07 November 2010

Will Masses embrace Electric Cars despite High Prices?

USA Today

The biggest automotive revolution since horseless carriages first rumbled along rutted roads is about to take place — and you'll have to strain to hear it.

That's because the first mainstream electric cars in nearly a century will be hitting the streets over the next couple of months, and their electric motors are as eerily quiet as they are tailpipe emission free.

Automakers such as Nissan and Chevrolet are touting the new vehicles in splashy ads, but already there are signs that wary mainstream consumers won't be quick to embrace the largely untested electric models. Automakers likely will have no trouble selling out their initial, limited production to electric enthusiasts and early adopters who have to have the latest thing, but mass acceptance that would lead to profitable production in big numbers remains a question.

The government and the auto industry are promoting electrictransportation as a way to cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil, ease the need for more U.S. oil drilling and cut carbon dioxide in the air. But the technology remains a colossal gamble, with billions invested by the industry and billions in subsidies from the government for research, factories and a direct-to-consumer rebate of $7,500 to partially offset the higher price of electrics.

Buyers still have to be convinced that being Earth-friendly is worth several trade-offs — beyond the cars' sticker prices, which can be double the cost of a similarly sized conventional car. Most prominently, most electric cars for now will have a range of about 100 miles before they need to be recharged. That process can take as few as 30 minutes with special chargers, but in most situations will take up to eight hours.

Even if you haven't paid attention to electric cars, you soon won't be able to escape hearing about them. Nissan has started its ad campaign for the fully electric Leaf. Chevrolet is about to crank up promotion for the Volt, a plug-in electric that also has an onboard generator powered by an auxiliary gas engine. Electric advocacy groups, such as Plug In America, plan their own public education campaigns.

President Obama has set a goal of a million plug-in electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015, though that rollout pales compared with the more than 11 million conventional vehicles that will be sold this year alone. Even with all the subsidies, promotion and consumer education efforts, only 0.6% of cars sold in the U.S. in 2020 will be fully electric, predicts auto researcher J.D. Power and Associates. And only 9.6% will be hybrids — with or without a plug-in recharging cord.

"Barring significant changes to public policy, including tax incentives and higher fuel-economy standards, we don't anticipate a mass migration to green vehicles in the coming decade," says John Humphrey, a senior vice president for J.D. Power.

Some reasons why:

•Lack of public charging stations. All-electric cars need to be plugged in to recharge and can't always be at home, but so far there aren't many public charging stations. Supported by federal grants from the Energy Department, two companies alone are installing more than 20,000 private and public charging stations in select metro areas in Oregon, Washington, California, New Mexico, Texas, Tennessee, Michigan, Florida and the District of Columbia.

•Home chargers require garage upgrades. An electric car such as the Leaf can be charged from a standard 110- or 120-volt home wall socket, but it will take at least 20 hours to get a full charge. So most electric car buyers will want to install 220- or 240-volt chargers to cut that to an overnight six to eight hours, which can cost $1,200 or more, though a federal subsidy is available. Many urban apartment dwellers or others without home garages may be hard-pressed to find a place to install a charging station that would make electric cars practical for them.

•Stable gas prices. Average prices for regular gasoline have been fairly stable and haven't exceeded $3 a gallon in two years, undercutting one of the key economic incentives for buying an electric car.

•Sticker shock. The first electric cars are going to go on sale at a time of economic malaise that has cut consumers' willingness to splurge on pricey new cars. Electric cars' high-tech, powerful electronics and compact lithium-ion batteries are expensive. At $41,000, the Chevrolet Volt is about the same size — and shares components with — the new Chevy Cruze gas-engine compact that starts at $16,995. Less-established makers may have to charge even more. Coda, a Santa Monica, Calif., start-up maker has priced its 120-mile-range, compact all-electric car at $44,900.

The prices can be partly offset by federal tax incentives for buying an electric car — for buyers whose income qualifies — which essentially knocks up to $7,500 off the cost. Some states, including California, also offer tax breaks for some buyers.

But that might not be enough to persuade average car buyers to pay more. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. consumers in an online survey by Nielsen said they don't want to pay more for an electric car than they would for a similar gasoline-powered vehicle.

•Unknowns. While gas-electric hybrids have been on the road for about a decade, all-electric cars and plug-ins use complex new hardware and software and much more powerful lithium-ion batteries. As with any new technology — or any new car model of any kind — long-term reliability, cost, performance and resale value can be projected but remain unknown. Consumers tend to be conservative — regardless of automaker promises or warranties — with such a long-term purchase, typically the second-biggest they make.

