If you looked solely at the efforts being made to produce them, you'd swear that electric vehicles (EVs) are a sure bet to be the Next Big Thing.
Consider: EV battery plants are under construction all over the world, including several in the U.S. and Canada -- so many that analysts are already talking about a possible glut in 5 or 6 years. Nearly every big-league automaker -- and a whole bunch of smaller ones, including startups -- has promised to start producing an electric car sometime in the next few years.
And it's not just private money, not by a long shot. Governments around the world are providing incentives to manufacturers and making investments in electric-vehicle infrastructure, like high-speed recharging stations -- and many of the ones that aren't are at least talking about it enthusiastically.
Billions of dollars are being spent, in other words. It's a whole lot of money, and a whole lot of effort.
But every time I write about the coming wave of electric cars, I hear the same question, over and over again. And it's one I can't help asking myself:
Is anybody going to buy these things?
We're about to find out -- sort of
Nissan's Leaf is due -- in a very limited way -- in the U.S. (and Japan) in December, and while it's easy to conclude that the Leaf's success or failure will tell us a lot, it might not: It'll only be available in five U.S. states at first and in very limited quantities. Supplies will be increased somewhat next spring when more states are added, but the full-blown your-dealer-has-11-of-'em broad market rollout won't happen until U.S. production starts in 2012.
That production will happen -- speaking of government subsidies -- at a Nissan facility in Tennessee, which is being upgraded to produce Leafs and battery packs with the help of a $1.4 billion loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. But one can't help thinking that the carefully staged rollout is structured this way to help Nissan save face (and money, obviously) should the whole thing be a flop.
Nissan recently said that it already has 18,000 "reservations" for Leafs, declarations of interest plus refundable $99 deposits. How many of those with reservations will go on to become Leaf owners is an interesting question -- and the answer will be eagerly watched.
Who's jumping in
Nearly all of the major automakers, as I said, have at least said that they intend to bring an electric vehicle to market. General Motors' Chevy Volt -- which isn't your usual hybrid, more an electric car with an onboard gas-powered generator -- will be out by the end of this year. Ford's (NYSE: F ) Focus Electric model (which will be built in a former SUV factory; how's that for symbolism?) will arrive in the second half of 2011. Toyota (NYSE: TM ) has plans for at least one purely electric car in its upcoming fleet of next-generation hybrids, Volkswagen said it will have two on sale by 2013, and even Honda (NYSE: HMC ) , who pooh-poohed the EV bandwagon for ages, finally gave in and announced their own upcoming EVs at a press conference in July.
I could go on and on -- Hyundai and Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B ) favorite BYD of China are two more big names bringing EVs to market -- but it should be clear by now that the bandwagon is building. And the suppliers are in as well -- Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI ) has a battery-making joint venture with French lithium-ion experts Saft; Magna International (NYSE: MGA ) has a whole series of EV programs under way; and Panasonic has jumped in with a deal to sell batteries to Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) .
But will they sell?
I think they'll have to sell
The interest in EVs has prompted a bunch of startups, of which Tesla is the most prominent -- and the only one, so far, to bring its products to the U.S. market in anything like a major way. Tesla has sold more than 1,200 of its Roadsters around the world, but it's hard to see that as a harbinger of interest in mass-market EVs -- the Roadster is a six-figure sports car/fashion statement, not a daily driver for regular folks.
Comments here and elsewhere suggest that folks remain very skeptical of pure EVs, and for good reasons -- how's that air-cooled no-gasoline Leaf going to perform in the dead of winter in Buffalo? -- and it may be that pure EVs remain a niche product while the world moves to hybrids, at least for awhile.
We're going to see a lot of experimentation by manufacturers over the next few years as they attempt to find the powertrain combination that will gain mass acceptance; the Prius was one such experiment, the Volt will be another. And we're also going to see plenty of government incentives -- for buyers as well as manufacturers -- to make those hybrids and EVs more palatable to the mass market.
Given all that, I think the day is coming when hybrids outsell gas-only vehicles, even in categories (like pickups) where they don't currently have much traction. With even Porsche and Ferrari committing to the hybrid path, the arguments against the technology are getting harder and harder to make.
What do you think? Is this the future? Or a big bust waiting to happen? Scroll down to leave a comment and let me know.
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