Sparking up: The future of electric vehicles

Consumers need to understand technology before they will invest

The Renault Fluence. Photo / Supplied
The Renault Fluence. Photo / Supplied

Although electric vehicles may be thought of as the way of the future, they aren't a new concept - Henry Ford bought his wife, Clara, at least two electric cars in the early 1900s.

Those two models offered at best an 80km driving range and top speeds of about 56km/h, according to the Henry Ford Museum.

But analysts in the United States say automakers have not done a good enough job explaining the technology to win over anyone beyond early adopters such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio, pop idol Justin Bieber, comedian Jay Leno and former US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"You can do all the advertising and promotion you want, but if people don't buy into the message the needle's not going to move," said George Cook, a marketing professor at the University of Rochester's business school and a former Ford executive.

But it's not just the message that needs to change. Many critics see such models as the Nissan Leaf and Holden Volt as too expensive, and say petrol prices need to increase significantly for the cars to be worth the outlay.

Even US president Barack Obama agrees electric vehicles must be more cost-effective. While visiting a Daimler truck plant in North Carolina this month, he said changes must include a car battery that costs half the price of today's versions.

Obama has been a strong proponent of electric vehicles and set a goal of getting 1 million battery-powered vehicles on the road by 2015.

But Lux Research estimates that number will be fewer than 200,000 and US car consumer website, Edmunds, expected pure electric cars and plug-in hybrids to make up only 1.5 per cent of the US market in 2017, compared with 0.1 per cent last year.

Complicating matters, car makers continue to squeeze increased fuel efficiency out of the internal combustion engine, with Ford's ecoboost engine and Mazda's skyactive systems winning fans.

There have also been technical difficulties across the range of electric cars. In late November, US safety regulators were investigating the Volt for possible battery fires.

While the investigation found there was no defect and the car did not pose a greater risk of fire than gas-powered vehicles, weak demand led General Motors (the owner of Holden) to halt production for five weeks and temporarily lay off 1300 workers at the plant that builds the car.

GM, which strengthened the structural protection of the Volt battery, has repeatedly said the car is safe, and some said the safety probe should have never occurred.

Even high-end electric vehicles haven't been immune to problems.

A Fisker Karma died during testing by Consumer Reports magazine following a recall of more than 200 of the cars last year and the halting of sales in January for a software issue.

Fisker, which builds the Karma in Finland, also suspended work last month at its US plant scheduled to make another car, the Nina sedan.

Fisker spokesman Roger Ormisher said problems can arise with new technologies and a new company but added Fisker had gone "beyond the call of duty" in instituting a system to respond to customer issues and had plenty of satisfied owners.

Chief executive Tom LaSorda wrote a letter to Karma owners saying Fisker was committed to giving customers "complete peace of mind" and he had created a "SWAT team" of 50 engineers and consultants to identify issues with the car.

All of that has not dissuaded automakers, many of which are planning electric vehicles to join the Volt and Leaf in a bid to meet rising fuel efficiency standards.

Toyota has begun selling a plug-in Prius, and electric vehicles from Ford, Honda, BMW and Fiat will join the fray this year, along with cars from start-ups Tesla and Coda Automotive.

There are currently three Leafs for sale in Wellington, while Holden is set to launch the Volt here later this year.

But in Australia, Renault too admits consumers require a lot more education before they are ready to buy electric vehicles, including the breaking down of some irrational fears.

The company's managing director, Justin Hocevar, told industry website GoAuto that people needed to understand that electric vehicles were as safe, if not safer, than regular cars.

"They shouldn't have concerns any greater than those they have about any other electrical appliance they use in their day-to-day lives," he said.

"We're acutely aware of a lot of preconceptions that exist around the safety of electricity, around range and the various other issues that need to be overcome for people to truly understand EVs."

Hocevar was disappointed with comments made by former Toyota Australia executive chairman John Conomos, who told the recent Cars of Tomorrow conference in Melbourne that many people have unfounded fears about electrocution, driving through water and forgetting to unplug an electric car before driving off.

"I found it difficult to understand why there is a discussion of concerns about electrocution and driving into water when EVs are operating on 400-volt battery systems which are no different to the 400-volt battery systems that have existed in the hybrid vehicles that Toyota has been selling for the last 10 years," said Hocevar.

"As professionals in the industry we all need to focus to ensure the correct messages are getting out there.

"It is important to note that the investment in the development of EVs is substantial and the testing and development work that is going into EVs is equal, if not greater, to that going into ICE [internal combustion engine] vehicles.

"This is new territory, but brands such as Renault have been investing heavily. There are currently 2500 people dedicated to the development of EVs in the Renault/Nissan alliance,"Hocevar said.

Renault, which has already invested over $6.5 billion in electric technology, is in the throes of releasing its Fluence ZE (zero emissions) electric car.

Hocevar stressed that consumers quickly came around to the idea once they had some experience of EVs.

"In very broad terms, [research] shows there is still a low level of understanding in the market. That means, as an industry, we have a lot of work to do in educating the consumer.

"However, where EV trials have been done, it seems people adapt to EVs very quickly and a lot of their concerns are allayed very quickly. They seem to learn to live with their cars without any great concern."

- NZ Herald

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