Revival of the Electric Car
Mar 21, 2008 - Detroit Free Press
The electric car has risen again.
Within four years, at least two Japanese automakers
plan to have all-electric cars on American roads.
Several other automakers from around the world, including
Ford Motor Co., are mulling similar vehicles.
When they arrive, the new electrics won't be big
or inexpensive, and they won't go far _ probably no
more than 90 miles without recharging. But with better
battery technology, tougher environmental laws and
growing demand for oil-free forms of transportation,
auto executives say there's a niche for electric cars
"I can imagine the day where there's a set of vehicles
that only goes 40, 50 or 60 miles," Ford CEO Alan
Mulally told investors Wednesday.
A drive in the Mitsubishi iMiEV, a four-seat electric
vehicle, through downtown Manhattan shows how easily
such a car could thrive in the United States. Smaller
than a subcompact, the iMiEV can dart through holes
in traffic that other drivers wouldn't consider, and
the torque from the electric motors has plenty of
punch at city speeds.
Its battery pack, which holds the same amount of
energy as the concept Chevrolet Volt, allows about
80 miles of travel. Recharging would take about 8
hours on a heavy-duty plug, but Mitsubishi is developing
a quick-charge system that would replenish 80 percent
of its energy in about 30 minutes.
Mitsubishi plans to sell the iMiEV in Japan next
year and bring some to the United States for testing
"This is the first step to bringing such a vehicle
from Japan," said Kenichiro Wada, project manager
for iMiEV development. "We would like to apply this
technology to a more suitable vehicle in the United
Nissan Motor Co. will bring an all-electric car to
fleet customers in the United States in 2010, with
a version for retail customers in 2012, said Dominique
Thormann, vice president for administration and finance
at Nissan North America.
While Nissan showed off a battery-powered version
of its Cube minicar at the New York auto show this
week, Thormann said the company's electric vehicle
will be a different, purpose-built model.
"It's not a vehicle that will satisfy all needs,"
Thormann said. "But in urban settings, areas with
high congestion, where people use their vehicle primarily
for a commute which is always the same every day ...
then it makes sense. We believe there's an opportunity."
The drawbacks for electrics remain the same as they
were the last time General Motors Corp. and other
large automakers attempted to find a market for them
in the late 1990s. Batteries hold less energy than
liquid fuel and add thousands of dollars in cost.
Recharging times and low ranges limit what owners
can do with their vehicles. The Volt would have a
gas engine to extend its range.
If you believe the makers of the 2006 documentary
"Who Killed the Electric Car?", GM and other automakers
were never fully committed to electric vehicles and
unplugged their models to preserve their old businesses.
Auto executives from around the world maintain the
technology wasn't ready, and despite efforts by dozens
of start-up companies, no mass-market electric vehicle
has risen to prove them wrong. The most publicized
of the startups, Tesla Motors, has started production
on a $98,000 electric sports car, but is expected
to produce only 400 this year and 1,800 in 2009.
And while new lithium-ion batteries alleviate some
old problems, many hurdles persist. Every recharge
of a battery pack shaves off a sliver of its capacity;
after about 90,000 miles, the iMiEV will lose one-fifth
of its capability.
Herbert Kohler, Daimler AG's vice president for advanced
engineering and the automaker's chief environmental
officer, said there was a real chance for small, short-range
electric vehicles to find a market today, especially
as the world's population crowds around increasingly
"But if somebody tells you about limousines or SUVs
and so on with battery-powered versions _ those people
do not have a clue about technology," he said.
Nissan and Mitsubishi have a jump start on other
automakers, thanks in part to close ties with Japanese
battery companies, which control 70 percent of the
world's production of lithium-ion batteries.
Unlike U.S. automakers, which have to vet a cadre
of new and sometimes untested suppliers, Japanese
automakers have well-established joint ventures to
design and build lithium-ion batteries for their vehicles.
Greg Frenette, Ford's zero emissions vehicle programs
chief engineer, said the automaker was "taking a serious
look internally" at battery-powered vehicles. In addition
to small cars, Frenette said small electric trucks
or cargo vehicles might also catch on for businesses
and tradespeople facing ever-higher prices for fuel.
"Electric vehicles are going to see production, real
production, and there's a future for them," he said.
(c) 2008, Detroit Free Press.
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