— Throw a rock anywhere at the Detroit auto show and you're sure to hit an electric car: from the $24,000 battery-powered sedan made by China's BYD to the projected $400,000 SLS E-Cell supercar from Mercedes-Benz.
Yet despite the widening support for electric propulsion, auto executives are cautioning that “battery power is not for everyone,” as Nissan’s chief U.S. executive Carlos Tavares said.
Certainly electric propulsion has created the most buzz at this year’s Detroit show, formally known as the North American International Auto Show.
General Motors’ plug-in Chevrolet Volt took top honors as Car of the Year at the show, and GM CEO Dan Akerson announced plans for an additional multipurpose vehicle using the Volt’s underlying technology likely to come to market in 2012 or 2013. Nissan is planning to offer a series of battery-powered cars following the launch of its Leaf sedan late last year.
Yet underlying the surge of new electric models into the marketplace is a fear among industry executives that the technology may fall short of expectations. So they’re hedging their bets, investing into a wide range of other options including diesel, compressed natural gas and even hydrogen that could increase the appeal of alternative power.
There is no question that battery power is gaining traction – in all of its various flavors. Until recently, GM seemed wedded to the Volt system, which relies on battery power to handle the daily commute and an auxiliary internal combustion engine for longer drives. Now, said Akerson, the maker will embrace everything from conventional hybrids to full battery-electric vehicles.
Ford’s exhibit at the show in the cavernous Cobo Hall features its first battery-electric model, the Focus Electric, as well as a plug-in version of its new C-Max microvan, dubbed the Energi. But Ford is also looking at what might be called “battery light” technology, such as the Stop/Start system it will offer on the Focus in Europe.
This technology automatically shuts the engine while idling, then powers back up when the driver’s foot lifts off the brake. Ford estimates the technology can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 10 percent and plans to offer it on 20 percent of its worldwide products by 2014. Some industry experts predict that by the end of the decade Stop/Start could become as common as electronic stability control is today.
Considering the various forms of “electrification,” it could be difficult to find a car on the market that won’t, in a decade or so, use some form of battery technology. That will be all the more likely, industry officials say, if the Environmental Protection Agency moves ahead on a proposal to raise the corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standard to 62 miles per gallon by 2025 from 35.5 mpg as of 2016.
But exactly how much of the market will convert to more advanced systems, especially plug-ins and pure battery-electric vehicles, is a subject of fierce debate. “It depends on a variety of factors,” including fuel costs, government regulations, subsidies, technical advances and especially customer acceptance, said Ford’s global product development chief, Derrick Kuzak.
The outlook is fuzzy enough that Ford’s internal projections call for electrified vehicles – including traditional hybrids, plug-ins and BEVs – to reach anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of the market by 2025.
So while virtually all major carmakers are developing battery cars, there are plenty who are exploring other options.
Honda officials, for example, are playing up their efforts with compressed natural gas, which so far has found only limited acceptance, mostly among fleets like taxi operators who are under pressure to both reduce emissions and curb fuel costs.
Diesel is a particular focus of European makers, and no surprise. Back home, it accounts for roughly half the market.
Such so-called “oil burners” slipped from favor among Americans in the 1980s due to problems that have largely been resolved today, such as sluggishness and the smell of diesel exhaust, but there are signs of a renewed interest domestically. Ernst Lieb, CEO of the U.S. Mercedes-Benz subsidiary, notes that “demand is rising” for diesel, with the diesel-powered version of the ML sport-utility vehicle now accounting for 30 percent of the product’s American volume.
Mercedes officials point out that the new “clean diesel” version of their flagship S-Class, the S350, will deliver better mileage than the hybrid S400. The company has been working on pairing diesel with a hybrid-electric system, a costly solution that could prove practical if, as some expect, gas rises to $5 a gallon.
Mercedes is shooting at as many alternative energy targets as it can hit. The maker not only introduced the battery-power SLS AMG E-Cell supercar in Detroit but also is reminding showgoers that it is fleet testing a hydrogen-powered version of its small B-Class model in California.
Hydrogen fuel cells seemed to be the wave of future just a decade ago but have lost momentum as the spotlight has shifted to electric propulsion. It didn’t help when the Obama administration decided to shift financial support away from hydrogen technology to the development of advanced batteries.
If anything, that shift has reminded industry leaders that it can be risky to focus on any single technology. Unexpected technical problems can set in, and as battery makers are well aware, it can be difficult to win over customers. So, if the Detroit show is any indication, we’ll be seeing both more battery cars – and plenty of other options – on display for the foreseeable future.