Trucks at Work
Gauging EV potential

Gauging EV potential

Targeted government policies can build the U.S. electric drive industry and get more vehicles on the road that will reduce our dependence on oil, establish sustainable transportation options and build the green jobs economy.” –Brian Wynne, president, Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA)

Do electric vehicles (EVs) have the “legs” to survive and thrive here in the U.S.? That’s a questions being raised this week as the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA) seeks backing from Congress and the Obama Administration to growth of hybrid, plug-in, battery and fuel cell vehicles in the U.S.

[As an example of what’s coming to the market, here’s an overview of the new Chevrolet Volt by General Motor’s Bob Lutz – an electric car with a small gasoline-powered “backup” motor in case recharging stations aren’t nearby.]

EDTA’s 2010 Electric Drive Action Plan for Energy Security aims to get the government to initiate policies to beef up EV infrastructure, along with the extension and expansion of federal tax incentives for medium and heavy duty electric drive vehicles, which can transform federal and private fleets.

“Hybrid-electric delivery trucks can provide up to 50% reduction in fuel consumption and emissions,” noted Brian Wynne, ETDA’s president, at a special policy session held on Capitol Hill today. “Local, regional and national efforts are necessary to ensure that government and industry work together to keep the public, businesses and first responders informed about industry developments.”

Expanding public/private partnerships to advance manufacturing breakthroughs, expanding recharging infrastructure, and establishing coherent standards for integrated infrastructure are also required, he stressed.

“We need to maximize the advantages that smart grid will provide for grid-connected transportation,” Wynne said. “Electric drive infrastructure means integrating the charging options with the smart grid technologies that will enable the most efficient and sustainable use of electric fuel. Because changing the U.S. transportation fleet to electric drive won’t happen overnight, we’re calling for policies that would get us ‘on the right road, right away.’”

[One of things that mustn’t change, of course, is the driving “feel” of EVs as compared to traditional gasoline or diesel powered models. Below, Andrew Farah, chief engineer for Chevy’s Volt, gives an overview of how GM’s trying to deal with those issues.]

EDTA has identified five key “next steps” policymakers should take to achieve “commercial scale” for EVs in the U.S. They are:

1. Reduce Market Hurdles for Electric Drive Technologies

2. Expand U.S. Manufacturing Capacity

3. Establish Coherent Regulatory Policies for Electric

4. Drive Vehicles and Infrastructure; Accelerate Technology Breakthroughs

5. Promote Public and Private Outreach and Education to Increase Consumer Awareness.

Yet the real question remains unanswered: will the general public, much less commercial fleets, buy these vehicles? In this context, the jury remains decidedly undecided.

According to a recent survey by Ernst & Young's Global Automotive Center, over 10% of U.S. drivers polled said they would consider purchasing a plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle. This report, which canvassed the views of 1,000 American licensed drivers to gauge consumer awareness and interest of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles in the market, concludes some 20 million American drivers are favorably disposed to purchase.

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“Although only 10% of the drivers responded positively to purchasing plug-in hybrid or electric vehicles, for a powertrain technology which is not yet widely available, it is a significant number which should not be ignored,” noted Mike Hanley, leader of Ernst & Young’s global automotive group.

“As the survey suggests, electric vehicles have an opportunity to make a significant entrance into the US public consciousness over the next few years,” he explained. “Even if only a small portion of the 10% of survey respondents who said they would consider a plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle when introduced are serious, there would still be more than enough demand to sell out the 2010 and 2011 production runs of the major and new manufacturers, while buying crucial time to build out infrastructure and increase public awareness.”

Still, big hurdles remain for advancing hybrid and EV sales alike. Some of the biggest challenges highlighted in Ernst & Young’s survey are access to charging stations, battery driving range and vehicle costs. While there are clear barriers to consumers fully embracing these technologies, 34% of the firm’s survey participants said they would subsidize local charging stations, further illustrating that a significant number of drivers recognize the future benefits of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.

[Batteries are perhaps one of the most challenging technological aspects of EVs. Here, Bill Wallace, group manager-Volt battery group, explains how GM is driving to improve battery capability.]

And yet … the general public still isn’t completely fired about buying them. Take the recent Detroit Auto Show for example; although many automakers used this show as a platform to debut small and more fuel-efficient vehicles, consumer data – based on model research volume within each brand – showed the highest consumer interest remains high in big, bold vehicles.

For example, according to NADAguides.com, the Chevy Camaro -- a modern-day “muscle car” -- led the way in most of 2009 and into the first weeks of 2010 as being the most researched vehicle on its web site.

“Although electric, hybrid and small cars are being showcased in Detroit this week, the patterns we are seeing from consumers show a desire for affordable and efficient vehicles that offer substantial performance, upscale amenities and impressive technology," said Mike Caudill, spokesperson for NADAguides.com.

“This most recent data not only identifies the top cars consumers are most interested in, but also provides automakers with a clear roadmap of what consumers are looking to buy,” he added. “One aspect that may also surprise critics is that despite the demand for small, fuel efficient hybrids, muscle cars – while a small part of the market – sold relatively well last year and continue to pique consumer interest.”

Obviously, this means that EVs still face an uphill battle to command the attention of the motoring public. However, there yet may be plenty of opportunity to do so -- especially if fuel prices spike again like they did in 2008.