Electric cars: hype or hope?

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I had the good fortune of test driving a couple of new, low-emissions vehicles recently and it got me thinking about the future of electric cars. After all, the Chevy Volt was just named the 2011 Green Car of the year at the L.A. auto show and the all-electric Nissan Leaf was a runner-up.

The Volt is the much-anticipated General Motors plug-in vehicle that is designed to run on electric power for up to 70 km after which it relies on a gasoline engine to charge the battery. The Nissan Leaf is a plug-in that runs fully on electric power. The Leaf will, on a full charge, run for 160 km, depending on road and weather conditions, says the Japanese automaker.

But will these electric cars catch on with consumers?

The vehicles I test drove were the new plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) Toyota Prius, which runs on electric power only for roughly 20 km. After that distance, the engine switches back to the traditional gas hybrid system found in the Prius models on the road today.

The Prius PHEV consumes just 1.75 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres, which is expected to reduce fuel consumption by 83 per cent and reduce CO2 emissions by almost four tonnes per year. The current Prius consumes 3.7 L/100 km in city environments, and 4.0 L/100 km on the highway. The new lithium-ion battery pack can be charged using a regular household 110-volt outlet.  It takes a mere 180 minutes at 100 volts to recharge, or an even more impressive 100 minutes at 200 volts (a 220-volt home charging station is in development).

The other vehicle I tried out was the Tesla Roadster, which is a seriously impressive vehicle. It is 100% electric powered so there is no gasoline engine whatsoever. The Roadster is called a battery electric  vehicle (BEV) and at a price of $100,000, it is clearly a niche item meant to dispel the notion of wimpy, granola electric cars. This thing can fly. The acceleration and power of the Roadster are like nothing I have experienced. It can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph (0 to 97 km/h) in a mere 3.7 seconds. Wow.

Like the PHEV Prius, the Roadster uses lithium-ion battery cells and can travel more than 320 km per charge. Some tests have put the range closer to 400 km on a single charge (depending on the speed and manner in which it is driven). Not too shabby but it wouldn’t get me from Montreal to Toronto and this so-called “range anxiety” may turn a lot of folks off the all-electric option. Great for booting around town but road trips are another story. Plus, charging times vary depending on available voltage and current. In a best case scenario, Tesla claims a recharge time of approximately 4 hours using 240 volt and a 90 amp breaker and a worst case of 48 hours using 120 volt and a 15 amp breaker. Four hours would be bad enough for a lot of people who need to charge up while on the road but 48 hours? Come on.

So it’s difficult to say at this stage how quickly these new vehicles will catch on. Certainly, the BEV all-electric option (Tesla, Nissan Leaf) would likely have some obvious limitations for a lot of people – the high sticker price being chief among them. I do see, however, considerable upside to vehicles such as the new Prius PHEV and the Chevy Volt, which is expected to be available in Canada in the summer of 2011. It is expensive at $41,000 Cdn but not outrageous and the 60-70 km all-electric range will be enough for most people on a day to day basis. Plus, the gas-power back-up option provides reassurance for those long road trips. GM is anticipating huge demand for the Volt and is stepping up its production for 2012.

These are exciting times indeed in the world of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. But questions remain. How will consumers respond to these new low-emission cars? Are the prices too high for most people? Will the additional fuel savings be enough to compensate? As this article in the L.A. Times points out, “combined global sales of hybrid electric vehicles and battery electric vehicles were expected to reach just 5.2 million vehicles in 2020, or only 7.3% of the 70.9 million autos expected to be sold that year.

“The problem for this new generation of cars is that gas prices remain too low to generate demand, consumers remain concerned about the technology, drivers worry about the range of the cars, and at the end of the day, they are just too darn expensive compared with conventional combustion-engine vehicles.” In light of these barriers, what role should governments be playing in providing purchase incentives to consumers?

We must also keep in mind that it is always important to know where the electricity is coming from to power these new vehicles. If it is from coal-fired power plants (as is the case in many parts of the U.S.), then little, if any, net reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will result from the coming transition to the next generation of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

For more info on the new era of electric vehicles, Reuters has produced this informative special report.

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