A cascade of plug-in efficiencies

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - With the first big wave of modern electric cars due to arrive in the next few years, the battle to attract manufacturing plants is heating up.

Reva, an Indian maker of electric cars, announced that it planned to open an assembly plant in Upstate New York to build a three-door plug-in hatchback called the NXR, in partnership with a local company.

New York officials welcomed the decision as a recognition of the state’s emerging battery-technology cluster and manufacturing skill.

“I believe the competition was between New York State and Michigan, and we won,” Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said in a telephone interview.

More plant announcements are expected soon in the United States.

Fisker Automotive, a California-based startup that is making the first of its high-end plug-ins in Finland, could name the site for a planned American plant soon.

Tesla, maker of the Roadster, a stylish and expensive plug-in, may soon announce where in Southern California it will locate the factory for its next car, the Model S.

Tesla already does final assembly for the Roadsters — almost 900 of which are already being driven in the United States — in Menlo Park, California.

As with conventionally powered vehicles, manufacturers give priority to locations that are close to their consumers.

Jeffrey Leonard, a board member of Reva who lives in the Washington area, said in a telephone interview that Reva’s board had understood from the beginning that “if you’re going to really sell and distribute this car in a big way in the U.S., you should have a production facility here,” for logistical and political reasons.

Conventional automakers — most of which are racing to produce their own electric cars — are retooling existing plants to make the new vehicles. Here again, the preference goes to plants close to where the cars will be sold.

“As a matter of practice, we try to manufacture vehicles in the markets where they will be marketed,” Fred Standish, a spokesman for Nissan North America, said in an e-mail message. Nissan will begin making its electric car, the Leaf, at an existing facility in Oppama, Japan, next year. It will be sold in the United States and Japan, beginning late in 2010, Mr. Standish said. Starting in late 2012, the Leaf will be made in Tennessee as well as in Japan, he said.

Manufacturing vehicles near their ultimate markets, Mr. Standish said, has benefits that include “reduced exposure to foreign exchange fluctuations, elimination of import taxes, elimination of transoceanic transportation costs and reduction of delivery time.”

Unsurprisingly, Asia hopes to grab a healthy share of electric car facilities. China is home to BYD, a carmaker in which Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings has a stake, as well as the Tianjin-Qingyuan Electric Vehicle Co. In both cases, however, efforts to increase production of all-electric vehicles have encountered some delays, according to my colleague, Keith Bradsher, who is based in Hong Kong. As for India, there has been little ostensible activity as yet apart from that of Reva, which has facilities in Bangalore.

“There have been some attempts to make electric scooters and rickshaws by various people, but nothing has really taken off,” my Mumbai-based colleague, Vikas Bajaj, wrote in an e-mail message.

Experts stress that the types of vehicles produced vary by location to accommodate consumers’ needs. (This is of course already true for gasoline-powered cars.)

For Reva to sell effectively in the United States, “You need to tailor the car to the U.S. driver,” Mr. Leonard said. He pointed out that American drivers behaved quite differently from those in India or in compact European cities, where Reva cars are currently driven.

David Vieau, the president and chief executive of A123 Systems, a maker of lithium-ion batteries that went public last month, noted that the desired range for electric vehicles could vary substantially from country to country.

“For example, in developing countries with no history of widespread car ownership, people may be more open to electric vehicles because there is no preconceived notion of what a vehicle should do.

“Therefore, a more limited range might be perfectly acceptable, for example, to a Chinese consumer who has never owned an internal combustion vehicle,” Mr. Vieau said in an e-mail message.

On the other hand, he said, a driver in Japan, Europe, or North America might expect a range of 300 miles, or 480 kilometers, “and the electric-vehicle adoption rate might be affected due to expectations of what the vehicle should do.”

The supply chain for electric vehicles will also have some differences, experts said, from that of their conventionally powered counterparts. The most obvious variation is batteries, the technology that is crucial to getting the electric car right.

According to Mr. Vieau, Asia makes more than 90 percent of lithium-ion batteries, the type of battery that is considered most promising in the near term for electric cars. But the United States is also aggressively seeking to attract battery manufacturers. A123, for example, manufactures in China and South Korea but is also expanding production in the United States.

As for the electric drivetrain, it “uses fewer moving parts and thus may result in a more consolidated supply chain” than that of a conventionally powered vehicle, Mr. Vieau said. He added, however, that the rest of the electric vehicle would be substantially similar to a conventional one.

But with the dawn of electric vehicles, components manufacturers may find reason to focus anew on using energy more efficiently.

“There may be an advantage,” Mr. Vieau said, “for suppliers that can innovate and develop more energy-efficient products, as energy usage historically has not been a prime design driver.”

“Since electricity is used to drive an electric vehicle,” he explained, “any power-hungry components such as radios, windshield wipers and lighting all reduce the electric vehicle range.”

To improve the all-important range, in other words, new efficiencies may be in order.


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