Electric cars struggle to spark enthusiasm

All the big carmakers at the Detroit Motor Show had electrically powered and hybrid cars on display, but Americans still aren’t buying green vehicles

With a curiously squashed, elongated body, the Tango electrically-powered car is as narrow as a single passenger and as nippy as a motorbike. Billed as the world’s fastest urban car, it can reach a speed of 208km/h. Satisfied customers include the actor George Clooney, and its inventor describes the bizarre vehicle as a “chick magnet”.

Built by a US start-up called Commuter Cars, the Tango takes up only half a traffic lane. It can carry two people ­tandem-style in slightly cramped comfort. Without the need for gears, its battery-powered engine can accelerate from zero to 96km/h in four seconds and, with a racing car-style roll cage design, the Tango is supposedly as robust as a Volvo estate car.

“It’s unequivocally the fastest car you can buy for an urban environment,” says Commuter Cars’ president, Rick Woodbury, who has sold 11 of the vehicles so far, at a hefty price of $150 000 each, including a recent ­delivery to a customer in Surrey. “I drove through Times Square and had girls throwing their arms around me.”

The Tango is among the quirkier exhibits on Electric Avenue, a corner of the Detroit motor show devoted to electrically-powered vehicles. Visitors this week included speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and the governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm. Every large car manufacturer of any note, from General Motors to Toyota, Mitsubishi and Hyundai, has a plug-in car or, at the very least, a petrol-electric hybrid on display in Detroit, usually involving the letter “e”.

The future of motoring, according to political and environmental enthusiasts, is electric. But this mantra has been repeated, in different forms, for almost a decade and many industry experts feel that it is hard to find a true groundswell of enthusiasm among consumers.

Held back
Twelve years ago, the Toyota Prius broke new ground as the first mass-market hybrid car. Hybrid technology, which combines electric batteries with a petrol-driven back-up engine, is well established. But barely 1% of industry sales last year were hybrid or electrically powered vehicles. PricewaterhouseCoopers’ automotive institute expects to see a small rise to 4% by 2015.

“What’s holding them back?” asks Anthony Pratt, a PricewaterhouseCoopers analyst. “Cost.” The starting price for a Prius in Britain is £19 500. A Toyota Avensis, with a conventional petrol engine, starts at £16 800.

Typically, buying an environmentally friendly car involves paying a premium of several thousand pounds — and the recession has hardly helped. Pratt says: “When people begin to look to do more with less, they became less concerned with environmentally friendly products and more worried about trying to balance the budget.”

Toyota this week showcased a smaller, cheaper version of the Prius called the FT-CH concept. Its Japanese rival, Nissan, displayed a pure electric plug-in car called the Leaf, which is already on the market in Japan and will hit US showrooms this year, arriving in Britain in 2012. It has a socket in its bonnet and needs to be recharged every 100 miles. At a turbo-powered quick charging station, re-energising the batteries takes 26 minutes; a home charging station will take eight hours.

Mitsubishi has a similar model, the MiEV prototype (short for Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle). With their relatively short range, these vehicles are aimed at commuters and are suitable for commercial use in towns — by, for example, postal services and restaurants delivering food. But until somebody builds a network of electric charging stations, they are awkward for longer trips.

That, according to Jim Hall, an automotive expert at 2953 Analytics, a Detroit-based research company, is a major sticking point: “The average American sees a car as a tool that must be able to do everything. Our cars are viewed as Swiss army knives.”

Another reason, Hall believes, for the slow take-up of electric vehicles is that consumers most concerned about the environment also tend to be “late adopters” who are suspicious of impenetrable technology: “They’ll be concerned about the nickel in the batteries — the fact that nickel must be mined and that nickel is toxic.”

New ideas
Other ideas are being tested. Hyundai showed off a prototype called the Blue-Will this week, with roof-mounted solar cells to help recharge its lithium batteries. Tesla Motors, a small Silicon Valley company, has come up with a way to extend the range of a battery-powered car. Its test drivers recently managed to go 500km through the Australian Outback on a single charge.

But the most keenly awaited mainstream “green” launch will be GM’s Chevrolet Volt, a hybrid that can go 64km on a single electric charge but then harness power from its internal combustion engine to generate more electricity on the go, extending its range to hundreds of miles from one tank of petrol. The Volt, which will cost about $40 000, will go on sale in the US late this year, but GM’s vice-chairman for product development, Bob Lutz, admits that it will not be much of a moneyspinner.

“If we did it purely for profitability, we wouldn’t be doing it,” said Lutz, who predicts that even in a decade’s time, at least 90% of cars sold will still be powered by internal combustion. “Other than 5% of the public who will willingly make a sacrifice to buy green vehicles, the other 95% of people will ask, ‘What am I getting — what’s the deal?’ They’re not going to spend $5 000 to $6 000 on technology they don’t need.”

There is a legislative incentive to lead the public towards greener cars. The Obama administration has tightened standards for fuel efficiency and ordered motor manufacturers to cut emissions from new vehicles sold in the US by 30% by 2016. But raising taxes on fuel, which would concentrate consumers’ minds, has proved too risky to contemplate for politicians on either side of the Atlantic.

As recently as 2005, research by JD Power, the marketing information company, found that US buyers cared more about the number of cup holders in a new vehicle than its miles-to-gallon ratio. A 2008 spike in oil prices changed that, prompting a shift towards smaller cars, yet still an electric “revolution” on the roads remains a distant prospect. Plug-in cars face a long, tough battle to break beyond a small but devoted audience of Hollywood stars, eccentrics and passionate environmentalists. – guardian.co.uk

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Andrew Clark
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