Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Electric cars back on track?

The tide appears to be turning. Electric cars are in the news almost daily. Large manufacturers and startups are responding to changing circumstances and customer preferences. Oil has passed $120 a barrel. The NY Times headlined "As Gas Costs Soar, Buyers Flock to Small Cars." GM lost $3.25 billion in the first quarter. Something’s got to give.

In perhaps the biggest news, on May 13 amidst a generally downbeat report, Nissan announced a serious, forward-looking effort to make electric cars an important part of their automotive portfolio. The announcement has been reported quite positively everywhere, including the NY Times here and the Wall St. Journal here. Even stories that got much wrong, such as The Independent of London, England, here, concluded "the electric car is probably the [alternative] with the greatest potential."

Sales and profits are declining for automakers in established markets. "It is going to be a tough year for the whole industry. Every single element of our environment is negative," said Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn, who also heads the automaker's French partner Renault. After turning Nissan around during his 5 year tenure at the once beleaguered Japanese automaker and naysaying hybrids and electric cars a mere two years ago, Ghosn is moving both automakers toward a leadership position in zero-emission vehicles worldwide. The Nissan plan envisions hundreds of vehicles in 2010, with general sales in various markets including the U.S. to commence in 2012.

This year Renault announced a partnership with Project Better Place to manufacture electric cars for Shai Agassi’s ambitious plan to create discreet markets, beginning in Israel and Denmark. The first prototype debuted in Tel Aviv in May, and it was announced that hundreds of cars would appear in a pilot program in 2009, with a rollout of thousands in 2010.

Smaller automakers continue to make the news. Tesla had a red carpet grand opening for its first showroom and service center in Los Angeles. Tesla has come to terms with its mistaken decision to introduce the Roadster with a two-speed transmission that delayed production a year or more. As of May, two Roadsters have been delivered, and the expectation is that 300 will be in customers hands by the end of 2008. The luxury electric sedan codenamed Whitestar is slated for 2010.

Th!nk of Norway has begun producing cars again, and sales are slated to begin soon in Scandinavia, Switzerland and France. Th!nk has opened an office in California, and announced its intention to begin sales in 2009. Small regulatory hurdles still need to be overcome before the mini-car that turned me into an electric car advocate can be offered in the U.S.

An unusual entrant into the EV arena, Aptera, a three-wheeled futuristic electric car, continues to stir excitement, and would appear to be more than science fiction. Popular Mechanics took the car for a spin, and a video (available on my blog here) shows various members of the team at work developing the car. With an announced price under $30,000, hundreds of prospective owners have shelled out $500 for a reservation. Who knows how many would want the car if it appears as reported in the next Star Trek movie.

Automakers once completely dismissive of battery electrics, are getting on board, at least rhetorically. Smart has begun testing a small electric fleet in England. Audi here and BMW here are reported to be taking another look at all-electrics.

Still, with all the activity, showrooms remain devoid of a highway-legal electric car. Consumers in the market for a new car are trapped into purchasing a somewhat more efficient gasser. Despite ever increasing gasoline prices and looming environmental and political disasters based on our petroleum addiction, governments are taking only small steps and major automakers seem intent on squeezing every last dollar out of internal combustion.

A race, even a reluctant race, to offer electric cars, is a major about-face.
Let’s hope Nissan’s announcement is spurring its competitors to reappraise the potential of the market for electric cars.