” he told the battery makers in attendance.
“I’ve sold 75 Leafs since September,” Mr. Scott said. “I could have sold 7,500 if I had them.” For those who have not already ordered the car, he said, the earliest they could receive one is next fall.
He said that after taking possession of his own Leaf recently, “I had an offer of $40,000 to sell it on the spot.”
As one of the few people who’ve driven an electric vehicle for years, Mr. Scott attracted the audience’s attention. His electric Rav 4, he said, which he has driven a little more than 88,000 miles, has required no maintenance except for shock replacement.
Because his home has a solar array, he said, “My electric bill averages about $100 a year. I haven’t been to a gas station since 2002.”
Pessimism about EVs, he said, stems from the fact that consumers have had no experience with them.
“EVs haven’t been available until now,” he noted, but “by the end of the year, 30,000 will be on the road.”
“Are EVs worth it?” he asked the audience. “What is your kid’s life worth? What is the worth of a soldier’s life? What is the value of a strong economy? Internalize the externalities.” He said thousands of lives are lost annually as a result of air pollution, and “we spend $80 billion a year to protect our access to oil. You pay nothing at the pump for that.” He said “that is just fundamentally wrong.”
“You’ve got to start taking some of the subsidies away” from fossil-fueled driving, he told the battery industry representatives, mentioning that “when you drive an electric car, 100 percent of the energy used is domestic.”
The range of EVs is an issue, he said. “A lot of people say, ‘Can I drive that car to Vegas?’ No. In six months, you can,” as more public charging stations are installed, Mr. Scott said. (A Chevrolet Volt can be driven hundreds of miles at a time, but its battery-only range is about 40 miles between charges.) A majority of U.S. households already own more than one vehicle, Mr. Scott said, and an all-electric car could serve alongside a conventional car or a Volt.
As the battery conference audience was aware, research efforts are under way to extend the range of all-electric vehicles to several hundred miles between charges.
Because of the reliability of EVs and the sharply reduced need for maintenance, Mr. Scott’s advice to young people was, “If you’re coming out of high school, don’t get into auto mechanics.”
The speakers answered questions from the audience after the presentations ended.
In response to one question, Mr. Scott said that EVs not only require much less maintenance than internal combustion vehicles, but typically outperform them on the road.
Mr. Cackette concurred, saying, “not mentioned is that these EVs are a clearly superior driving experience. The cars are spectacular.”