2011 in the Rear-View Mirror: Eight Trends to Watch

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 19, 2011

As an inveterate watcher of the electric car tea leaves, I have to say that 2011 was probably the most momentous year for battery vehicles since, I dunno, 1910? That’s the year that one of the major EV makers could say in an ad, “The two greatest chapters in the history of the electric car have been written this year by Detroit Electric.” One of those chapters was the car’s new chain-free shaft drive, and the other one was a world record of 211 miles on a single charge. They did that in a stock car, too, perhaps one of the “rakish” and “extra-low” Gentleman’s Underslung Roadsters, with “the lines of a thoroughbred.” Today, only the Tesla Roadster has range like that.

EVs ruled the road in 1910, which was before Charles Kettering introduced his starter motor on Cadillacs, banishing the deadly crank and sealing the fate of early battery vehicles. The long slumber started in the 1920s. But now EVs are back, and I’ve spent the year running from pillar to post chronicling it all. Volt fires! Range anxiety! Charging station rollouts, from Walgreens to the Cracker Barrel! Think and Aptera bankruptcy! The launch of the Fisker Karma, Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, Ford Focus Electric, Coda Sedan, Mitsubishi i, Wheego LiFe and the return of the Detroit Electric! OK, I made up the last one, though there was some talk of reviving the nameplate back in 2008.

The futuristic Aptera 2e died in 2011. (Jim Motavalli photo)
The futuristic Aptera 2e died in 2011. (Jim Motavalli photo)

So from my decidedly non-objective perch I’d like to offer these eight highlights of 2011, the year yet another chapter in the illustrious history of the electric car was written:

EV sales: Covering the horse race.
With both the Leaf (8,720 sold in the U.S.) and the Volt (6,142) on the market, journalists have taken to chronicling the rollout as a competition between the two frontrunners. It’s understandable—that’s how we cover the presidential race, right, giving short shrift to the actual issues? The consensus is that the market is starting slow, and I’m not going to dispute that. The cars are expensive, though there are plenty of mitigating factors, mostly related to supply. The Japanese tsunami looms large, as does a temporary shutdown of the Volt’s production line. But both are behind us now and the cars are going national. But just when it looked like a clean glide path, the Volt fires happen, really dampening consumer enthusiasm. I’m constantly being buttonholed about it: People heard “Volt” and “fire,” and not the fact that they occurred long after government crash tests. I predict that, assuming GM gets this issue behind it, that 2012 will be a modest success for EV sales, though gas prices remain the largest driver.

Fast charging: High voltage ahead.
The game changed when Nissan announced that it would market a 480-volt DC fast charger for less than $10,000, a five-fold price drop. This will make half-an-hour public EV charging (as opposed to four to eight hours at 240 volts) both easy and routine, because affordable fast chargers will quickly proliferate at big-box stores, coffee shops and quick-stops. Nissan told me it is actively engaging with some major gas station chains, so we’ll see them there, too. This begs the question: Whattya do for 30 minutes at a gas station, watch the grease rack go up and down (as Lenny Bruce used to say)? My guess is that it won’t work that way. For one thing, people will be driving in with some percentage of charge, and they won’t necessarily be leaving full. I predict an average stay of 10 minutes or so, with people “topping off” their battery packs.

Nissan’s Leaf is the number one global battery car, but the numbers are still relatively small. (Nissan photo)
Nissan’s Leaf is the number one global battery car, but the numbers are still relatively small. (Nissan photo)

Plug-in hybrids: How gas-free can you be?
Jay Leno, who just interviewed me on his entertaining Jay’s Garage blog, told me that he’d covered the first 10,000 miles in his much-loved Volt, and the gas engine was only running for 134 of those miles. Volt owners boast about this stuff all the time—it’s a point of pride that the cars are still traveling on their first tank of gas. All you have to do is drive within your 40- to 50-mile electric budget between plug-ins. In fact, the gas can be in the tank so long it becomes stale, which is why the engine automatically starts after you ignore a few dashboard warnings to give it some exercise occasionally. I’ve now had at least five Volt owners tell me how little gas they’ve used. You’d think they’d just buy a battery car and get it over with! But Volt owners, including Leno, are united in wanting that reserve capacity for trips to grandma’s house. If they don’t actually go on those journeys, it’s because they don’t want to burn that original gas.

