Still, experts have unanimously told Design News that plug-in hybrids have a bright future. They employ smaller batteries than pure EVs, cost less, offer more range, and could serve as a key means of meeting the federal government's corporate average fuel economy requirements.
What's more, early evaluations have been generally positive. Engineers at Consumer Reports, for example, were impressed with the quality of the Chevy Volt, and their expectations of the new Toyota Prius PHV are equally high. "The Toyota Prius plug-in is going to be just as bullet-proof as the regular Prius," David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports Auto Test Division, told Design News in March. "Toyota has the resources and they'll do it right."
To be sure, analysts predict the wait for widespread acceptance will be longer for pure electric cars. Higher battery costs and limited range will take a greater toll on those vehicles, making it more likely that their early success will be limited to niche markets and early adopters.
"The most significant application for the pure electrics is probably in urban delivery vehicles, rather than passenger cars," Cole said.
Industry analysts said that predictions of $360/kWh battery packs and one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015 are optimistic. A recent Lux Research study, "Material Innovation and Cost-Cutting Strategies for Lithium-Ion Batteries," set the battery figure at $397/kWh by 2020. Similarly, Pike Research has forecast a one-third reduction in battery costs over the next five years. For bigger cuts, breakthrough technologies would have to emerge.
Cole contends that GM needs to make dramatic price cuts on the Volt before widespread success occurs. He said that GM engineers have already knocked $4,000 out of the cost, but need to take off another $15,000 to make it competitive on a large scale. As a result, it could take several more years before sales rise dramatically.
"This is a good technology, but it's premature to expect big numbers," Cole noted. "We've got a lot of work to do before this can be high volume."