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A Banner Year: Six Electric-Car Predictions for 2011

The last weeks of 2010 were taken up with good news stories — the latest batch of electric vehicles (EVs) reached their first customers, and there were smiles, handshakes and photo opportunities. Celebrities posed with their new cars, and executives predicted great things in 2011, including big volumes.

As the year winds down, here are six predictions about what will actually go down next year. Yes, I do see great things ahead, but it won’t necessarily be all that dramatic — it will be a year of modest gains, incremental change, and adjustment to a whole new automotive marketplace:

1. Mainstream EVs will sell out. This sounds great, but it’s not necessarily all that significant. As with auto sales right after World War II, there is pent-up demand. We’ve been hearing about EVs for several years without being able to actually buy them, and there’s been time for dealers and automakers to amass waiting lists. So the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and I would add the Fisker Karma, too, will probably sell out their first-year production. The key measure, though, is what happens in year two, when the early adopters will have their cars. Year two is the measure of mainstream acceptance.
2. Range anxiety will be an issue, but less of one than people think. I had a graphic illustration of this when I borrowed the Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid, which has just 13 miles of EV range, and found that I was barely using the gas engine. Many first-week Volt owners, including Jay Leno (who got a Chevy Volt last week), have told me they’re barely burning gasoline at all. It’s a major advantage the Volt has over the Leaf, in fact. But if people find they can live within the battery EV’s 100-mile range, then the need for a public infrastructure (charging stations at stores, workplaces and shopping malls) will seem less urgent.
3. Tesla will make EV history with extended range. Tesla Motors has been able, fairly consistently, to get more range out of a lithium-ion battery pack than any other company. The Roadster, admittedly a very light car, has 220 miles of range when most other EVs are stuck at 100 miles. Tesla promises 300 miles as an option on the Model S sedan, and Tesla chief engineer JB Straubel told me if the prototype Model S pack was put into today’s Roadster it would give it more than 300 miles of range. This ability to wring every last bit of performance out of electrons is why Tesla is in partnership with Toyota (the RAV4 EV), Daimler (the Smart electric drive and the A-Class EV) and (I hear) other manufacturers to provide them with high-performance battery packs. The 300-mile-range EV is a total game changer, erasing range anxiety and eliminating a major difference between electric and internal-combustion cars. Battery chemistry is a big challenge, so any company that can break the 300-mile barrier will have a huge advantage.
4. Charging stations will start, well, charging. Many of the early public charging stations are giving electricity away free. That’s both because they don’t have the sophisticated interactive Internet-enabled billing networks in place, and because they don’t know what to charge. Some entrepreneurs, especially those that plan to absorb the upfront cost of installing the chargers themselves, have a relatively high rate in mind: The Car Charging Group said it might bill customers $3.50 an hour. But Jonathan Read, a spokesman for major charging player ECOtality, said, “We have a price point substantially less than that in mind, $1.25 to $1.50 an hour.” Why charge by the hour instead of the more sensible kilowatt-hour of electricity? That’s down to arcane state laws that (except in California) restrict kilowatt-hour billing to electric utilities. Expect that to change in 2011, too. I agree with Read that $3.50 is too much to charge consumers at charging stations — it would kill the per-fill price advantage EVs have over gas cars.
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