The Volt was hit by both supply problems and those nasty fires in 2011. (Chevrolet photo)
The Volt was hit by both supply problems and those nasty fires in 2011. (Chevrolet photo)

Green parking: The concrete desert becomes an oasis.
Paul Wessel, a Connecticut-based transportation activist, noticed that the Green Building Council doesn’t offer LEED certification for parking garages. So he founded the Green Parking Council, which is intended to give credit where it’s due—and hand out awards. Parking garages are ideal hosts for solar panels, EV charging, rooftop gardens, even wind power. The Council identified 25 winners, including the Garage at Post Office Square in Boston, which has a green roof, reserved parking for car-share vehicles and EV charging; Expresso Airport Parking in San Leandro, California, with a green car wash and natural gas shuttles; and the Tremont Garage in Denver, which reserves parking for hybrids and EVs.

Hybrids everything: Spreading the green halo around.
I recently tested a 2012 Buick LaCrosse with a mild hybrid system that included start-stop technology. But it wasn’t a “LaCrosse Hybrid,” because the system is built into the base version. I like that (and the car, for that matter, which gets 25 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway). Toyota has said it may eventually offer a hybrid version of every vehicle in its lineup, and that’s a good goal. But because hybrid drive offers so many advantages we may be headed to a world with it as the dominant drivetrain. Regulation is the key here—the more hybrids automakers sell, the closer they get to the Holy Grail—a federal mandate for 35.5 mpg by 2016 and 54.5 mpg by 2025.

Hydrogen’s year: Fuel-cell cars on the horizon.
Largely because the infrastructure is nowhere to be seen (there are only a half dozen public hydrogen stations in the U.S.), futurists have been discounting the fuel-cell car’s future. It’s chicken-and-egg, of course, because nobody in his right mind would build a $1 million hydrogen station when there were only a handful of cars on the road. Energy Secretary Steven Chu bad-mouthing and defunding hydrogen was another blow. But that’s about to be rectified: Four automakers—Hyundai, Daimler, Toyota and Honda—are committed to producing boatloads of these cars by 2015, and General Motors (which has sunk nearly $2 billion into hydrogen tech) is quite likely to join their ranks. We have 160,000 gas stations in America, and we’re not duplicating that with hydrogen anytime soon, but I expect to see modest networks in California (San Francisco, San Diego and L.A.) and New York by rollout time in 2015. Outside the U.S., Japan and Germany are gearing up, and the sleeper is Korea—which could have 500 stations by 2030.

Green garages: Fix-it by Mr. Green Jeans.
The Earth Garage is the place to go for MicroGreen oil filters, triple-edged earth-friendly wiper blades and membership in the AAA-alternative Better World Club. It’s for people who aren’t quite ready to plug in yet. “Maybe you’ve got your eye on that Tesla electric sports car—it’s yours for a cool 100 grand,” says founder Bob Leonard. “Well, maybe not. The reality is you got a lot on your plate and you’re just not quite ready to buy a new car.” So you make do with a 10-year-old Accord, but try to keep it in tune. The Colorado-based Green Garage is about greening that den of oil spills and Michelin girlie calendars, the neighborhood repair shop: places like Ray Magliozzi’s Good News Garage in Cambridge, Our Fair City. So far, the Green Garage (free Wi-Fi!) has two locations, in Denver and Boulder. They do stuff like recycling the paper inside air filters, and the rubber in belts and hoses. Their version of WD40 is a soy product.

Small cars, small volumes: Blink if you miss the EVs.

Ford’s finally rolling out the Focus Electric in December, but 2012 will be its year. (Jim Motavalli photo)
Ford’s finally rolling out the Focus Electric in December, but 2012 will be its year. (Jim Motavalli photo)

As I write this, Ford is announcing the market debut of its all-new, all-dancing Focus Electric, “the flagship of Ford’s transformed lineup,” with a newly announced 100 MPGe, or miles per gallon equivalent. I’ve driven it, and it’s an impressive car, but Ford is being very circumspect about how many it’s actually going to produce, at least in the early months. Sue Cischke, Ford VP of Environment, said, “Right now, we’re getting ready to provide a little bit slower entry.” Asked to quantify rollout figures for 2011, she said, “Some.” But 2011 is almost over, and the company does say it will ramp up in 2012—if demand warrants. Meanwhile, General Motors may be planning to initially produce only about 2,000 of its Spark EVs. This is nearly a stealth program, and GM is plainly putting all its resources into the Volt.

Battery EVs are helpful for meeting California’s tough zero-emission mandates, but the domestic automakers clearly like hybrids and plug-in hybrids a lot better. I predict that they’ll be looking for extra factory space, because EVs are nice little demonstration programs no longer.

A final bonus trend:
California will have maybe half the electric vehicles on the U.S. market in the first few years, though other hotspots could develop. This video looks at the state’s early-adopter market:

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