Ever since the invention of the first electrified vehicle back in the late 1920s, hybrid electric vehicles [HEV] and electric vehicles [EV] have been somewhat of an oddity, but really, these first attempts were for the age-old reason, “because we can.” As experimental and personal vehicles, of course, those vehicles were never really released to the public as a consumer item. Marketing such a vehicle, however, is a completely different story.
Since the 1970s, the increasing price of fuel initiated the push for more fuel efficient vehicles. These were smaller, more aerodynamic, and not as powerful. Eventually, the benefits of electrification were seen as a boon to increasing fuel economy, leading to the development of fully hybrid electric vehicles, which finally made it to market in the mid-1990s. Today, Toyota Prius is synonymous with hybrid, and is the world’s best-selling hybrid available today. Other automakers have followed suit, including Honda, Ford, BMW, offering their own versions of HEV technology.
Electric Vehicles – The Next Step
Electric vehicles are the next logical step in vehicle fuel efficiency, but there’s a catch that’s making them very difficult for the market to accept. Pure EVs have limited range, take a long time to recharge, and are generally more expensive than gasoline-powered vehicles. There isn’t a problem with EVs themselves, rather, the public’s perception of them, and it has been extremely difficult for companies, especially EV companies, to come through with a profit.
General Motors first released the GM EV1, the first EV publicly available in 1996, but by 2003, they were all recalled to be scrapped. Some customers even tried to buy their EV1s outright, but GM wouldn’t have it. The majority of the just over 1,000 EV1s were destroyed.
Tesla Motors first introduced the Tesla Roadster, a specially modified Lotus Elise with an all-electric drive-train, back in 2008, a very expensive public experiment. The proof-of-concept was out, though, and people, well, at least some of them, were beginning to see the true benefits of pure EV transport, aside from the range and recharging concerns. Tesla eventually dropped the Lotus conversion program in 2012, and designed a purpose-built EV from the ground up.
The Model S, the first wholly Tesla Motors EV, isn’t as expensive as the Roadster was, and offers something that most other EVs don’t, an impressive range. The 85kWh Tesla Model S is EPA-rated at 265 miles range, which is better than twice the range of other EV currently on the market. Recently, a father and son attempted for a world record drive of their unmodified Model S, maxing out at 423 miles before they had to be towed.
In order to foster appreciation for the capabilities of of EVs, Tesla Motors has even started rolling out a network of superchargers, which can recharge a Tesla Model S battery pack 80% in just thirty minutes, or about the time it takes to take a lunch break. Tesla still has a backlog, thousands of customers who are waiting for their new Model S, and for the first time in four years, Tesla has shown a profit.
The Good – and The Bad
For every uplifting success story, though, it seems that there is an equally depressing failure, not only here in the US, but worldwide. Consumers everywhere are having a tough time accepting the perceived limitations that EVs have. In the last few months, advanced rechargeable battery developer, A123 Systems, declared bankruptcy. Lack of demand for the two biggest consumer-brand destinations, the Chevy Spark EV and Fisker Karma, killed the company. Without a destination, A123’s battery packs stayed in the warehouse or simply remained unassembled. Chinese Battery company Wanxiang just won the bidding for A123’s assets.
Better Place EVs, a world wide EV company, specializes in battery swapping technology instead of fast charging technology, reducing “recharge” times to as little as ten minutes. The vehicles they sell are specially modified EVs from other brands, including the Renault and the Nissan Leaf, which allow the battery packs to be removed and reinstalled in minimal time. Still, there isn’t enough call for EVs of this type either, but plenty of confusion regarding the battery leasing program. Better Place just laid off 150 employees in Israel and might be looking to double that if things don’t turn around soon.
Coda Automotive, another EV company in California, remains committed to the EV cause, but unfortunately, sales are not enough to keep the company afloat. Coda’s tactic, putting Chinese-made vehicle bodies on Coda’s own EV chassis, has barely sold 100 of their vehicles since its inception in March. Coda just laid off fifty employees, which accounts for about 15% of the total workforce. Unless sales pick up soon for the company, it may face the same fate as A123 Systems.
More diversified companies have a slightly easier time of it, as they still have the balance of their fleets to keep them up. Toyota has toyed with EVs, including the Scion iQ EV [Toyota eQ in Japan] and the Toyota RAV4 EV with a Tesla drive-train, but haven’t released them much further than fleet trials. General Motors has plans to release an electric version of the Chevy Spark, and Ford Focus is available as an EV, but even these vehicles seem more like CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] fodder, and haven’t seen much in the way of sales.
Now – and Future
Any startup company has the possibility of failure, depending on whether they can build demand for their product. For now, it seems that hybrids are going to continue to reign supreme electrified vehicles available today. Models such in the Toyota Prius family, the Ford C-Max series, Chevy Volt are gaining in popularity, as they do not suffer the range limitations of pure EVs.
Developers are still working on the game-changing battery technology that will make EVs competitive at a reasonable price, but despite many promises, no such advance has surfaced. Currently, lithium-ion rechargeable batteries are the most viable, and the only way to get decent range is to stack them up, which drives the price out of range of most consumers. The next advance might make it happen, but can startups today hold out long enough to see it?