Electric, hybrid, or gas? Auto industry in state of confusion

By Peter Gorrie Wheels.ca

Nov 30, 2012 5 min. read

Article was updated 11 years ago

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Next April in New York, Mitsubishi Motors will unveil a new vehicle platform to be known as Global Small.

It’s a family of cars a size up from the company’s struggling iMiEV battery-powered subcompact.

Global Small cars will, at the outset, be fitted only with internal-combustion engines. And while they seem a natural for electrification, that’s up in the air.

“What is the market when you’re looking at EVs and plug-in hybrids?” asks spokesperson David Patterson. Since they now account for only a tiny share of car sales, “do we really want to be bringing a lot of these vehicles into that market?” But on the other hand, “What if the price of oil goes up?”

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It’s a head-scratcher; the sort of puzzle that dominated this week’s media preview at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

Almost every car person I talked to or heard at the show said something to the effect that the industry has never been more competitive or faster moving.

Or, looked at another way, it’s never been in a more confused state.

The uncertainly isn’t about money. Although Europe is a struggle, most manufacturers boasted of highly successful, even record-breaking, sales years.

Instead, it has to do with technology, and the unprecedented choice that’s forcing automakers into expensive experimentation and hedging of bets. How will the many alternatives – more efficient internal combustion, conventional or plug-in hybrids, full EVs, fuel cells or others not yet imagined – change, and when? Which, if any, will win and lose?

“No one knows,” says Paul Seredynski, a spokesperson for Honda of America.

The fluid situation is forcing most manufacturers to adopt what Honda calls a “portfolio” approach – working on several propulsion systems at the same time to ensure they don’t miss what might turn out to be the next big thing.

This means they’re also doing something they wouldn’t have dreamed of back when internal combustion was the only option – testing the waters. As Seredynski puts it, it’s now essential “to get the technology out into the hands of real customers in the real world, and get feedback.”

The results were evident all over the L.A. Convention Centre floor.

While gasoline power continues to rule, the push to meet tougher fuel-consumption regulations is spawning a myriad new sizes and designs, all with steadily rising sophistication and efficiency. Reduced fuel-consumption numbers were trumpeted at every manufacturer’s presentation, all the way from the one-litre EcoBoost engine in Ford’s little Fiesta up to the power plants in the Bentley behemoths.

That’s confusion enough, but the alternative technologies turn the turmoil dial up several notches.

The number of conventional hybrids continued to grow, as that technology approaches mainstream acceptance.

As well, Los Angeles marked the official debuts of three small pure EVs, the Chevrolet Spark, Fiat 500e, and the near-production version of BMW’s i3. It also presented two mid-size plug-in hybrids, the Honda Accord and Mitsubishi Outlander.

It’s an odd situation: So far, these more adventurous options are selling in miniscule numbers, and no one knows whether and when that might change. Yet vast amounts of money and effort are going into developing them and finding whether they’re viable.

As basic trends emerge, so do more questions:

Most EVs are now pitched explicitly as small urban cars, a niche where they’ll be confined until batteries get dramatically better and cheaper – but when will that happen, if ever.

Conventional and plug-in hybrid gear seems destined for larger vehicles, like Ford’s Green-Car-of-the-Year Fusion as well as its C-Max, GM’s Volt and coming Cadillac ELR, and the Accord and Outlander. They depend on fuel-cost savings to overcome their higher purchase price. But, as Seredynski wondered, what will happen if instead of rising as expected, the apparent and surprising glut of oil keeps prices where they are, or even lets them drop?

Fuel cells work and are getting cheaper. Can the cost come down a lot more, and will enough hydrogen fuelling stations be installed to make this technology acceptable?

Carmakers are focusing on young city dwellers, but will these residents even want to drive and if they do, will they prefer their own vehicles or some sort of sharing?

The result: Despite all the hype, caution is the order of the day.

Nissan projected big sales numbers when it launched its Leaf EV two years ago, but the results have been disappointing.

The other manufacturers are charting a different course.

Ford will make its Focus EV only on demand, on an assembly line where it can produce other vehicles.

Chevrolet will make the Spark available only in small numbers – including fewer than 100 in Canada, and just for fleets – until it can determine market response.

Fiat plans a slow launch of the 500e, only in California with no further plans yet.

Honda plans to move only 1,100 Fit EVs in the United States during its first three years, and they’ll be leased, not sold. That’s because it won’t be possible to replace the battery in a Fit – too many issues with complex controls and management systems. If the technology improves, Honda doesn’t want drivers to be unhappily stuck with outmoded versions.

(I didn’t hear the same concern from other EV manufacturers, who plan to sell their products and insist the batteries will last as long as the vehicles – well beyond the typical eight-year, 160,000-kilometre warranties.)

Patterson and others predict 20 per cent of new vehicles will be electrified by 2020. That sounds certain enough. But, then, they say electrification could range from simply adding stop-start technology to internal-combustion cars up to full EVs.

More confusion will come from marketing messages, as the pitch for EVs shifts from “saving the planet” to saving money and improving performance.

Chevrolet, for example, proclaims its Spark EV has “class-leading” range. But the little car also puts out 400 foot-pounds of torque. Driving it in a style that takes advantage of all that power will knock the range down as fast as the car accelerates.

How will consumers respond?

As with the rest, no one knows.
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