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Battery cars face an uphill climb to acceptance

David Mcnew / Reuters

A 2011 Chevy Volt is seen at a dealership in Northridge, Calif.

By Paul A. Eisenstein

A spectacular flop, or just a slow start? 

One thing is certain, the battery car is going to have to gain some serious momentum if it’s going to have a real impact on the U.S. automotive market -- or come anywhere close to meeting the White House’s target of putting 1.5 million battery-powered cars on the road by mid-decade.

Despite widespread coverage in both the automotive and mainstream media – and the introduction of a number of new models – battery cars barely showed up as a rounding error on the automotive sales charts in 2011, plug-in hybrids and pure battery-electric vehicles collectively generating less than 18,000 sales, or about as many Accord sedans Honda sold in December alone.

Proponents insist that the technology shouldn’t be measured by 2011 results and will need a few years to build momentum, particularly to see the sort of improvements in cost and range needed to become more directly competitive with the time-tested internal combustion engine. 

But skeptics are questioning whether so much money and effort should be focused on battery power when there are other potential alternatives to the combustion engine in the offing.

“This is how the auto industry itself started out 125 years ago, taking very slow, stuttering steps,” cautioned Rebecca Lindland, research chief with IHS Automotive. While some of her colleagues have dubbed the battery car a failure, she says it’s “too early to panic.”

The year ended with the much-ballyhooed Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid (Chevy prefers “extended-range electric vehicle”) logging just short of 8,000 sales. The carmaker insists it actually met its goal of building 10,000 Volts, but it clearly fell short of its plan to sell that many last year. Early in 2011 Nissan crowed about logging over 20,000 advance deposits for its electric Nissan Leaf but barely reached 10,000 in sales. Again, the carmaker considers that a success.

Others aren’t so upbeat. 

“I’d say they failed,” proclaimed Joe Phillippi, chief analyst with AutoTrends Consulting.

Phillippi also admits it may be too early to write battery cars off entirely. Consider the experience of the Toyota Prius, today the world’s most successful conventional hybrid-electric vehicle. When it made its debut a decade ago it sold less than 6,000 units in its first year on the U.S. market. But last year it was the world’s best-selling hybrid and accounted for roughly half of gas-electric model sales in the United States.

Then again, add all hybrids together and sales totaled just 274,927 last year, or barely 2.1 percent of the 12.78 million cars, light trucks and crossovers sold in the U.S. in 2011.

Tesla Motors founder and Chairman Elon Musk insists the electric side of the industry will slowly ramp up as batteries get better and costs come down. He points to the California-based start-up’s new Model S sedan, due later this year, which will offer buyers a choice of 160-, 230- and even a 300-mile battery pack. Currently, most models get less than 100 miles per charge.

Ford’s global product chief Derrick Kuzak is not quite as enthusiastic about electric cars, but he’s still an advocate, suggesting Ford’s goal is “to drive up scale” to bring down costs and improve the limiting factors of an electric vehicle, like range and charging times.

Ford has just launched a lithium-ion-powered version of its Focus model and, in the coming months, will add both conventional hybrid and plug-in versions of the new C-Max “people mover.” There will be no gas-only version.

Kuzak expects battery power to account for anywhere between 10 and 25 percent of the car market by 2020, with factors ranging from technological breakthroughs to government mandates impacting the actual tally. He cautions that Ford anticipates conventional hybrids will account for three-quarters of all battery-based vehicle sales, followed by plug-ins and then battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs.

The numbers could actually become notably larger if one were to include more basic battery-based technologies -- such as start-stop, which briefly shuts off a vehicle’s engine instead of letting it idle, and then automatically restarts the engine when the driver’s foot lifts off the brake. Many experts predict that feature alone could become near-ubiquitous by 2020.

Part of the problem for the battery car is that the aging internal combustion engine is getting so good. 

Emissions are barely 1 percent of what they were before government regulations were first enacted in the 1960s. The latest turbochargers, direct injection and advanced transmission systems are yielding phenomenal improvements in fuel efficiency, even as they boost performance.

But these improvements to the internal combustion engine likely won’t be enough, according to Lindland, who notes that government fuel economy mandates will require a host of solutions.

“There’s a lot of activity around the world that suggests people realize the battery isn’t the only way to get there, however,” stressed Peter Hoffmann, editor and publisher of the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Letter.

Fuel cell technology is sometimes referred to as the refillable battery because it uses hydrogen to create electric current that can run the same electric motors as a battery car. The only exhaust gas is pure water vapor.

But there are numerous problems producing, distributing and storing hydrogen, and that has led the Obama administration to initially shift research dollars away to battery development. Recently, however, the Department of Energy has put more money back into hydrogen efforts.

That reflects what is happening in other parts of the world, notably in Germany, where the government has laid out long-term plans for a network of perhaps 1,000 hydrogen refilling stations along the nation’s vaunted Autobahns. (Those stations would also feature battery chargers.)

A new study by KPMG, based on responses from 200 auto industry leaders, shows that eight in 10 anticipate increased research spending on various electric vehicle componentry. Much of that investment could go toward fuel cell vehicles, too. And the study found 65 percent expect more spending on fuel cell research.

There are other possible solutions, including advanced diesel power. Current applications already account for about half of the vehicles on the road in Europe. There are also novel uses of compressed air, rather than batteries, for storing energy in hybrid vehicles.

The coming year will see a flood of new hybrids and more advanced lithium-based vehicles coming to market. Indeed, it will be the rare carmaker that won’t have a battery car on the road over the next two to three years. Whether consumers will reward or ignore them remains to be seen.

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