•Range anxiety. For all-electrics cars, the estimated range before it needs a recharge is an average that varies with weather extremes, traffic conditions and driving style. And while the typical U.S. commute — 40 miles or fewer — should be no problem with current battery technology, longer or unexpected trips can raise "will I get there and back" worry. That concern, and the unsuitability for longer travel, limits the market for an electric-only car that wouldn't meet all vehicle needs.

Buyers 'need convincing'

Given that backdrop, automotive executives and analysts are thrilled that early adopters have shown as much interest as they have in electric cars.

Nissan hit its target of 20,000 potential buyers who have plunked down a $99 deposit for its fully electric $32,780 Leaf, which starts deliveries next month. They are expected to claim all of the automaker's production during its first fiscal year. On a smaller scale, BMW found enough affluent, curious drivers to lease 450 Mini E electric cars in a test on both coasts that started last year.

The challenge will come after early-adopter demand is met. Even though General Motors and others rolled out primitive electric cars in the 1990s — remember The Jetsons-esque Saturn EV-1? — many people profess not to know much about the new generation. Only 58% of those surveyed by GfK Custom Research North America said they know about electric cars and potential benefits. Typical motorists may focus on electric vehicles' shortcomings instead.

"When I talk to people, neighbors and friends, they need a little more convincing," says Rich Steinberg, manager of electric vehicle operations for BMW North America. It "comes back to range anxiety: 'Why would I want a car that would go (only) 100 miles?' "

General Motors is pursuing those gun-shy consumers. Its Chevrolet Volt, also due to begin deliveries next month, differs from other electrics with its onboard generating capacity. The car is a plug-in that can run up to 50 miles on electric power alone with a full charge in its batteries. But unlike its pure electric rivals, Volt has an auxiliary gas engine to generate power for the electric motor so you can keep driving like a conventional car. That's different than today's hybrids, which have limited electric power-only capability and in which the gas engine drives the wheels in combination with the electric motor.

But automakers already are showing there is also a market for pure electrics. Tesla, a start-up based in California's Silicon Valley, has sold about 1,300 of its $109,000 roadsters since they went on sale in 2008. A four-door sedan — cheaper but still premium at about $50,000 — is planned in 2012.

Beyond Leaf and Volt, Ford Motor will have an electric version of its compact Transit Connect van, primarily for commercial use, on sale next month. It will have a range of 80 miles. In 2011, Ford plans an electric version of its Focus compact car.

Toyota has teamed with Tesla to develop and sell an electric version of Toyota's RAV4 crossover in the U.S. in 2012. Chrysler is planning an electric version of the Fiat 500 minicar. Mitsubishi expects to sell its small i-MiEV electric sedan next year.

And new companies and importers — including Fisker, Wheego and Detroit Electric — also have electric vehicles on the way.

The Obama administration has proposed to require that the fuel efficiency of new vehicles rise to an average of 47 to 62 miles per gallon by 2025. The proposal comes only a year after it set federal gas mileage rules that raise the 27.5 mpg average required now to a 35.5 mpg average by 2016.While progress to the 2016 standard can be achieved mostly with smaller, lighter vehicles and smaller, higher-tech engines, hitting the higher numbers would force automakers to turn to electricity.

In the past, automakers had to be dragged "kicking and screaming into building electric cars," says Roland Hwang, transportation program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. "Now it's a matter of survival for them."

Baby steps

To get potential customers used to the idea of electric cars, Nissan has launched a 23-city tour to familiarize consumers with the Leaf and to offer test drives.

In Los Angeles, teacher Valarie Payne and lawyer Anton Labrentz were enthusiastic after a spin around the shopping plaza in tony Century City. They are the type of young, affluent urbanites Nissan is targeting with the car. "I was very impressed," says Payne, 28. "It's very cute."

But they say they don't know how they would install a charging unit in the garage of their townhouse. And Labrentz, 31, who drives a BMW, says, "I don't have room for a second car."

Web entrepreneur Ben Goldfarb, by contrast, has a Leaf on order and plans to use it for his 30-mile round-trip commute. He will keep his Lexus for long trips.

Worries? "Being an early adopter, you take some risks," says Goldfarb, 51.

"But the pushback is after (the early adopters), the next group of consumers," says Craig Giffi, U.S. auto practice leader for consultant Deloitte. "You are going to be in that gray zone for a number of years where ... cost (of the vehicle) and relatively short ranges are going to keep people at a distance."

Automakers aren't discouraged. Think, a Finnish electric car company that plans to assemble vehicles for the U.S. in Elkhart, Ind., says there is room for many competitors.

All are feeling their way, though, says Michael Lock, Think's marketing executive for the U.S., "This is the embryonic stage of this industry."

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