After years -- decades, really -- of talk, the future is finally (almost) here: Electric cars are about to become a mass-market reality.
Ford (NYSE: F ) Executive Chairman Bill Ford said as much in a speech last week at the Society of Automotive Engineers' annual World Congress. Ford, who has long tried to push the company that bears his family's name in a more environmentally friendly direction, was clear: Many new technologies may be coming to market, but electric vehicles will be "the biggest game-changer" of them all.
This is an extremely important moment for the global auto industry. The companies that have the resources and expertise to become standard-setters in this new technological world stand a good chance of holding a leading market position for years to come.
Why this is a major moment
It's not news that the world's automakers have been pouring tremendous resources into the development of more efficient vehicles. From Washington to Beijing, governments in the world's major auto markets are raising standards for efficiency and emissions, and automakers are attacking the problem from a variety of technological angles.
The challenges have been enormous. To be truly feasible, not only does any new technology have to deliver the safety, range, and reliability that consumers have come to expect (at an affordable price), but it also has to use the existing automotive infrastructure, or come up with a whole new one. Hydrogen-powered engines, for example, seem like a great idea since they would use familiar internal-combustion technology to burn the most abundant element in the universe, with next to no emissions. But where do you refuel?
From theory to practice
While problems like these have been debated, automakers have put gasoline/electric hybrids into mass production. Toyota (NYSE: TM ) and Honda (NYSE: HMC ) have led the way with this new-but-familiar technology, and Toyota's iconic Prius has become a globally familiar sign of the auto's future.
But hybrids are an interim solution. The problem in going fully electric has been battery technology. Achieving range and functionality comparable to gas-powered cars at a reasonable cost has proven to be an enormous challenge.
That is finally changing. Like Toyota and Honda, Ford has already put high-profile hybrids on the street and is leveraging partnerships with suppliers like Magna International (NYSE: MGA ) to bring fully electric vehicles to market in the very near future, starting later this year with a modified Transit Connect van revamped by Smith Electric Vehicles. Ford has promised a fully electric version of its Focus -- largely developed by Magna -- for 2011 and "next-generation" hybrids by 2012, including a "plug-in" hybrid developed with Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI ) that can be recharged via an external electricity source.
Ford is well-positioned, but it's not alone
General Motors, of course, has said that it will have its much-hyped Chevrolet Volt on dealer lots by year's end. Whereas Ford has leveraged supplier relationships to move forward, GM, in hopes of being well-positioned for the long term, has put tremendous effort into building in-house resources and expertise ahead of launching any groundbreaking technologies. It recently announced a significant expansion of its battery research lab.
But GM's hybrid offerings to date have done little in the market, and pricing for the Volt -- essentially an electric car with a gasoline-powered generator built in -- may render it uncompetitive, now that Nissan's all-electric Leaf is due in the U.S. by year's end at a competitive price. Ford's electric Focus is expected to be priced in the same range when it arrives next year.
Not all of the players in this new space will be familiar names. Chinese heavyweight BYD has said that it hopes to bring its own electric car to the U.S. market late this year. Efforts by Chinese automakers to sell cars in the U.S. have so far not borne fruit, but BYD is worth taking seriously. Not only was the BYD F3 the best-selling car in China during the first quarter, but the company is developing electric cars jointly with Daimler (NYSE: DAI ) . BYD is owned in part by Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B ) , which made a significant investment in 2008.
Ford certainly looks well-positioned against all of this competition, but questions remain. How will the upcoming all-electric offerings stack up in the real world? Can the company ramp up production and expertise in-house quickly if market demand proves strong? And what will happen when other automakers -- Toyota, for instance -- step into this market with disruptive surprises?
One thing is already clear: The next couple of years will be dramatic.
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