Would You Like Your Electric Car With or Without a Gas Engine?

When the Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt launch later this year, green car buyers will have a total of three flavors of electric-drive vehicles to choose from: conventional hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and pure electric cars. At that point, consumers will need to sort out the competing factors of cost, driving range, and the importance of going 100-percent electric.

On one side of the debate, makers of plug-in hybrids (or extended-range electric vehicles) argue that electric vehicles without a gas engine on board (allowing for hundreds of miles of driving between charging) just won’t cut it. The opposing view from carmakers with pure electric cars is that drivers quickly get accustomed to cars with 100 miles of range, which is more than adequate for nearly all driving. They say why add the complexity of two systems?

Both sides had a chance to make their arguments at last week’s Automotive News Green Car Conference. Micky Bly, GM’s executive director for global electrical systems, clearly believes that electric cars need extended range. In his opinion, pure electric cars will appeal to a limited group of early adopters. “I feel strongly the early-adopter movement is done in North America,” Bly said. He added that mass market EVs have to be capable of serving as a household’s primary vehicle. “I think pure battery electric vehicles are not going to be niche vehicles, but they’re not going to be a primary vehicle.”

Ford’s chief of vehicle electrification Nancy Gioia, essentially agreed—but believes it’s too early to tell how demand will play it between conventional hybrid, plug-in hybrid and pure electric cars. Ford will offer all three, although the company believes that conventional hybrids will make up 75 percent of its electric portfolio. Few people are willing to accept “trade-offs in performance and price” Gioia said.

Arguing for pure electric cars—no engine necessary—Brian Carolin, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Nissan North America, said, “For us, the important thing about the LEAF was to have a unique proposition: zero emissions. You can’t get better than that.” Rich Steinberg, BMW’s manager of electric vehicle operations, backed him up, and made the case that a gas engine is superfluous in an electric car. “I think with time, when people live with the car on a day-to-day basis and they realize ‘I’m not visiting the gas station more than three times a year,’ they’re going to decide: ‘Why did I invest in that gasoline engine when I’m not really going to use it?’”


  • Van

    I think the on board generator and gas tank will be phased out in the coming years by higher capacity and cheaper batteries, and building of rapid recharge infrastructure. So plug-in hybrids like the Volt and the Prius PHV will take the market lead for the next 6 or 7 years, but if batteries continue to improve and they can put 200 miles of energy into the EV within say 20 minutes, the ICE will go the way of the horse and buggy.

  • tw8s

    When is ’200 miles’ = 75? In your winter commute at avg. 17mph, heat, defrost, lights, wipers, and XM radio to break the boredom -OR- daytime interstate trip at 75mph from Phoenix to Blythe against the sun, 20mph head-wind, and high speed air resistance, A/C and XM radio blaring to break the monotony. In neither case will you or your car-pool/family be keen about stopping to re-charge.

  • DC

    What is the point of makeing alternative-fuel vehicles if they still have gas engines? Alternative means, well….alternative. As in not fossil-fueled in any way shape or form. If it uses fossil-fuels, then we have not nor will we have solved anything. For this reason, hybrids should stop being referred to as some sort of solution to a future of looming liquid-fuels shortages, they are nothing of the sort. Nor do marketing hoaxs like the so-called ‘volt’ make the cut either. In any event, physical reality will decide the gas-engines fate, not PR hacks and fossil fuel lobbyists. American “consumers” will have even less to say on the matter once the reality that their oil-soaked culture(litteraly!) cannot be sustained.

  • JamesDavis

    I’ll take the all electric one, please! I don’t care if it only gets two miles between charges. Japan has a super charge station…just a little bigger than a backpack, that can charge in 15 minutes. I am really sick and tried of having to put out almost a third of my pay for fossil fuel that is slowly killing me and my surroundings. With the money the electric car will be saving me, l’ll sit there at that super charge station and read the news on my iPad while the car charges.

    Nissan has a really good electric car that can get you a long ways and if the three big American auto makers don’t want to give us the all electric car; I will trade in my Ford Mustang and become a Nissan customer.

  • Samie

    Don’t forget about the Ford Focus EV. If cars like the Leaf, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, and the Focus EV start taking away hybrid sales, you will see even greater competition in the EV market (Hint…. a Prius EV). Competition is key and it would be nice to see three short-term strategies:

    1. Affordability- sub or compact sedans/hatchbacks. The drawback would be not much improvement in battery range.
    2. Luxury options – Extend range of battery and quicker charging capabilities
    3. Small SUV/Mini Van EVs – To expand the market, EVs will need to expand into mainstream car segments like soccer mom vehicles.

