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Green Wheels

Future for EVs not all doom and gloom

Published January 3, 2013

Last week I described how 2012, touted as a breakthrough year for electric vehicles, appeared, instead, to be a bust.

But I also promised a “glass-half-full” outlook.

Here it is:

As we’ve been told many times, plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) and all-battery cars are selling better than conventional hybrids did during the same early stage of their development, and hybrids are approaching mainstream status.

The numbers are still tiny, but there are hopeful signs, particularly for PHEVs, which eliminate range anxiety.

These vehicles aren’t ideal: They’re complex and with an electric motor, battery pack and gasoline engine — and in some cases, transmission — have a lot of energy-sapping weight to haul around. But the technology is a stepping-stone that could help people to get familiar with electric propulsion. And they’re beginning to have an impact.

GM reports that all the Chevy Volts on the road have combined to travel more than 160 million kilometres on battery power, and the average driver is in electric mode 65 per cent of the time — generating fuel-cost savings that help to offset the car’s higher initial price.

Considerable buzz has developed around Toyota’s Prius Plug-in and, even more so, Ford’s C-Max Energi. Cadillac, Honda, Mitsubishi and others promise attractive PHEVs within a year or so.

Pure battery power is in a tougher spot: High prices, limited range and long charging times are big impediments.

But while range is increasing by slow increments — improved battery technology is a brutal challenge — charging times are dropping.

As well, public charging stations are popping up by the thousands. One example, ChargePoint, has 10,000 across North America. Like most others, they’re lonely — ChargePoint’s network averages just 4,100 plug-ins a day. But the spread of these services at least creates a sense of momentum as well as reassurance for EV drivers.

And the situation looks brighter if we shift from conventional approaches to car ownership, in which individuals buy or lease a vehicle, or two.

Almost everyone who drives pure EVs loves them. They’re quick, quiet and comfortable. But for now, they’re useful only as urban or regional transportation. That makes them non-starters for anyone who wants a single vehicle for every need, whether a quick trip to the store or a cross-country jaunt.

But why not work with their limitations?

They make sense for contractors, delivery people and others who drive consistent but limited distances every day and can recharge overnight. There are regular reports of governments and corporations switching to EVs. Most recently, Indianapolis announced it would electrify its fleet, at 50 vehicles annually until 2025.

They also seem reasonable for car-sharing, where members pick up a vehicle, drive it a couple of hours, then, return and plug it in to a 240-volt or faster charger so it’s soon ready for the next user.

Paris’s 13-month-old AutoLib, with 5,000 chargers at 1,100 sites to serve its fleet of about 3,500 “Bluecar” EVs, is an example. It’s lightly used — only three vehicles per day per station — and a recent survey by France’s consumer protection association found most participants consider it an alternative to public transit rather than privately owned gas burners.

Still, a year is too short to render a verdict. Car sharing with internal-combustion vehicles is gaining ground, and EVs seem a natural fit.

For urbanites who buy its EVs, BMW says it might offer internal-combustion loaners for what are likely to be rare long journeys.

EV owners could rent internal-combustion vehicles for extended trips.

In short, EVs face uncertainty but it’s premature to dismiss them.

To have a chance, though, they require:

Education and awareness; “getting bums in seats,” says Brian Wynne, who heads the Washington-based Electric Drive Transportation Association.

A broader view of how cars are owned and used, particularly in cities.

More realistic expectations of how the technology can grow.

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