Wait! Did we hear the word ‘Green’ in Detroit?

— Pratima H

It could have been business and bling/dazzle/glam as usual. But then that would not have made last week’s Auto Mecca worth the talk and walk, would it?

Call it unusual or about-time, the most awaited CEO on glossy metal-strutting stages at Detroit was an Electric car Czar.

Elon Musk’s appearance and stage-acrobatics delivered on the anticipation that had built up days before his arrival. And among other things, he did talk about the future of cars being ‘ electric’, very very ‘electric’.

His confidence was welded well in quotes like these:

“All transport, with the ironic exception of rockets, will go fully electric….The question is when it goes fully electric.”Roadster_Goodwood

“… the need for sustainable transport is incredibly high and other automakers need to put a huge amount of effort behind their electric vehicle platforms.”

“I strongly recommend making stronger investments in sustainable cars.”

“The main reason I’m here is to talk about electric vehicles and to do what I can to encourage other automakers to accelerate their electric-vehicle programs. The need for sustainable transport is incredibly high.”

“ I launched Tesla because there were no great electric cars.”

Oh yes, and he also talked about reducing batter costs by 30 per cent, shipping millions of vehicles by 2025, unwrapping an affordable Model 3 car very soon and launching a Gigafactory for attacking the battery problems that plague this niche industry.

But why are we talking about Musk at all?

Detroit ‘Electrified’

Long before the red carpets could roll back, the annual Detroit auto show was abuzz with the announcement of General Motors’ new Chevy Baby – the Bolt, the electric cousin of GM’s popular hybrid model Volt.

Soon enough Hyundai joined this side of the glossy stage and expressed plans for producing a plug-in hybrid version of its midsize Sonata saloon.

GM’s kid could is a concept car now but is being speculated to be out of the cradle anytime soon. Soon, however would be extremely defined by ‘how soon’ but 2017 would be a good year to watch on that front.

The penny has dropped. The so-called niche and struggling and boring ‘electric-car’ segment is surprise, surprise, not so lonely anymore. From innovation-fever-struck die-hards like Elon Musk to well-entrenched huge name-plates, everyone has started parking a wagon this side and Detroit this year reiterated that tack.

From Fords to Bimmers, the place is replete with whimpering attempts to still-in-the-race horses. Think of Chevy Volt or Nissan’s Leaf, Ford Mondeo or a slew of other PHEVs (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles) and you will get the drift.

Ignition Key

It could be Ferdinand Porsche (yes, the same sports car magnet) who fiddled with the idea of an electric car in 1898. Or it could have been the Baker Motor Vehicle Company in 1899 that pushed the initial pedal foot on electric cars as a concept. The former – P1, is touted as the world’s first hybrid electric car while the latter was the one that, as rumored, was bought by ‘the’ Thomas Alva Edison, who did not drive otherwise.

shutterstock_135440300 Auto-folklore also swims that Henry Ford was friends with Edison and they both partnered to explore options for a low-cost electric car as early as 1914.

From chemists to blacksmiths to scientists, many people have attributed to have a role in tinkering with the idea when it was too nascent. There was a blacksmith from Vermont who created some of the first small-scale electric cars and there was a British inventor who developed the first crude electric carriage and there was also William Morrison, a chemist who made it to the pages of this history for a six-passenger vehicle capable of a top speed of 14 miles per hour. Some say that it was the year 1831 when Joseph Henry, a math professor from Albany NY, built the first electric motor in an attempt to grasp Michael Faraday’s electro-magnetic theory.

There is another story about Baker Motor Vehicle Co’s horse ‘Torpedo’, made as a fully streamlined electric racing car and capable of top speed of 120 mph, which happened to crash and kill two spectators on its first speed trial.

Was it this crash or other ones or a crossroads of many practical and financial reasons that has kept the Electric barouche out of mainstream lives so far?

Or was it Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T that made everyone forget the very idea, thanks to the extreme convenience and mass-pick-up that this segment towed?

As always, the devil is in the footnote.

Conking-off till the 21st Century

There was a time when the New York City actually harbored a fleet of more than 60 electric taxis and they even accounted for around a third of all vehicles on the road by 1900 and continued a spree of strong sales for eight to ten years. But we don’t see this breed too much around, do we?

It took some time for people to jump from horse-backs to seats in a chaise, but weirdly, it has taken endless eons for people to get used to the idea of an electric vehicle instead of their gas-cousins.

The reason is no rocket science. A gasoline-powered car has understandably ruled the fancy, wallets and roads of modern civilization’s tarmac because of constant improvements to the internal combustion engine, design advancements, convenience lifecycle and engineering innovations.

Just like their late cousin Mr. Steam-car which had refilling issues and long gestation time windows to start, Electric cars too, continued to cough and struggle with basic pick-up and hence stayed on the pillion seat vis a vis gas-run cars.

This is news, news, despite the fact that electric vehicles (EVs) are quiet, easy to drive, don’t cost a bomb like their gas counterparts for fuel, and do not barf any pollutants to top.