    Interestingly, next wave batteries could come quicker than ever! Smart phones are currently pushing processor & battery technology to the edge. Over time, even in the slow paced world of automobiles many tech leaps from smart phones will move into the vehicles we drive.

  • reinCARnate

    Amen, although I’m not waiting for the auto-makers. I’m making one myself. That way I have complete control over what I put into the car, and I won’t be stuck in a manufacturer’s built-in maintenance plan.

    That’s the beauty of electric cars, virtually no maintenance. If you go brushless AC motor, you never have to service it, you get regenerative braking and thus your brakes hardly get used, no oil changes, no tune-ups, no timing to worry about, no smog checks, etc.

    You change the tires every few years, get joints lubed, lead acid batteries need filling once a month, which can be done at home and with a watering system is super easy, whereas Lithiums don’t need maintenance.

    Come on people, it’s time to go electric!

  • Christopher H Lynt

    The average commute (in 2005) was 16 miles and took an average of 26 minutes. Assuming it has gotten twice as bad in the last five years, an all-electric vehicle is still going to handle the average commute with battery to spare. Businesses and parking garages will install charging stations no-doubt with the Level I and/or Level II standard, so while at work, your batteries can be recharged. Yes, at present, if you have to take a long trip, the Nissan Leaf is not going to be your best bet. But there are major projects afoot to install fast chargers along major arteries, so right now is a bit like the early days of gasoline powered vehicles in terms of ‘refueling.’ An average American drives 12,000 miles a year making the weekly driving average about 230 miles, or two full charges at under $3.00 a charge of the Nissan Leaf (at present $0.11 per kwh utility rate average). For every 100 miles you drive in an gasoline car (assuming 33 mpg and $3.00/gallon) you pay $9.00 and the Leaf pays under $3.00…add in oil changes, filter changes, and other gasoline engine maintenance costs and…well, how much is that needless gasoline engine costing you anyway? Do the numbers. Then add in the ‘hidden’ costs of air pollution, oil spills, etc. Why are we even having a debate? [I am a self-employed electrical engineer (MSCEE) and patent attorney (JD) with no affiliation with Nissan or any other auto manufacturer, but I have reserved a Nissan Leaf.]

  • Ham

    So what happens if you are out and about your batteries are low? It’s not like running low on gas and you can hit a nearby service station and be on your way in 3 or 4 minutes. Plus if you run out of gas call AAA and they will bring a gallon or two to get you home. In an electric, call AAA to have them tow you home. All electric cars may have a place in the future, but I’ll take the convenience of having a mileage extending option built right into my car, instead of sitting somewhere in the middle of a highway or in the middle of no where wondering how the heck I’m getting my batteries charged or calling a tow truck to get me home.

  • Ham

    Glad to see you are an expert in the field. I’m a toxicologist (w/ a MS) w/ HMM certification, so that must make me important. Not to be rude, but you are kidding, right? – you think lines for gas stations are long? What kind of lines are there going to be for “quick” charging stations? Sitting in LA traffic, moving at 4 MPH w/ AC blasting, radio on (listening to traffic reports) and everyone in their electric hybrids trying to get into these “quick” charge stations before their batteries die. Not to mention the idiots who didn’t charge up the night before and need towed from the center of the interstate into these charge stations or towed home. Plus uh-oh, my power has been out for two days due to all the storms in the region, so I guess my trip to the store, trip to the doc’s office, commute to work are all put on hold until the power company gets out here and restores my power so I can charge up.

    Also last time I looked – making electricity, as well as making and disposing of batteries is not pollution free yet.

    Not doubting the cost you estimated, but if price is your concern, buy a Nissan Versa for $11K. Using your price estimates from above: $11k for the car, spend $9K in gas for 100K mi, $20 per oil change every 5K mi ($400 for 20 oil changes) and I’m looking at $21-22K over the life of the car. Heck ditch the Versa and pick any car up to $17K and you won’t have to worry about finding a charging station ever and still spend the same amount as your Leaf and you’l be saving the US tax payers $7.5K.

    Leaf MSRP $32.7K (-$7.5K for Fed Tax Credit), so you will get the car for $25 to $26K. Pay an additional $3K for electricity and you are paying $28 – $29K.

    However, your fantasy world of quick charge stations (please link a reference or two for these “major” projects) still doesn’t make a believer out of me. I really don’t see my employer installing charging stations in their parking garage. What about the people who live in apartments or condos or have on street parking or they don’t have a garage or charging area? Do they run extension cords out their windows, across the sidewalk, and into their car? maybe I need to call Starbuck’s with a great idea: Starbuck’s will open up coffee houses for all the people along the road waiting to charge their cars. That way people can spend $5 on a cup of coffee while they complain about $3.50/gallon gas and talk about how nice it is along the highway waiting to charge their car.

