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Automakers Jockey for Position in EV Market

DN Staff

January 20, 2010

6 Min Read
Automakers Jockey for Position in EV Market

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

A bevy ofmanufacturers - including Nissan, Ford, TeslaMotors, BYD Auto, CT&T and others- showed off new electric vehicles (EVs) at the show, with some slated forintroduction as early as this year. Show officials cordoned off 37,000 sq ft offloor 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 testdrive the cars amidst a virtual forest. EV battery makers also madeappearances, displaying products with lithium-ion, lithium polymer and lithiumiron-sulfate chemistries.

"We believebattery systems development is going to be a core competency for Ford in the 21stcentury," said Ford Chairman William Clay Ford, after the automotive giantannounced it is bringing its EV battery development in-house.

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

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

TheInfrastructure Challenge

Experts say that the announcements at this year's Detroit auto showhighlight a philosophical difference among automakers. Not all manufacturersare 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 whenbattery management and cooling systems are incorporated. That means a big EV withsubstantial 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 rechargetimes are often as much as six to eight hours.

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

"We thinkit's a step in the process of bringing zero-emission mobility to a mass marketaudience," said Brian Brockman, a spokesman for Nissan. "We're not going toovertake internal combustion vehicles in a short span, but we are offering avehicle that allows people to go zero emission and do it in very economicalway."

Nissan ishardly alone in its efforts. In tandem with its commitment to EV batterytechnology, Ford plans to roll out the FordTransit Connect battery electric vehicle in 2010 and the Ford Focus Electricpassenger car in 2011. China-based BYD Auto, meanwhile, showedoff 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 acharge and will feature a low-cost lithium iron-sulfate battery pack. BYD saysit can dramatically lower the cost of EV battery packs because of its vastownership of battery manufacturing facilities.

Nissan saysthat the key to success in the battery-electric market is infrastructure. It'snow working with government entities and utilities in Seattle,Portland, San Franciscoand in the corridor from Phoenix to Tucson to make sure the electricgrid is ready. It has also teamed with eTec,an EV infrastructure company, to bring public charging stations to five geographiclocales, including San Diego and Tennessee. Nissanofficials say they'll also work with Leaf buyers to ensure they have homecharging stations in their garages. They're recommending 220V, 15A charginglines. Those stations would take a Leaf battery from fully depleted to fullycharged in about seven to eight hours.

Ultimately,EV makers would like to bring 440V stations to public sites, which would enableEVs 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 asandwich 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 itagain."

A Questionof Range

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

While MiniE Field Trial test drivers understand the limitations, however, manyprospective EV drivers may not. "Our group feels that the broader public reallyhasn't thought about range limitations," said John B. Heywood, professor ofmechanical engineering and director of the Sloan Automotive Lab. at MIT. "Theydon't really know what it means because we have never had range-limitedvehicles. It's a big issue."

For reasonssuch as those, Toyotaengineers have charted their course toward hybrids, instead of pure EVs.Although Toyotaplans to introduce a small battery electric car in 2012, the company is clearabout its preference for hybrids. Toyotarepresentatives at the auto show described EV batteries as "hideouslyexpensive" 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-hrbatteries, a costly proposition, they say.

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

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

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

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

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