Driving Directions: Getting There Green

Electric Cars Are Being Showered with Love, But Let's Get Real about Numbers

New electric cars are getting major support from corporate America, car enthusiasts and greens. But will they catch on?

ge wattstation

GE's WattStation is a stylish charger. EVs are rolling out, but the numbers aren't clear yet. (General Electric photo)

General Electric is convinced that EVs are going mainstream. Here are a few of its reasons:

Corporate America is really getting EVs, and in some cases getting involved in them. GE isn't a bystander here; it has ordered 25,000 electric cars, and is marketing the designer-cool WattStation EV charger.

I totally understand the enthusiasm here, especially since EVs represent a whole new market for companies like GE, as well as a whole new customer base for EV-loving utilities like PG&E, DTE Energy (which just ordered three plug-in Saturn Vues) and Con Edison.

But let's not get too carried away. EVs are a great pop culture subject: The ultra-fast Tesla Roadster, for example, has generated more positive ink than Lindbergh landing in Paris. Still, YouTube videos and cover stories in Wired do not necessarily translate into sales. That's going to be the hard part.

I was dumbfounded by a Kelley Blue Book poll this week that found only seven percent of car shoppers saying they were "likely" to make their next car an EV. But the really scary part was that most of the respondents expected their new EV to go 340 miles on a charge, and cost the same as their current car. Neither is true: They'll go 100 miles, and they're bound to be more expensive than what's in the driveway now.

A voice of sobriety in all this is Mary Ann Wright, a former Ford executive (she was chief engineer on the pioneering Ford Escape Hybrid) who is now vice president and managing director for major battery maker Johnson Controls. In an interview, Wright (who published this story on "Five EV Myths" in the Detroit Free Press) told me that range anxiety (the fear you're going to run out of juice) is a big factor, hence people expecting 340 miles of range (just what they're used to from gas cars).

Wright testified before Congress in February, and pointed to what may be a significant gap between EV installed capacity (especially for battery packs) and market demand a few years down the road. Here's her testimony on video:

Wright wonders about the frequently repeated mantra that most people travel only 40 miles in a day, hence they'll be happy with 100-mile range. In truth, she says, they might travel 20 miles one day and 140 the next, making it impractical to buy an EV as your only car. And EVs are expensive (the Nissan Leaf starts at $32,790, and that's a good ground-level price), so how many people can afford to buy one as a second car?

"If the assumption is that EVs will be bought as second cars, then they will remain niche vehicles, as hybrids are today," she said.

Wright says, and I concur, that other technologies will probably have much greater numbers, at least in the early years. Hybrids for one, because they can be your only car (range is likely greater than your current vehicle) and also little-known start-stop technology in what are known as "micro-hybrid" cars.

A micro-hybrid is your current car with $400 of add-on technology that turns off its engine at stoplights. Hybrids routinely have start-stop aboard, but adding it to conventional cars requires a bigger battery and maybe some ultracapacitors. It offers a very inexpensive way to get some of the benefits of hybridization, with maybe a 15 to 20 percent gain in fuel economy (depending on how you drive).

"Micro-hybrids represent a challenge to the timing of mass adoption of full hybrids," Wright said. "It's very clever technology that makes the engine turn on only when it is definitely needed. It's significant because of the low cost of the system."

There are already millions of micro-hybrids on the road, from every manufacturer, in Europe. But in part because the EPA test cycle for car mileage hasn't fully recognized their benefits, they've languished as a technical app in the U.S. That's changing, and Wright says Johnson Controls has been in talks with a receptive EPA about reforming that outmoded drive cycle.

The bottom line: A range of technologies--hybrids, diesels, micro-hybrids, super-clean gas cars--will be in competition with battery EVs for a while, at least until battery cars deliver what those customers are expecting: A 340-mile car with all the utility of their current drive, and at the same price. In the meantime, expect EVs to sell out in 2011 (they have waiting lists and pent-up demand). But keep a close eye on what happens in years two, three and four.

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli is a senior writer at E/The Environmental Magazine, a regular contributor to the New York Times and author most recently of Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery.
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Forward Drive: The race to build "clean" cars of the future.
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