Tags: electric | cars | Volt | hybrid

Electric Vehicle Revolution Doesn't Hit on All Cylinders

Wednesday, 21 Mar 2012 12:34 AM

 

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DETROIT — Scott Kluth has a love-hate relationship with his new Fisker Karma luxury electric sedan.

The 34-year-old car lover bought the plug-in hybrid electric Karma in December for $107,850, but five days later the car's battery died as he was driving in downtown Chicago. While the car he affectionately calls a "head turner" was fixed in a recall, Kluth remains uncertain how much he will drive it.

"I just want a car that works," Kluth said. "It's a fun car to drive. It's just that I've lost confidence in it."

The Karma's problems — one vehicle died during testing by Consumer Reports this month — follow bad publicity arising from a probe of General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet Volt and weak sales of the car, and the closure or bankruptcy of several electric vehicle-related start-ups.

The unrelenting bad news has led to questions about the readiness of electric vehicles (EV) and raises fresh doubts about a technology that has around since the late 1890s but still struggling to win over the public.

Whether electric vehicles can find an audience beyond policymakers in Washington and Hollywood celebrities depends on lowering vehicle prices without selling cars at a loss, analysts and industry executives say, while extending driving range to make the cars competitive with their gasoline-powered peers.

"It's going to be a slow slog," said John O'Dell, senior green car editor at industry research firm Edmunds.com. "Maybe there's too much expectation of more and quicker success than might realistically be expected of a brand new technology."

He also questioned whether priorities will simply change for whoever is U.S. president after the November election. Electric vehicles could lose tax breaks — currently worth $7,500 a vehicle for buyers — particularly if a Republican ends up in the White House.

Edmunds expects pure electric cars and plug-in hybrids to make up only 1.5 percent of the U.S. market in 2017, compared with 0.1 percent last year, and O'Dell said that may be optimistic. Consumers charge all-electric cars by plugging into an outlet, while hybrid versions include a gasoline engine.

President Barack Obama's administration has been a strong proponent of electric vehicles like the Volt and set a goal of getting 1 million battery-powered vehicles on the road by 2015. Lux Research estimates that number actually will be fewer than 200,000. Both low-interest federal loans supported the Volt's and Karma's development.

That has not dissuaded automakers, many of which plan to launch electric vehicles to join the Volt and Nissan's all-electric Leaf in a bid to meet rising fuel efficiency standards. Toyota has begun selling a plug-in Prius, and EVs from Ford, Honda, BMW, and Fiat will join the fray this year, along with cars from start-ups Tesla and Coda Automotive.

Electric cars aren't a new concept. In the early 1900s, Henry Ford bought his wife, Clara, at least two electric cars that provided 50 miles' driving range at best and top speeds of about 35 mph, according to the Henry Ford Museum.

But analysts said automakers have not done a good enough job getting the costs down and explaining the technology to win over anyone beyond early adopters such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio, pop idol Justin Bieber, comedian Jay Leno, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"You can do all the advertising and promotion you want, but if people don't buy into the message, the needle's not going to move," said George Cook, a marketing professor at the University of Rochester's business school and a former Ford executive.

Many critics see the Volt as too expensive, at almost $40,000 before federal subsidies. Fiat-Chrysler Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne, a longtime EV skeptic, has said Chrysler will lose more than $10,000 on every battery-powered Fiat 500 it sells.

And even with rising gasoline prices — topping $4 a gallon in parts of the country — EVs are just not competitive, according to the Lundberg Survey. Gasoline prices would have to rise to $8.53 a gallon to make the Leaf competitive and hit $12.50 for a Volt to be worth it, based on the cost of gasoline versus electricity, fuel efficiency and depreciation, the survey said.

Obama's vision, which he laid out at a Daimler truck plant in North Carolina this month, includes a car battery that costs half the price of today's versions and can go up to 300 miles on a single charge. The industry is far from achieving that.

Since last fall, there has been a run of bad news for EVs, starting with the late November news that U.S. safety regulators were investigating the Volt for possible battery fires.

Although the federal investigation was closed with the conclusion that there was no defect and the car did not pose a greater risk of fire than gas-powered vehicles, weak demand led GM to halt production for five weeks and temporarily lay off 1,300 workers at the plant that builds the car. GM, which strengthened the structural protection of the Volt battery, has repeatedly said the car is safe, and some said the safety probe should have never occurred.

The Karma that died during testing by Consumer Reports magazine was another blow following a recall of more than 200 o f the cars last year and the halting of sales in January for a software issue. Fisker, which builds the Karma in Finland, also suspended work last month at its U.S. plant scheduled to make another car, the Nina sedan, while it works to renegotiate a $529 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Fisker spokesman Roger Ormisher said problems can arise with new technologies and a new company but added Fisker had gone "beyond the call of duty" in instituting a system to respond to customer issues and had plenty of satisfied owners. CEO Tom LaSorda said in a letter to Karma owners last week that Fisker is committed to giving customers "complete peace of mind" and he had created a "SWAT team" of 50 engineers and consultants to identify issues with the car.

"The expectations have always been too high for electric cars," said Bill Reinert, Toyota's U.S. manager for advanced technology. "The realities have always been clouded by the dreams. I like to say it's the first law of thermodynamics versus the first law of Disney. Disney is wishing it will be so. It doesn't work."
Toyota has always been skeptical EVs would quickly boost its share of the auto market.

Meanwhile, several companies have struggled because of lack of funding or customer troubles.

A123 Systems posted a wider-than-expected fourth-quarter loss this month after Fisker, one of its largest customers, cut battery orders. Bright Automotive, an Indiana electric commercial truck start-up, closed its doors in February after failing to get a federal loan.

Ener1 Inc., which received a $118.5 million federal grant to make lithium-ion batteries for EVs, filed for bankruptcy in January, and Aptera Motors, a California-based EV start-up, went out of business in December after it couldn't raise $80 million in private funding.

"There will be more companies that fail, but it's no different than Internet companies," said Kristen Helsel, vice president of EV solutions for AeroVironment, which makes EV charging stations for BMW, Mitsubishi and Nissan. "People with the right business model are going to do fine."

A number of top national retail chains, including Kohl's and Walgreen, have begun installing charging stations at their stores, bu t critics say the U.S. push for electric cars has come before such infrastructure is in place, weakening the case for consumers to be attracted to the technology.

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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