Green Update–>Electrifying News from GM, Nissan, Toyota

Volt in production

GM engineers working on the Volt dealt with the touchy subject of mileage and fuel efficiency yesterday, and the press walked away confused. Last summer GM put out the highly controversial boast that Volt drivers could expect 230 mpg in the city, as then-CEO Fritz Henderson claimed.

Well, not exactly. The 230-mpg number, based on early discussions with the EPA, is still under discussion, and the car’s fuel economy is still “up in the air.” Andrew Farah, chief Volt engineer, said the six cars in preproduction testing are getting around 40 mpg (electric mode) in daily driving tests under normal conditions, 50 mpg in “extended range” mode.

The big problem remains: How do you measure fuel economy in a car that uses two power sources (and relies on them intermittently)? EPA is working on that and is being advised by SAE, the Society of Automotive Engineers. AutoObserver reports that the SAE group

is likely to recommend to the EPA a window sticker that indicates city and highway fuel economy for operation when using the internal-combustion engine, as well as city and highway ratings for electric driving.

Well, that makes sense. What doesn’t is the information Nissan has been putting out in Japan regarding the forthcoming Nissan Leaf and how its fuel economy compares to that of a gas-powered car.

Japanese buyers can turn over a new Leaf (dash display, right) in December for around $40,000—or choose an equivalent gas car for $26,000. Which makes sense? Well, after six years of owning a Leaf (per Nissan’s figures), you will have saved all of $361, if utility and fuel prices remain constant, of course. Wow.

The Volt is to go on sale in November, price as yet undisclosed. The price/performance (cost-benefit) ratio for electric cars is, like the Volt’s fuel economy, still way up in the air and will remain so for a long time, I think. People will simply not buy these cars on a cost-benefit calculation alone, because a savings of $361 over six years is ridiculous.

They will buy them for the environment, for social reasons, and to be first with a new technology. That may be reason enough to produce these cars. But the road ahead for the carmakers will not be smooth.

On the whole, the cars will be excellent, though, like Toyota’s new plug-in Prius. John O’Dell drove it for the Green Car Advisor and says it’s “pretty much just like driving a standard Prius, but with a bit less engine noise.” But, of course, a good part of that driving is without gas.

Back in Japan, the government expects half its passenger cars sold by 2020 to be electric. Optimistic indeed, yet the key to lower-priced electrics is improved battery technology, as everyone knows. GM has just put up an $8 million investment in its Global Battery Systems Lab in Warren, Mich., doubling its size.

How long a period, in your view, will it take to get cheaper, more efficient batteries on line?

—jgoods

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1 Comment

  1. No idea how long it will take to get better batteries, but it sounds like hybrids and electric cars will need to keep carrying a significant price premium until we get them. I’m glad automakers are still working on gas-engine efficiency improvements and clean diesels, too.

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