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Automakers Jockey for Position in EV Market

Automakers Jockey for Position in EV Market

Battery-powered electric cars gained momentum at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) held in Detroit in January, even as experts wondered whether consumers are ready for the new technology.

A bevy of manufacturers - including Nissan, Ford, Tesla Motors, BYD Auto, CT&T and others - showed off new electric vehicles (EVs) at the show, with some slated for introduction as early as this year. Show officials cordoned off 37,000 sq ft of floor space for the electrics, and even set up a quarter-mile track inside Cobo Center, complete with real pine trees and daffodils where show attendees could test drive the cars amidst a virtual forest. EV battery makers also made appearances, displaying products with lithium-ion, lithium polymer and lithium iron-sulfate chemistries.

"We believe battery systems development is going to be a core competency for Ford in the 21st century," said Ford Chairman William Clay Ford, after the automotive giant announced it is bringing its EV battery development in-house.

Such enthusiasm for battery-powered cars contrasted sharply, however, with the strategies of other automakers who are pinning their hopes on hybrids and plug-ins. General Motors reiterated its plans to roll out the Chevy Volt, which combines an internal combustion engine with electric drive technology, by the end of 2010. Toyota, meanwhile, showed off a compact hybrid car and reinforced its commitment to that technology, announcing that it will introduce eight all-new hybrids in the next few years.

"We are really committed to having a hybrid version of every car," a Toyota spokesman told Design News.

The Infrastructure Challenge

Experts say that the announcements at this year's Detroit auto show highlight a philosophical difference among automakers. Not all manufacturers are convinced that battery-powered cars are ready for broad consumer adoption, largely because cost and range issues persist. Today's EV batteries, they say, cost upwards of $700 per kW-hour for the cells, and more than $900/kW-hr when battery management and cooling systems are incorporated. That means a big EV with substantial range could have a battery that costs in excess of $40,000. Moreover, the driving ranges of even the best EVs are still suspect, while recharge times are often as much as six to eight hours.

Still, many EV manufacturers are digging in, in hopes of getting a market foothold now, just as Toyota did with its Prius a decade ago. Nissan has taken the lead position in the battery-electric arena, announcing it will roll out the zero-emission Nissan Leaf in 2010. The Leaf, which will have a 100-mile range and a price tag "in the $30,000-range," will be a five-seat vehicle aimed at urban commuters.

"We think it's a step in the process of bringing zero-emission mobility to a mass market audience," said Brian Brockman, a spokesman for Nissan. "We're not going to overtake internal combustion vehicles in a short span, but we are offering a vehicle that allows people to go zero emission and do it in very economical way."

Nissan is hardly alone in its efforts. In tandem with its commitment to EV battery technology, Ford plans to roll out the Ford Transit Connect battery electric vehicle in 2010 and the Ford Focus Electric passenger car in 2011. China-based BYD Auto, meanwhile, showed off a 5,000-lb battery electric vehicle at NAIAS. BYD says its vehicle, called the E6 and slated for a 2010 introduction, will get 200 miles to a charge and will feature a low-cost lithium iron-sulfate battery pack. BYD says it can dramatically lower the cost of EV battery packs because of its vast ownership of battery manufacturing facilities.

Nissan says that the key to success in the battery-electric market is infrastructure. It's now working with government entities and utilities in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and in the corridor from Phoenix to Tucson to make sure the electric grid is ready. It has also teamed with eTec, an EV infrastructure company, to bring public charging stations to five geographic locales, including San Diego and Tennessee. Nissan officials say they'll also work with Leaf buyers to ensure they have home charging stations in their garages. They're recommending 220V, 15A charging lines. Those stations would take a Leaf battery from fully depleted to fully charged in about seven to eight hours.

Ultimately, EV makers would like to bring 440V stations to public sites, which would enable EVs to go from near-depleted to 80 percent charged in about 25 min. That way, EV range could be extended. "You could drive 90 to 100 miles and have a sandwich while your vehicles recharges in the parking lot," Brockman said. "Then you could go another 70 to 80 miles before you'd have to charge it again."

A Question of Range

But as EVs become more prominent, the issue of range is slowly bubbling to the surface among consumers. Test drivers of BMW's Mini E electric car have run into "cold weather range anxiety" and have found, in some cases, that vehicle range can be a slippery subject. Timothy Gill, a software engineer in Maplewood, NJ, wrote in his Mini E blog that his car unexpectedly conked out during a cold snap, 13 miles before reaching its anticipated 100-mile range. "Towed! After only 87.8 miles ... Sheesh!" he opined.

While Mini E Field Trial test drivers understand the limitations, however, many prospective EV drivers may not. "Our group feels that the broader public really hasn't thought about range limitations," said John B. Heywood, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Sloan Automotive Lab. at MIT. "They don't really know what it means because we have never had range-limited vehicles. It's a big issue."

For reasons such as those, Toyota engineers have charted their course toward hybrids, instead of pure EVs. Although Toyota plans to introduce a small battery electric car in 2012, the company is clear about its preference for hybrids. Toyota representatives at the auto show described EV batteries as "hideously expensive" and estimated they could cost as much as $1,000 to $1,200 per kW-hour. Such costs would make long-range electric sedans, which might use 50 kW-hr batteries, a costly proposition, they say.

"If you design the battery pack correctly, you could get 200 miles (of range) out of an electric vehicle," said Paul Williamsen, national manager of Lexus College in Torrance, CA. "The question is why would you do that? We think a strong hybrid is more economical and a better choice for the environment."

Clearly, proponents of pure EVs believe that future technologies will change all that. But experts say that such changes are difficult to bet on. "I don't know why, for the next few decades, we don't just focus on plug-ins and range-extended vehicles," said Heywood of MIT. "Then you don't have the range issues. And the costs are better than those of pure electrics, too."

Still, consumers say they're ready if the technology reaches the right threshold. "I'm not willing to pay $48,000 for a car that has two seats and can only go 100 miles," Gill said. "But the technology will get there. It's not quite ready for prime time yet, but it will get there."

For more information:
- Detroit auto show emphasizes EVs
- Automakers working hard to make an electric vehicle battery
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