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Are electric vehicles here to stay?


Jon R. Hickman

Has the electric vehicle (EV) arrived? More than a decade after General Motors introduced, then allegedly withdrew, a wildly popular electric vehicle from California and Arizona, the media are singing the praises of EVs. In real time though, Jon R Hickman reports that we need to keep our feet on the ground.

The new electric powered vehicles pack plenty of features and specifications into their various models/prototypes. Adding to the volume of news, the various auto shows of early 2009 all highlighted these same vehicles, giving the casual viewer the sense that EVs of all kinds are here and now – and ready to take over the highways.

Beyond the hype, however, the selection available today for a potential EV buyer is, in a word, limited. So despite all of the print and video surrounding EVs, the consumer is rather like a child at Christmas – anxiously waiting for the day that will bring these allegedly marvellous engineering feats to a showroom floor in a full range.

While we are all waiting, I thought it would be of interest to examine the vehicles that are actually available (or will be by the end of 2009) for purchase. For the purposes of this article I have limited the candidates to those models that meet the following criteria:

  • The vehicle must be capable of highway speeds;
  • The vehicle must be all electric or a plug in hybrid (PHEV);
  • The vehicle must hold at least two passengers – true motorcycles are excluded;
  • The vehicle must be at least available in the USA by the end of the calendar year.

Reviewing the manufacturers and vehicles that meet the above selection criteria netted very few actual purchase options. Listed and detailed below are each of the vehicles, along with a short commentary/opinion on the longer-term popular acceptance of each vehicle.

Tesla

Most individuals who are at all familiar with the emerging world of EVs would likely put the Tesla Roadster (pictured in this article) at the top of any list of current EV models.

The company, based in Silicon Valley, began producing the Roadster in small quantities in 2008. The website currently claims that more than 300 Roadsters have been delivered to date and we understand that the company shipped 155 vehicles in March 2009.

The Roadster is billed as a high-performance, luxury electric sports car and carries the power and price tag to meet that claim. The car is priced at US$109,000 and will do zero to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds. The Roadster is powered by a lithium magnesium oxide battery that is slated to have a range of roughly 220 miles on a single charge. The battery can then be recharged using a household (120 volt) outlet in about 7 to 8 hours.

The car is obviously very stylish, but the feeling here is that the rather small interior and the large price tag will limit the appeal of this model. We have not personally driven the car, but have heard that it is a tight squeeze getting in and out of the driver's seat. As the company has also produced the Model S (a sedan available in 2010) with a much smaller price tag, that might be the model with wider appeal.

Fisker Karma

Again this is a high-end high performance sports car. Like the Tesla Roadster, the Karma (pictured in this article) has sleek racing lines and looks every bit the sports car. Additionally, like the Tesla Roadster, the Karma comes with a hefty US$87,000 price tag.

Unlike the Roadster, the Karma has a plug-in hybrid drive train, designed to power the car for the first 50 miles on the battery alone, after which the 2.0 litre gasoline powered engine takes over and charges the battery for extended range performance (about 600 miles on a tank of gas).

Fisker calculates the vehicle's performance as the equivalent of 100 miles a gallon. The car has a top speed of 125 mph, can reach 60 mph in less than 6 seconds and the battery can be recharged in four to 8 hours, depending on the power outlet. Customers can reserve a car today and the first 100 production models are scheduled for delivery in the late autumn of 2009. Fisker Automotive indicates that the company has received 1,300 pre-orders.

Although expensive, the Karma looks and feels like a vehicle that will capture significant acceptance in its niche. The car was designed by Fisker Coachbuild and will be manufactured by the highly-respected contract manufacturer, Valmont Automotive of Finland, which speaks highly of the quality of the vehicle. The roomy interior design and the fact that the Karma has unlimited driving range (due to the PHEV drive train) make this car very appealing.

BMW Mini

BMW is attempting to jump start its EV initiative, Project I, with the introduction in California of 500 all-electric Mini Es.

BMW has converted the standard Mini to a battery powered vehicle by taking out the back seats to make room for the lithium ion battery pack. The cars are being leased for US$850/month which includes a charge station installed in the driver's garage. Fully charging the battery can take about two hours or as much as 10 hours, depending on the voltage of the wall socket.

The Mini E is capable of reaching a top speed of 95 miles an hour and is able to travel roughly 150 miles on a fully charged battery. The company is using the Mini as a test case to decide whether to manufacture an electric Mini or go with another design. As the Mini is a known quantity, it is reasonable to assume that an electric version would find its share of electric car buyers.

Aptera 2e

The three wheel vehicle, is technically classified as a motorcycle by the US Department of Transportation. The vehicle accommodates two people with ample trunk space and is about the size of a Honda Civic on the outside. The 2e is powered by a lithium ion battery (said to be a Valence Technologies battery) and is slated to power the vehicle from zero to 60 in under 10 seconds, and has a top speed of about 90 mph. This is equivalent performance to popular compact cars such as the Toyota Civic. Fully charged, the 13-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery will power the vehicle for 100 miles with a load of two people, luggage and the air conditioning running on high.

In reality, though there is much discussion of the future, the selection available today for a potential electric care buyer is, in a word, limited.

The battery will charge overnight when plugged into a standard 110-volt outlet and four hours when connected to a 220-volt outlet. The vehicle also sports a navigation system and a video camera with night vision that offers a 180-degree view of the rear of the vehicle as the rear window is quite small. This car is expected to be available by the end of 2009.

The three wheel design is quite different from the standard car one sees on the road today and in our view will limit its overall consumer appeal and acceptance.

EVI-USA LightTruck

EVI has a production light truck that can be purchased today and is capable of highway speeds (50 mph). The truck runs on a lithium ion or lead acid battery configuration, depending on customer preference. The truck can also be outfitted with a hybrid drive for extended range.

This is a Class 3 truck and the full-electric version costs $50,000 to $55,000. That price does not include the cost of the batteries as they are leased. The lithium batteries are lithium iron phosphate, supplied by Valence Technologies. The truck can be ordered with a one, two or three speed transmission.

There are two other vehicles that might show up on US highways by late 2009 and make the cutoff. These are the Mitsubishi i-Miev and the Phoenix SUV. Mitsubishi might make a few of the i-Mievs available in the USA this year, but it is more likely that these cars will only be on the showroom floor in Japan and in parts of Europe.

Phoenix Motorcars has had production and financial issues and is behind on its earlier goal of having its vehicles ready for sale. However, it was announced late last year that the vehicles would be part of an EV program on the island of Maui in 2009.

Although the current list is short, the future looks much more interesting. So for now let's just say…Christmas will come, just be patient.

About the author
Jon R. Hickman is an equity securities analyst for MDB Capital Group. He is an author of the Green Car Report – an investment analysis of the hybrid and electric vehicle industry.

 

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