The exhibition halls of the 2013 Detroit Motor Show

Analysis: EVs stall at Detroit Auto Show 2013

The acolytes of the electric vehicle (EV) were out in force manning the stands and strolling the halls at Detroit, but the feeling still remains that their rhetoric is growing strained. Despite substantial marketing and cash incentives their sales are still frankly discouraging and show little sign of matching the propaganda.

Even here in the US where the excitement is at its most frenzied, sales have been lacklustre. In 2011 there were 12.7m cars sold in the US of which only 284,000, or 2.23 per cent were electric – the vast majority of those were hybrids at 266,000. Last year 14.4m cars left the forecourts and the percentage of EVs only marginally grew to 3.38 per cent or 487,000. Of these 434,000 were hybrids and only 52,000 were plug in hybrids or battery EVs.

But despite this the automakers seem determined to flood the market with new models. Two of the big hitters – General Motors (GM) and Nissan used the show to reinforce their commitment to the alternative vehicle market but with differing strategies. GM is shifting its attention upmarket, launching a luxury version of the Chevy Volt, dubbed the Chevrolet ELR. Nissan on the other hand is returning to basics by producing a no frills version of its all-electric Leaf model that it plans to sell for £3750 cheaper than the current model.

“The 2014 Cadillac ELR is a sleek luxury coupe,” Mark Adams, executive director of Cadillac Global Design, said at the car’s unveiling in Detroit. “It is the first car with Extended Range Electric Vehicle technology ever offered by a full-line luxury brand. ELR offers a full driving range of more than 300 miles. This is what separates E-Rev technology from the pack.

“Typical daily commuting occurs emissions-free, but for long drives the range-extending engine-generator powers the car seamlessly. Drivers will also enjoy the instantaneous torque of an electric motor - as much as a BMW M3: 295lb-ft of torque.”

The E-Rev technology combines pure electric drive with a 1.4L petrol-powered electric generator capable of 154kW (207hp) of total system power. The battery is a T-shaped, 16.5kWh lithium-ion battery pack, located between the front and rear wheels for optimal weight distribution. The 5.5ft long, 435lb pack supplies energy to an advanced electric drive unit capable of 295lb/ft of instant torque (400Nm). Using only the energy stored in the battery, the ELR will deliver an estimated range of about 35 miles (56 km) of pure electric driving. The car can be recharged either at home or dedicated 240V charging stations and will completely recharge in 4.5 hours.

The Cadillac 2014 ELR plug-in hybrid was unveiled at the show on Tuesday, but its potential appeal to consumers may be driven as much by the car's luxury trappings and sporty styling as by its gasoline-electric drivetrain, which the ELR shares with the Chevrolet Volt.

Nissan sold just 9,819 of its all-electric Leaf in the US last year, less than half the 20,000 that it had predicted. Speaking in Detroit, CEO Carlos Ghosn pointed an accusatory finger at the lack of charging infrastructure, although the consensus amongst industry experts is that the price tag – currently starting at £21,750 before the £4700 tax credit: The new basic ‘S’ model will come in at £18,000. 

Aside for the cut down version, Nissan is moving the manufacturing of the Leaf for the US market from japan to its facility in Tennessee. “I think everything we are doing is positive for EV sales,” Ghosn said. “We sold 22 per cent more Leafs in 2012 than in 2011, but in the US it was marginally up one per cent.

“In 2013 the expansion is going to be much more significant both in the United States and globally. Why? Because we are responding to consumers' concerns. You know consumers are saying it is too expensive. We're cutting the price. Consumers are asking where can they charge the car? We are lobbying for cities and states to develop the charging infrastructure not only in the United States, but globally. Consumers are worried about the autonomy. We are giving more reliable information about the autonomy. We're going to a device allowing it to charge in four hours. This is a developing, Kaizen approach.”

Despite the optimism of the executives there remain technological hurdles to overcome before EVs can move into the mainstream market, primarily their limited range. Research suggests that 300 miles is what the public will accept from an EV on a single charge, can be charged in under ten minutes and sell at a comparable price to a petrol model.

“The good news is that we expect battery costs to be 50 per cent lower within the next couple of years,” Simon Ng, director of the National Biofuels Energy Laboratory at Wayne State University in Detroit, said at the NIAS. “However, improvement in energy density and fast charging technology has not progressed fast enough. There are issues of durability, safety, and replacement cost of battery; and that will take a few more years of intense research and development.”

Away from the automotive majors one niche company proclaimed that it wanted to take away every hurdle to electric car ownership and was starting by setting up a chain of free fast-charge stations so that owners will be able to drive exactly as they could in a car with an internal combustion engine.

The company already has a handful of their fast charge stations in California, but more ambitious plans call for them to cover the highly populated East and West coast regions before moving inland.  "It is our aim that you will be able to take a trip just as you would in an internal combustion-engined car," George Blankenship head of sales and ownership at Tesla Motors said. "In the time it takes for you to stop and have lunch you can put another 150 miles of range into the car. Ultimately it's our goal to do this with solar energy. We have said that we will make electricity free forever on sunlight."

Tesla expects to sell 20,000 cars globally in 2013. At Detroit the company showed a design concept based on the platform of the Model S. It is a stylish fusion of crossover and MPV called the Model X, with an additional electric motor between the front wheels to give it all-wheel-drive capability.

Analysts continue to back the EV revolution with influential agency Pike Research predicting that sales of PEVs in the largest 102 cities in the United States will total slightly more than 1.8 million from 2012 through 2020. “More than a quarter of all annual US PEV sales will be in the top five metropolitan areas for PEV sales – New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland,” Dave Hurst, senior research analyst, said.  “But thanks to a combination of positive attitudes towards green driving, high fuel prices, and state government support, California metropolitan statistical areas will account for more than one in five PEVs sold.”

The report’s analysis indicates that PEV acceptance is strongly linked to not only the availability of PEV models, but also the accessibility of charging infrastructure.  Texas, for example, has seen a dramatic increase in the number of EV charging stations available in 2012. 

The company also predicts that annual worldwide sales of EVs will reach 3.8 million by 2020. “Sales of EVs have not lived up to automakers’ expectations and politicians’ proclamations, but the market is expanding steadily as fuel prices remain high and consumers increasingly seek alternatives to internal combustion engines,” Hurst added. “Indeed, sales of plug-in EVs will grow at a compound annual growth rate of nearly 40 per cent over the remainder of the decade, while the overall auto market will expand by only two per cent a year.”

The PEV sector can be split into two vehicle categories, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs).  According to the report, the number of PHEVs sold in most regions is expected to be lower than BEVs, except for North America and Latin America.  In these regions, the longer driving range of PHEVs is expected to prove more attractive to consumers.  In other regions, the high cost of petroleum fuels, large number of BEVs available, and dense urban areas are anticipated to contribute to higher sales of BEVs than PHEVs.

With carmakers investing heavily in more efficient petrol and diesel models and the public in general apparently not enamoured with the prospect of EVs, it will be a tough sell for the carmakers and may need some further financial interventions from governments around the globe to create some momentum and enable EVs to deliver on their environmental promise.

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