Corporate Fleets: No Magic Sponge for Electric Vehicles

Despite the high levels of excitement surrounding electric vehicles, there is reason to worry about this nascent market’s capacity to fizzle in a big way. Most of the buzz surrounds electric vehicle introductions from major automakers, such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt, for which consumer demand remains to be demonstrated. Today I’ve got a piece running at MIT’s TechReview.com site raising doubts about the likelihood that corporate fleets will soak up EVs if consumers leave these pricey machines languishing on showroom floors.

The TechReview story, a ‘news-you-can-use’ piece aimed at managers, concludes that big price reductions and adjustments to fleet management practices will be needed to make a business case for replacing gasoline and diesel fleet vehicles with EVs. In short, lithium battery costs push the purchase price too high for most corporate buyers to recoup their investment through efficiencies — especially if they continue to replace vehicles every three-to-five years. AT&T predicts a return on electric Ford/Azure Dynamics service trucks they are phasing in, but only because the company bucks standard fleet practice and uses its fleet vehicles for 10-12 years. Continue reading “Corporate Fleets: No Magic Sponge for Electric Vehicles”

Déjà? Are Hybrids Already Passé?

Plugs are definitely vogue at this week’s Mondial de l’Automobile in Paris. So where does the hybrid vehicle fit into the picture? It may not, according to Renault. The French carmaker says that electric vehicles, not hybrids, are needed to deliver the emissions reductions that governments and customers demand.

Renault says that it is engineering a pair of battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs), to be produced starting in 2011. As I report for MIT Technology Review today, Renault claims these EVs will be cheaper to build, cost markedly less to power, and produce far less carbon dioxide. Today they unveiled a partnership with utility géant Electricité de France to “establish electric cars as a viable and
attractive transport solution for consumers.”

And Renault is not the only major automaker planning to produce commuter-oriented EVs. Mitsubishi Motors and Daimler both announced plans in Paris last week to accelerate commercialization of small EVs — Mitsubishi with its i-MiEV minicar and Daimler with a battery version of its popular Smart Fortwo. Volkswagen’s promo materials in Paris confirmed it would join the EV club, producing a tiny commuter EV called the Up! in 2010 with a top speed of 130 kilometers/hour and roughly 100 kms of range. 

Ok you say. EV’s are à la mode. But what of the hybrid option? The question is partly semantic. Hybrid technology is everywhere if you count the mild hybrids, which employ a small but potent electric battery  to save gas by rebooting the combustion engine on a green light instead of idling through the red; some can also recuperate energy during breaking by recharging their battery. This technology is going mainstream: Renault competitor PSA Peugeot Citroën said it alone will install 1 million stop-start systems by 2011. VW spokesperson Martin Hube said his company viewed stop-start as just an evolution of internal combustion drive. “You can call it a mild hybrid but it’s just a smart technique,” says Hube. “That’s nothing new.” 

No automaker questions whether full hybrids like the Prius or GM’s plug-in Chevy Volt that can drive on either electricity or gasoline are something new. But while several showed full hybrid concept cars in Paris, fewer talked up plans to build one. Perhaps they’ve made the same calculation as Renault: it’s not worth the trouble to cram high-energy motors, batteries and an engine into a vehicle when one can go straight to the full EV instead.

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This post was created for Tech Talk – Insights into tomorrow’s technology from the editors of IEEE Spectrum.

Paris Mondial de l’Automobile Flaunts the Plug

Five years ago Toyota relaunched its Prius with a Saatchi & Saatchi ad blitz with the EV-bashing tagline “and you never have to plug it in.” Toyota’s corporate marketing manager said the idea was to show the Prius was, “not an idea that’s ahead of its time.” 

What a difference a few years can make. At this year’s Paris Mondial de l’Automobile, which opened to the press yesterday, plug-in hybrids and full-battery EVs are everywhere — and their plugs are displayed conspicuously. 

Smart, the Daimler/Swatch joint venture, towered a dangling plug over their floorspace to highlight its development of an EV model of the tiny trendy Smart Car due out in 2010. GM executives gamely held the cord of the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid for photographers. And check out the plug on Ligier Automobiles’ EV city car!

Frank Weber, GM’s Global Vehicle Line Executive for the Volt, explained the shift to me in dollars and cents, or rather euros and centimes. “If you say that the charge costs less than a euro per day, it’s that simple,” says Weber. “Plugging in means saving, being able to drive and don’t watch the signs at the gas station. This is what the plug means. It’s now looked at as an opportunity and like, well ok at night you have to plug it in but you would do this anytime because the moment you plug it in you know that you save.”

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This post was created for Tech Talk – Insights into tomorrow’s technology from the editors of IEEE Spectrum.