2012 provided plenty of evidence for those with a glass-half-empty view of electric vehicles.
This was supposed to be EVs’ breakthrough year. Instead, it’s seemed more of a bust.
True, conventional hybrids reached the mainstream and several battery-electric and plug-in hybrid models joined the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi iMiEV in the marketplace. Arrivals included the battery-only Honda Fit, Ford Focus, Tesla Model S, Toyota RAV4, Smart, and Coda, as well as the plug-in hybrid Prius, Ford Fusion and C-Max Energi, and Fisker Karma.
Promised are the all-battery Chevy Spark, Fiat 500e and BMW i3, as well as plug-in hybrids Honda Accord, Cadillac ELR and Mitsubishi Outlander, with others to follow.
All this suggests the EV universe is unfolding as it should.
But even as North America’s car industry rebounded, and despite generous government incentives, sales of EVs fell far below expectations and some brands got a year-end boost only when manufacturers offered big price discounts.
Cars with plugs accounted for just 0.27 per cent of North American sales and less in Europe. Governments and carmakers downsized forecasts for EV sales by 2015, 2020 and beyond.
Plug-in hybrids appeared likely to fare far better than battery-only models. The Volt, Prius Plug-in and C-Max Energi all showed signs of life toward the end of the year. Among pure EVs, only the Leaf sold in the thousands across North America and even it was a disappointment.
Forbes Magazine included it, the iMiEV and Karma among the top automotive flops of the year.
Nissan ended the year with its hopes for the Leaf pinned on the opening of battery and assembly plants in Tennessee, and promises of 2013 models offering lower price or longer range.
While Mitsubishi promised a refreshed iMiEV for 2013, the company indicated the little runabout wouldn’t spawn a second generation and, instead, suggested larger plug-in hybrids, like the Outlander it unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show, were the way to go.
As for the ultra-deluxe Karma, Consumer Reports panned it, battery supplier A123 Systems declared bankruptcy, and Fisker reported a “sufficient supply” even though it hasn’t produced any since July and lost 350 when hurricane Sandy swamped a storage yard. It recently cut several hundred jobs, as did California-based Coda, whose frumpy sedan also languished.
Blame fell on the usual suspects: High purchase price and debatable lifetime savings in cash and greenhouse-gas emissions, and, for pure battery power, limited range — even shorter than official test results — and long charging times.
Meanwhile, the average fuel consumption of gasoline burners hit an all-time low, and Vancouver-based clean-tech analyst Dallas Kachan predicted in a year-end review that continuing fuel-economy improvements would hurt EVs. “The electric vehicle industry has not been properly accounting for ICE innovation,” he said. “Expect more blood in the scuppers of the EV value chain.”
(On the other hand, real-world tests raised doubts about the fuel-economy claims for some gasoline sippers.)
North American battery makers fizzled. Their government-backed manufacturing capacity far exceeded demand — especially with Asian manufacturers filling the market with lower-cost versions — and three filed for bankruptcy. A123 is now the rag toy in a tug of war between U.S.-based Johnson Controls and China’s giant Wanxiang Group.
Better Place, struggling to build a business case for battery-swap stations, bounced founder Shai Agassi in October, after $437 million in losses since its 2007 launch.
In Europe, the Renault-Nissan alliance, which has invested $5 billion in its EV project, dropped plans for battery factories in France and Portugal.
The situation has some observers wondering whether the immense difficulty of producing batteries equal in performance, cost and convenience to internal combustion means EVs will turn out to be a dead-end technology, blown away by, perhaps, fuel cells.
Next week, as we start the New Year: Could the glass be half-full?
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