I’ve been eating, drinking and sleeping green cars for the last two years, but that doesn’t mean that my insider-y predictions for what’s about to happen are better than your own educated guesses. Let’s look back after the dust clears and see who was more right, you or me:
1. Electric vehicles (EVs) will start slow, with the Nissan Leaf in the lead. Nissan had 115,000 “flagwavers” expressing interest online in the company’s first battery car, and 8,000 of those have taken the next step and ponied up $99 to make a reservation. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but the Leaf is an attractive proposition and the advance orders swamp others in the field. The market will move slowly at first. Polls have consistently shown that many people (a majority in a recent Accenture survey) will consider a hybrid or electric car for their next purchase — as long as it isn’t more expensive and doesn’t require any sacrifice on their part. But EVs are not penalty-free: We’ll have to get used to “gassing up” by connecting a plug in the garage. We’ll get over these barriers, but it will take time.
2. People will get over range anxiety. The Tesla Roadster is a range leader at more than 200 miles, but virtually all of the forthcoming battery sedans will offer 100 miles or less. Most of us drive less than that in a day, as EV advocates tirelessly point out, so the reduction in range (average cars today go 300 miles or more) is more a psychological barrier than a physical one. Range anxiety is one reason the market will start slow, but if public EV charging becomes ubiquitous, it will help people forget about getting stranded by the side of the road. Eighty percent of charging will be done at home anyway, with work and public spaces (big-box stores included) following in that order.
3. The Chevy Volt will sell well, but other plug-in hybrids may take awhile. The Volt, which uses its small gas engine to provide electricity to the motors, is a smart, well-presented package and GM has benefited from enormous amounts of positive publicity about it. It also has a great dealer network so people will be able to see the car up close. Sales will be modest at first, however, because the Volt will initially be in only a few strategic markets, including California, Michigan and Washington, D.C. The approximately $40,000 price is also a barrier. The other plug-in hybrid that could do well is the $89,000 Fisker Karma, which offers high performance, exclusivity and a rakish, Tesla-type appeal. Other plug-ins are also coming from Toyota and, supposedly, GM, though the latter is somewhat ill-defined at the moment. Toyota’s will be an enhanced version of the Prius, and we’ll see if the world is waiting for that. Here's one way that Chevy is promoting the Volt — to former EV-1 battery car owners:
4. Chinese cars will get a foothold in the U.S., and the build quality will improve. Several Chinese automakers, including Chery and BYD, have announced plans to sell cars here, though it’s very embryonic right now. BYD said it would have its E6 battery car on the U.S. market in 2010, though that’s looking a bit tenuous at the moment. I haven’t seen that many Chinese cars up close — I plan a trip there this year — but analysts who’ve tested them say there are quality and safety issues that could make crash testing and consumer acceptance problematic. Remember the Yugo? When you pushed the passenger seat forward, it hit the front window, leading to an epidemic of cracked windshields. But I predict that Chinese cars (and maybe even India’s $2,500 Tata Nano) could find a North American niche precisely for the same reason the Yugo briefly did — irresistible price points. If you think Korean-built Hyundais and Kias are affordable, wait until you see sub-$10,000 Civic-type cars. So Chinese carmakers need to go on a (pardon the expression) crash course in quality enhancement. By the way, both the Coda and Wheego electric cars use Chinese vehicles as bases.
5. Fuel-cell vehicles will continue to improve, but don’t expect to buy one anytime soon. The cars themselves, including the Honda FCX Clarity and the hydrogen-powered Chevy Equinox, are great driving experiences — quiet, fast, and with range that dwarfs any electric car. But the cars (and the hydrogen in their tanks) are still very expensive, and we lack a network of fueling stations. That may change soon: Although the California “hydrogen highway” is stalled because of budget cuts, an entrepreneur named Tom Sullivan is planning one for the East Coast. Toyota will "commercialize" a hydrogen car in 2015, but widespread availability is at least 10 years off.
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