Future shocks for EV makers

Last updated 11:31 23/05/2012

Timing is a big deal in the automotive industry. If you don't have a player in the sectors that are firing, you're threatened not only with poor profits but with extinction. The opposite is also true: getting into a sector that's new, where there are significant technology costs and few sales, is fraught with danger. Development costs may never be recouped, and sluggish sales may mean a hit is taken on every unit sold. If protracted, the result may also be terminal.

That's what is happening in the electric vehicle (EV) world currently, and also with players in the small but growing range-extending hybrid class. Even the bigger players are struggling. GM recently called a temporary halt to production of its range-extending Volt. That's the car that comedian and car nut Jay Leno famously drove for a year without having to put any fuel in the tank. The Volt can do around 80km on a single battery charge without having to kick-start its petrol engine, which acts only as a battery charger.

Holden Volt

GM is a keen player but has a patchy history in the EV area. It produced a pure electric vehicle, the EV1, back in the 90s but at that time battery technology was in its infancy and the project was controversially canned, with all but a few of the cars in circulation crushed. It sparked a fascinating 2006 documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? The same director has just released a new doco entitled Revenge of the Electric Car.

Anyhow, GM has sales and oversupply problems with the Volt, which is expensive. It failed to reach the budgeted sales target of 10,000 vehicles in the United States in its first year. And then battery fires led to an NHTSA investigation.

Pity, as the Volt is the next logical step in the hybrid evolutionary chain, as is the forthcoming Prius plug-in hybrid. Toyota always saw its petrol-electric hybrids, which run primarily on gas but use electric power to bolster performance and to propel the car for short bursts on EV power alone, as the stepping stone between conventional (internal combustion engine) cars and pure EVs. While Toyota hybrids like the Prius  cost little more than a regular car the same size, plug-in hybrids and range extenders use larger, more sophisticated batteries and are therefore much more expensive than conventional cars of similar size.

It's not just plug-in hybrids like Volt that are battling head winds. Tesla, the maker of pure EVs, is facing an issue with freezing battery packs when they are left in a low state of charge for extended periods. When the battery pack fully discharges it needs replacing. The cost? A cool US$40,000, and because this is a "user error", it is not covered by warranty. New fail-safe systems, including a "deep sleep" mode, should mean this is no longer a problem.

Some electric car makers, like Think Global and Aptera, have hit the skids. Fisker, a maker of premium plug-in hybrids, is also said to be struggling. And that trouble stems primarily from the cost of lithium-ion batteries. EVs cost at least twice the price of a similar sized conventional car, and often have real-world touring ranges of just 100km. This is the reason makers of EVs, like Mitsubishi, are marketing their wares primarily to green corporates. Moreover, conventional cars are increasingly economical, making more expensive alternatives even harder to justify.

Mitsubishi iMiEV

As fuel prices stabilise or continue to rise, those making hybrid petrol-electrics which use smaller, less expensive battery packs are set to continue to take a small bite of total market share (around 5 per cent of Toyota sales here; 2.5 per cent of the overall market in the US). But until fuel prices skyrocket or battery technology becomes more affordable, or both, pure EVs won't gain any real mass market traction.

Holden's Volt is due to launch here later in the year for around $75k (based on indicative Australian pricing) and Nissan's Leaf EV, current holder of the World Car of the Year title, will go on sale here in July for $69,600. The only other production electric car available locally is Mitsubishi's iMiEV costing $59,990.

Nissan Leaf

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Post a comment
Geoff   #1   12:43 pm May 23 2012

So I could buy a 5 door 1.8 Corolla new for $35k or pay an additional $25k for an iMiEV which is smaller? Why?

I could pay $75k for the Volt or purchase a new WRX STI Spec R for the same price. I know which I'd go for.

viffer   #2   04:35 pm May 23 2012

I think part of the problem is that people expect a 'normal' sized car, that will have a long range, will be around the same price as a conventional car, has good performance, and will be really cheap to run. The biggest problem is that most travel doesn't actually require a 'normal sized' car or lots of power, as it typically is a shortish trip with only one or two passengers, and could easily be served by a micor car, bus, - or better still - a scooter or motorcycle.

Brooka   #3   02:11 pm May 24 2012

We purchased a Toyota Estima Hybrid people mover: with 2 growing children we needed the extra room. We mostly use it as a stationwagon: it is big, comfortable and in spite of the 2.4 litre engine goes through the same amount of petrol as a 4 door Toyota Starlet we used to own. For short trips I use a bicycle, and my wife has an electric assist bike, these keep us fit and easier to find a park for, don't require a warrant of fitness nor registration. Additionally cycling is fun.

Still waiting   #4   11:34 am May 25 2012

Yup, size is the key. 'real' sized electric cars are NOT the way to go. Small, nippy, stripped to the bones 2 seaters meant for commuting and other shorter range trips will have their own market. Making an electric car that works just like a gas powered one will always be expensive. Hybrids just make me angry, they are 2 cars jammed into one to the detriment of both.

GregB   #5   12:16 pm May 25 2012

I can not see the point of this artical except to run down the progress of a new automotive technology. The author should get their facts correct before making wide sweeping comments about these new electric cars. Pointless dribble!

Gregary   #6   09:47 pm May 25 2012

@ GregB #5

I think you mean drivel Greg; you see what I did there?....I made you look like a gimp.

Realist   #7   05:02 pm May 26 2012

@ gregb of course.. The author of this blog never does anything but promote the status quo, as most automotive journalists do. Dont expect in depth reporting from someone who depends on keeping friends so the get regular freebie cars to test for weeks on end.

The fact that GM nearly destroyed itself building reqular cars obviously isnt worth mentioning, nor the fact of petrol prices will continue to rise 5% p.a from now until it runs out.. Quote "But until fuel prices skyrocket or battery technology becomes more affordable, or both, pure EVs won't gain any real mass market traction" - in laymans terms probably 24 - 36mnths for both.

Peter   #8   07:44 am May 29 2012

I would happily buy a Volt, the idea is sound and it's a good looking car. Once the world economy picks up - which it will in due course the cost oil will leap up again..There will have to be alternatives..

Paddy   #9   05:41 am Jun 02 2012

I am writing from Ireland where a Leaf sells for €25k, Nissan were charging €30k but the only shifted a handfull, mostly to vested interests such as the Irish electricty board (ESB) who are planning the charging grid. The experience here with EVs has been poor, try driving one at highway speed with AC in operation, you will not get close to 100km range making the vehicle useless for 99% of car owners. The Leaf can been seen as a 3rd or 4th vehicle in the fleet of a wealthy family who want to make a green statment while nipping down to the shops or droping a sprog or two at school. The hassles of very limited range and charging make the car a total pain. As for paying AU$690k for a Leaf, are you Aussies totally crazy!

macadder   #10   08:16 pm Jun 02 2012

People need to get a grip on costs.The new Toyota Prius c is only a new K more than the equivalent Yaris and costs bugger all to run. Quiet in town, I can listen to a cd and hear more music than most other vehicles (no motor noise) and runs as low as 2.9L/100km which is incredibly attractive.

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