Electric cars: will they finally become marketable?

- General Motors unveiled its latest version of the longheralded Chevrolet Volt, the plug-in hybrid it hopes will restore GM's leadership among the world's auto makers.

The firm is sticking to a production date of 2010, and one of its top executives flew into Toronto and gave an interview in which he said the Volt is meeting all expectations.

Bob Lutz, the 76-year-old vice-chairman and head of global product development at General Motors, believes electrification of the automobile is inevitable, and he's also convinced GM will lead the world toward this low-emission future.

GM says the Volt, which will have a powerful 16-kilowatt lithium-ion battery pack, will go 65 kilometres on a single battery charge. Beyond that, a generator that runs on gasoline kicks in, adding hundreds of kilometres to the vehicle's range. Since about 80 per cent of North Americans drive less than 65 km daily, the Volt should be an attractive option for those tiring of spending $50 or more on a fill-up.

By the fall of 2010, when GM expects to launch the Volt commercially, several hundred of the cars will have been road-tested in all seasons, all conditions, and GM is betting the car can help it leapfrog Toyota and its Prius hybrid.

Mr. Lutz says the lithium-ion technology at the heart of the Volt is meeting all expectations. "We're actually way ahead of schedule with everything now because we haven't encountered any problems," he told a Toronto Star reporter, but later acknowledged that price is a concern.

Asked about reports the Volt will cost upwards of $40,000, he confirmed that it will cost "many thousand dollars more than we had hoped for the first generation technology." While initially there would be enough demand from rich consumers, "if we want to generalize the technology the price has to come down."

GM's re-entry into the market a decade after it scrapped its all-electric EV1 two-passenger sports car comes at a time when there are apparently about 30 other firms either producing or hoping to produce electric vehicles of some sort. It's also a time when a "Talkback Toronto" survey by CTV recently had 90 per cent of responding viewers answering "yes" to the question: "Would you buy an electric car?"

Incredibly, a Web check confirmed that electric vehicles have been around far longer than the gasoline-powered variety.

In the 1830s, Scottish inventor Robert Anderson produced a crude electric carriage, and a small-scale electric car was designed by Professor Stratingh, a Dutchman, and built by his assistant in 1835.

France and Great Britain supported the widespread development of electric vehicles in the late 1800s and in 1891 two U.S. inventors, A. L. Ryker and William Morrison, both built a six-passenger wagon. And by 1897, a fleet of New York City taxis had been built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia.

The years 1899 and 1900 were the high point of electric cars in North America, as they outsold all other types of cars. Electric vehicles continued to enjoy success into the 1920s, with production peaking in 1912. Their decline can be attributed to several factors, but the main ones were Henry Ford's pioneering of an affordable family car in the Model T, and the advent of cheap crude oil.

By 1935, electric vehicles had all but disappeared in North America.

Since then, the two major stumbling blocks for electric cars have been cheap oil and battery technology, and until recently the main thing they had going for them was the campaign against greenhouse gases.

Today, the continuing high cost of gasoline and diesel fuel would seem to have solved part of the problem and the lithium-ion battery may have given us the required technology, if not the required affordability.

In the circumstances, it will be interesting to see just how marketable the Volt and Toyota's promised plug-in version of the Prius will be.

As we see it, the challenge will be to have a car that's no more than about $5,000 more expensive than a comparable gasoline-powered vehicle and still offers roughly the same driving range before gasoline or another fossil fuel is required to re-charge the batteries.

Of course, one big unknown is the future cost of crude oil. Having dropped to below $100 a barrel after peaking at nearly $150 US, the price could continue to tumble. If it did retreat to $20 or $30, and gasoline was back to perhaps 70 or 80 cents a litre, North Americans would undoubtedly maintain their love affair with the internal combustion engine.

If, on the other hand, crude oil stabilized at roughly $100 a barrel and the cost of lithium ion batteries came down, the plug-in hybrid and/or all-electric cars would just as undoubtedly become highly marketable.

Of course, one other important factor will be the world economy. It was perhaps no coincidence that the electric cars became unmarketable in the 1930s, when one aspect of the Great Depression was cheap gasoline.

A third imponderable is the role to be played by governments.

As matters stand, motor vehicle fuels are heavily taxed. Not so electricity, which in Canada is treated the same way as home heating fuels, subject only to the 5 per cent Goods and Services Tax.

History would certainly suggest that if electric cars became really popular, governments would find some way to recoup the revenue lost from declining sales of gasoline and diesel fuel.

All in all, we suspect that only time will tell whether, after 18 decades of experimenting, the era of the electric car will finally be upon us.


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