Green Update–>How Far Out Is the Electric Future?

January 26th, 2010

Tesla charging

As we all should know by now, making cars is a big gamble. With lead times of two to three years, new products have to anticipate the market and factor in huge development costs. Not to mention marketing and merchandising expense. Not to mention fickle and whimsical changes in public taste and governmental priorities.

But perhaps the biggest variable of all is the Green Movement. It influences us all, negatively and positively, pushing everything from cap-and-trade to capitalist investment. Everyone is betting on Green, and no one yet knows which way it will turn—or turn out. The mix of politics, economics, and engineering is fascinating but murky.

Nissan, for instance, is betting heavily on the Leaf EV and zero emissions, effectively ceding the hybrid field to Toyota. (The latter sold 12,000 Priuses in December, compared to 1,600 Honda Insights.) While Nissan is dabbling in hybrids (the Altima and Infiniti will come in March 2011), its real chips are down on the Leaf. The Nissan plant in Smyrna, Ga., can build 150,000 cars a year and will start rolling out Leafs (Leaves?) in late 2012.

The Leaf goes 100 miles on a charge, which limits not only its range, but also its usefulness. The Volt can run 200 miles and then has a gas engine to recharge its batteries and keep going—which may be the best compromise after all. GM has put big bets down on this car and just announced a $129 million investment to produce its own motors for plug-ins at the Baltimore Transmission plant. Never mind that $105 million of this came from the feds in the form of grants. GM is getting battery development money too.

We think it makes all kinds of sense to develop these technologies in the U.S. Electric cars are the future; the question is how long it will take to get them viable. The big challenge right now is obviously battery technology and production. Putting bets down on an infrastructure is still years away. Chris Hafner’s thoughtful defense of the electric car recently appeared in Car Lust; check it out.

Back in the here and now, hybrids are rapidly improving. Porsche’s 2011 Cayenne S Hybrid features a 3-liter supercharged V6, no less, and, according to MotorAuthority, is “the most fuel-efficient model in Porsche’s new lineup,” able to step out from “0-62 mph in 6.5 seconds and tow up to 7,716 pounds—all while returning a combined fuel economy of 28.7 mpg.” Hybrids, as Autoweek noted, seemed to dominate the Tokyo Auto Salon, as did performance cars. Is there a trend here?

At the other end of the scale, a report claims Mitsubishi is increasing production of the i-MiEV, with new orders “far outstripping” expectations (targeting 8,500 units this year, up from 5,000). The company wants to make up to 30,000 units by 2013, to sell for around $22,000. Production in Europe will begin in October 2010, with 25 cars testing in the U.K. by December. A support program was just announced.

Okay, folks, place your bets: You are advising GM’s Ed Whitacre about budgets and strategies to bring the Volt to market. What are you going to tell him?

—jgoods

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