NEW YORK — I spent the day in Manhattan talking about two high-tech cars that will arrive in showrooms before the end of the year, one the Leaf electric battery car from Nissan and the other a bold step into the unknown called the Chevrolet Volt. I’m rooting for both of them, but I’m also mindful of the potholes in the road to getting them into consumers’ hands.
First, the Volt. This is a really exciting car, and a departure from everything General Motors has done in the past. We’re getting down to the wire: the 2011 Volt, whose gas engine is not connected to the wheels, but generates electricity for the electric motor — will be delivered to its first U.S. customers by the end of the year.
GM has built a small fleet of pre-production Volts, and they are, in a word, electrifying to drive. But many variables are undecided, including one big one — how much the Volt will cost. A lunch meeting with Britta Gross, GM’s director of global energy systems and infrastructure commercialization, provided a few answers. But not about the price.
“We don’t have a price,” she said. “We’re conducting research to find out what the market will bear. We’re evaluating the early adopters and what consumers tell us is important. But remember, EVs are like plasma TVs when they were first introduced — the price will come down dramatically. Gen 2 will be a lot less costly than Gen 1.”
Sure, but does this mean that GM is prepared to lose money on the futuristic Volt if that’s what customers say they want? (And they do say that; a Pike Research poll shows the number of willing buyers for electric cars almost doubling (to 83 percent!) if the price stays close to what they’re used to paying.
The first Volts, Gross said, are “overdesigned,” with the company taking what she called a conservative approach — it doesn’t want a Toyota-type public relations disaster on its hands. “We’ll go in and find places where we can take out cost. It will be less conservative moving forward,” she said.
It’s too bad if you don’t live in California, Michigan or Washington, D.C., because those are the initial launch markets for the Volt. Reaching the whole country could take “several years,” she said. Those markets make sense: D.C. has the politicians GM needs on its side; California is full of early adopters and kinder, gentler weather; and Michigan is home base and a strategic choice for state support. The Volt, and most other EVs, are floating on government subsidies, including a vital $7,500 federal tax credit. When GM CEO Ed Whitacre said the Volt would be priced in the low $30s, he was including the tax credit.
The Volt has 300 miles of gasoline-fueled range when its initial 40 miles of electric cruising is expended. GM claims 230 mpg, which is a bit fanciful. The Volt shouldn’t have the cold-weather performance problems experienced by some early EVs, such as the Mini E, because if its batteries are balky it can switch to gas backup.
Gross is on the board of the National Hydrogen Association and also a long-time GM hydrogen advocate within the company. She says GM could commercialize its fifth-generation fuel cells by 2015. But infrastructure — the fueling stations that are already popping up for battery-powered electric vehicles — are sorely needed if hydrogen is to get on the road.
From my lunch with Britta, I went across town to meet with Carlos Tavares, the young chairman of Nissan Americas. He is an enthusiastic proponent of the Leaf, a 100-mile-range lithium-ion battery car that the company will roll out in December (in the U.S. and Japan first, then Europe).
Tavares was in town to cheerlead the Leaf through its last U.S. appearance on a 24-city Zero Emission Tour. He’s enthusiastic about it, and a good sport when it comes to appearing in YouTube videos.
Nissan has gotten 50,000 names on a mailing list, largely compiled through savvy use of social media and the 100,000 or so who visited stops along the 24-city tour. In April, it will start trying to get some of those people to pay $100 for reservation status, and then get in line for delivery of an electric car. The car will initially be built in Japan (until 2012) but then shift to a federal government-assisted plant in Smyrna, Tenn. The first cars will arrive in December of this year.
Tavares says the Leaf is a game-changer that will alter the way we drive. He says that 90 percent of us don’t drive more than 100 miles in a day, so a car limited to that range is not a big issue. Plus, he said, there will be public charging at workplaces and big-box stores. Nissan is making sure this happens with partnerships with 18 municipalities and states.
I sat in the Leaf on the floor in New York. It seemed very high-tech, with a shifter like a joystick on a computer game and a display that showed charging points in Los Angeles. The owner will be able to pre-heat or pre-cool the EV from his computer or cell phone. It is a game changer, and it just needs hand wavers and contract signers.