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?’”