    Here’s my fantasy: put quick fill hydrogen stations along major arteries, swap out the dino-fuel burner in the gas/electric hybrid w/ an H-burner (with the car already built you wouldn’t have to redesign the entire system), and relegate the all electric car to a small niche. It makes as much, if not more sense then a range limited all-electric car that needs plugged in.

    Have a nice day.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    I’ll give my opinion but let someone else address our misinformed and terminally skeptical friend Ham:
    I am a very strong EV advocate, however, I’m ok with the Volt, except for the fact that it will insist on trying to burn a tank of gas every 3 months or so and won’t have a fast charge option. Otherwise, 95% of my normal life can be pure EV and even more if I push it by trying to use public charging even when on long trips.
    I say: try both ways and see if the fast charging infrastructure develops to give fast-refueling to EVs just as we already have it for gas-burners.
    I wonder what the Volt does if the tank is empty? Can it still run on electrons?

  • Tom

    I wouldn’t give any credence to either view.. all electric, or extended range at this point. As an analogy, try to imagine what home computing will be like in 10 years.. how much will we just use smart phones, will iPads win, will laptops rule, etc.. what applications will we run on each?? Now, this is a device most of us are exposed to all the time, and we’d be hard pressed for any reasonable prediction. The electric-esque car is something new to most people today. Wouldn’t that make it at least as hard to predict as the computer? Bottom line, too early to tell, room for both, take a look in 3 years, and update product portfolios.

  • Dave K.

    Here’s the truth, there will be room(and need) for all three technologies. My personal plan is to have a Leaf and a PHEV Prius in my garage in about a year, but if I had the money the hybrid would be a Chevy Volt. I have a friend who does mobile tech support who regularly drives more than 100 miles a day in his Prius, does it make sense for him to switch to a Volt? Probably not. My commute is 12.6 miles so a Leaf will do that easily even with a couple of side trips to shop, eat out, ect. My wife’s is about 16 miles so as long as we have one car that CAN use gas we can still go on trips. All three technologies are viable and needed.

  • Peter

    This is a triple bottom line question. Does the ZEV electric car work for you or me as an individual circumstance? Do the economics make sense for your family? What is the life cycle cost to society of ZEV electric, factoring vehicle emissions (or lack of), emissions at the point source of power, reduction in dependence on foreign power sources like oil, total cost of new infrastructure (who pays, the electric utility, or do you imagine this is a government business or subsidy?), etc. Unless we build at the pace of China many of us will be in our graves before there is national infrastructure to charge a fleet of many millions of EVs daily. For my dollars and my family, I must decide these questions as an individual in “the here and now” and “the here and now” dictates we had better have a gasoline auxiliary engine or this EV thing is not going to work for our family. There are millions and millions of similar families in the USA today. Perhaps an unintended consequnce of EVs is that the cities will become even more densely populated and the suburbs will take so long to have the re-charging infrastructure that they will lose luster as people move back closer to their employment and the transportation conveniences.

  • Halo9x

    I just returned from a nearly 3,000 mile trip in my Prius. I’m sorry, but the Leaf just wouldn’t cut it. The hyper expensive Tesla would not make it as a vacation vehicle. In fact, the only other vehicle that might have done alright might in fact be the Volt. Here’s the rub with these new vehicles. The Volt costs $35-40K. It has to be the primary vehicle for most people who can afford it (not me). The Leaf is going to cost $25-30K which is more affordable but can ONLY be a vehicle to drive around town or go to work. That’s a lot of money to spend on a one trick pony. The Tesla is a rich man’s toy but has better range than the leaf. However, It still can’t make a 3,000 mile trip unless you plan on spending many hours recharging every 200 miles. My point is this, most people do not have the money for multiple single purpose vehicles. The plug-in hybrids seem to make the most sense as a general all-purpose vehicle. Until someone can invent “Mr. Fusion” to power electric cars, gasoline is still going to be the hands down fuel of choice. It is still relatively cheap, plentiful, convenient and makes long trips possible. Otherwise, get used to going nowhere except to work on electric vehicles. I wish it weren’t so but for now this is just reality.
    Furthermore, global warming is a hoax to make Gore, Sorros, Obama and their cronies wealthy and nothing more.
    By the way, driving the legal speed limits of 70 & 80 MPH, I got 45 mpg and over 48 on the return trip home!