GM’s recent decision to suspend production of its Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid may either be the latest indication that America isn’t ready for electric vehicles, or a distraction along the road to growing public acceptance of a new kind of automobile.
Partisans on both sides of the EV debate are adamant in their interpretation of the latest hiatus in output of the vehicle that is vilified by some as too expensive and impractical to ever be more than a plaything of well-heeled tree-huggers, while being praised by others as an early but hopeful step toward a post-gasoline transportation economy.
GM’s flagship hybrid has come to symbolize what’s right – or wrong – with electric vehicles in general, as other manufacturers work to bring their products to the U.S. market with varying degrees of success.
GM said in late August it would halt Volt production from Sept. 17 to Oct. 15 to allow its Detroit-Hamtramck plant to be retooled for production of the new Impala, and not because of any lack of sales. The halt follows a Volt battery fire during testing that foes seized on as evidence the car was unsafe, a claim that was later dismissed by government inspectors.
The latest announcement was greeted by skeptics as another sign that the Volt is selling well below GM’s projections, and that the halt would allow high inventories of unsold vehicles to be absorbed.
The reality is that it’s not a competitive technology right now.” – Smith, Center for Automotive Research
In the presidential election season, the Volt’s foes also note that its sales, like that of EVs in general, are not even close to President Obama’s target of 1 million EVs on the road by 2015. According to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, a leading EV advocate, there were just 20,546 plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf sold in the first seven months of 2012, representing only 3.2 percent of total automobile sales for the year to date.
EV boosters, like GM itself, point out that the Volt’s North American sales rose to a record 2,831 in August, and that plug-in car sales overall for the first eight months of 2012 exceeded the total for all of 2011, according to figures from the EDTA.
But sales are still insignificant compared with the conventional car market, and will remain so for some time, argued Brett Smith, co-director for manufacturing, engineering and technology at the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“It’s going to be years and years before EVs are close to competing with the internal combustion engine,” Smith said. “The reality is that it’s not a competitive technology right now.”
Smith acknowledged that the Volt, together with other EVs such as those produced by Fisker and Tesla, represent “fabulous technology” but argued that the cars are not ready for the mass market. “They are way early on the development curve,” he said.
In a sign of the challenges of launching an EV, Fisker has suspended the retooling of a former GM plant in Wilmington, Del. where it had planned to build a luxury plug-in hybrid, saying that it has to renegotiate a loan with the U.S. Department of Energy.
Smith argued that energy storage in EV batteries has to be sharply improved to allow drivers to travel long distances without “range anxiety” over whether the battery’s charge will run out before a destination is reached.
Battery cost also has to come down to around $250 a kilowatt hour from the current level that Smith estimated at between $400 and $800. That would help cut the purchase price of EVs like the Volt which is currently listed at just under $40,000, a tag that Smith argued produces sticker shock in most drivers.
And drivers can’t be expected to buy EVs in significant numbers when it takes half an hour for even a fast battery charge, compared with a minute or two to fill a car with gasoline, Smith said.
But Brian Wynne, president of the EDTA, contended that the Volt, for one, isn’t much more expensive, once a $7,500 federal tax credit is taken into account, than the $30,000-plus that the average driver pays for a new car.
Wynne, who drives his own Volt, argued that such vehicles will have a bright future when people understand that their running costs are a quarter or less than that of a conventional car; that EV ranges can easily cover typical commuting distances, and that battery charging can be accomplished with regular 110-volt outlets overnight or during the work day.
“I don’t go to the gas station any more,” Wynne said. “That would be an inconvenience.”
Don Anair, senior engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said EVs such as the Honda Fit or the Nissan Leaf – which each have a battery range of 70-80 miles – could eventually become the main means of local transportation for households that have two or three cars.
“An electric vehicle could fit well as one of the options,” he said.
Read more Breaking Energy coverage about Ford’s EV offering and how EV’s and hybrids are being targeted to specific driving profiles here.