Slow charge: the evolving EV market

At this year’s New York International Auto Show, the central story was that even mainstream cars and SUVs are getting stellar fuel economy.

 

NEW YORK CITY – This year’s New York International Auto Show was, as usual, a son et lumière, a festival of sight and sound. Speaking of the latter, my ears are still ringing from the introduction of the SRT Viper, a V-10-powered behemoth rollout with blaring rock and roll and smoking exhaust. But even the Viper showed green touches, as my friend Jim Kliesch of the Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out – the hood and roof deck are mostly carbon fiber, the same stuff that reduces weight in the new BMW i3 “Megacity” car.

Past New York shows have featured more electric and plug-in hybrid introductions. At this one, the central story was that even mainstream cars and SUVs are getting stellar fuel economy. The base version of the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe will get 33 mpg on the highway, and the new Nissan Altima is targeted at 38. Despite 370 horsepower, the Acura RLX Concept promised 30 highway mpg from its “sport hybrid” configuration. The Chevy Impala with eAssist? 35 mpg. 

The lesson here is that the value proposition of electric cars won’t remain static, because the competition from fossil fuel will get more intense – especially as automakers cope with both $4 gas and the federal CAFE standard of 54.5 mpg by 2025.

My car of the show was the Infiniti LE Concept, a really sharp evolution of the Nissan LEAF into an upscale four-door electric sedan. This is where battery cars have to go – not only stylish to the max but also family-friendly.


The Infiniti LE Concept.
Photo courtesy of Infiniti.

The LE will lose some of its show vehicle glitz – the carved and illuminated plastic grille, the all-glass roof – but Chikuya Takada, a Nissan electric car product specialist, told me the wireless charging pad, or a version of it, will definitely make it into production. It’s essential to keep the Infiniti affordable, or it won’t make much of an impact on the market when it debuts in 2014.

Electric cars are a work in progress, and that progress is likely to be rapid. But Obama haters have the long knives out, and a bad month for the Volt or LEAF triggers an avalanche of bad press. But with the “they catch fire” controversy fading, the Volt doubled sales last March. It’s not realistic to expect new-tech cars, carrying a price premium and a new way of “filling up,” to take off like bottle rockets. I’m with Carlos Ghosn of Nissan, who proclaimed at the show that the LEAF is the best-selling EV in history. Two months of LEAF sales equals the entire run of the GM EV-1, so that’s something to celebrate. 

David Walls of Navigant, a consulting firm that specializes in renewable energy, takes the long view. “The market for electric vehicles is going to take some time to develop,” he said. “The expectations were too high relative to what was achievable.” Consider the switch from the horse to the car, or the landline to the cellphone. Did either of those happen overnight? 

Ceres, the green investment champions, predict that electric and plug-in hybrid cars will have 2.6 percent of the market by 2015, which is cautious but maybe on target. Getting to President Obama’s goal of a million such cars on the road by then is a stretch goal, but I haven’t budged from my view that the future of the automobile is electric. It’s the timetable that stubbornly refuses to be pinned down.

JIM MOTAVALLI is a contributor to the New York Times, Car Talk at NPR and Mother Nature Network. He is the author most recently of High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug in the Auto Industry (Rodale). Buy it here.

 

 

 

Issue: APR/MAY 2012