They can be a great idea of ironing out urban transportation hassles, congested cities, traffic woes, and are shockingly easy driving for women and learners. Plus, no marks for guessing why – they are obviously a big boon for climate-alarm-wrecked industry and consumers.Volt_charging_station

But irony is irony.

At a time when skyrocketing oil prices, geopolitical riffs, gasoline shortages and economic scrabbles have smeared car-customers the world over with a guilt and apprehension of ‘what will happen to my gas-run car’; the notion of a pragmatic electric car, is still glued to the backseat.

Electric cars have been fighting some inherent, quintessentially-untamed problems till date. The high cost of replacement batteries, the issue of highly toxic waste left by them, absence of grid-powered infrastructure are just some starting troubles.

Driving range, safety, and cost top as another set of barriers in the direction of mass electric vehicle (EV) adoption. One has to tackle how to maximize stored energy relative to the weight of EVs, and allow for more multiples to the driving range therein, and at the same time there are snags like overheating, use of flammable materials and storage that batteries still house.

Conventional EV batteries use costly materials with heavy, protective components and hence the car is supposed to trade off weight for safety thus expending more energy, and a reduced driving range.

Then there’s the classic chicken and egg problem of requirement of lots of power stations to sell lots of cars. And vice versa. The reported market leader Tesla too has not been able to crack the affordable model game as electric cars still stay expensive to make.

In fact, the company has gone to the length of opening its patents to other players because it says it wants competition so that electric cars can become mainstream, as with the number of companies that enter the market, the incentives to invest in infrastructure for these types of vehicles (such as charging stations, etc.), will grow and so will the market.


Driving back from the Sunset

Google’s experiment with self-driving cars has stirred up interest and serious attention to the potholes in this segment. If cars can be controlled and spaced on a road evenly, making highways work sort of like train lines between cities; then people would be able to travel for miles without using batteries or fuel. That would be a considerable win since batteries continue to present themselves as a major problem area.

However industry is working towards making batteries smaller, more practical, or toying with other options like fuel cells, super/ultra capacitors etc.

A few years back, the US the Energy Department had invested more than $115 million for a nation-wise charging infrastructure for a blanket of residential, commercial and public chargers across the country. The department as well as many automakers’ research and development money has worked towards reducing battery costs and improving their performance, overall affordability, durability and energy efficiency aspects.

It was in 2012 that President Obama launched an EV Everywhere Grand Challenge, wherein America’s best and brightest scientists, engineers and businesses were galvanized by the Energy Department to make plug-in electric vehicles more as affordable as today’s gasoline-powered vehicles by

There was “The EV Everywhere Grand Challenge: Road to Success” report, that tracked the progress the Department and industry have already made from January 2013 to 2014 and it turns out that over this period of time, the Department has invested $225 million to address key barriers to widespread adoption of plug-in electric vehicles. So DOE research and development has reduced the volume production cost of electric drive vehicle batteries to $325/kWhr, about 50% lower than in 2010. Consumer acceptance also grew – 97,000 plug-in electric vehicles were sold in 2013. In fact, total U.S. PEV sales in model year 2013 kind of doubled those of 2012.

For consumer adoption of PEVs to continue, what we need is a combination of further technology developments, cost reductions, and the expansion of PEV charging infrastructure.

There is a program by Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – METALS or “Modern Electro/Thermo chemical Advances in Light Metals Systems,” that works towards exploring cost-effective and energy-efficient manufacturing techniques to process metals such as aluminum, titanium, and magnesium for use in vehicles. Some METALS projects have been reported to be also examining the sorting and recycling of light metals using automated processes to ensure minimal loss of scrap materials. Recycling aluminum uses only about 5% of the energy required to initially produce aluminum, an immense savings over primary production of aluminum from bauxite.

Meanwhile, fuel cell electric vehicle technology (FCEVs) could also come as a welcome answer in time. Here, instead of storing and releasing energy like a battery, fuel cell electric vehicles will create electricity from fuel which is usually in the form of hydrogen and oxygen; with the only emission being water. If they can be made from renewable sources, they could finally be the plausibly cheap and easy option everyone has been waiting for.


If Navigant Research’s latest estimates are any indicator, the segment is revving up with global CAGRs of 11.5% for HEVs (Hybrid Electric Vehicles), 31.9% for PHEVs (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles), and 31.5% for BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles). In particular, Asia Pacific and North America are expected to be the largest markets for HEVs. On the other side, Japan and the United States pop as the largest singular markets (1.1 million and 1 million HEV sales in 2020, respectively) but North America is the only market anticipated to have significantly higher sales of PHEVs than BEVs (a 1.5:1 sales ratio).

Asia Pacific is interestingly pegged to be the largest market for PEVs, with 1.6 million PHEV and BEV sales combined in 2020. PHEV and BEV models are increasing in number and will be less limited and by the end of 2014 or mid-2015 in most regions.

What is most eye-catching is the part where Battery packs, which can account for as much as half of PEV costs, could decrease during the forecast 2nd-Toyota-Priusperiod wherein HEVs and PHEVs are anticipated to see a 10% and 26% decline in pack costs by 2020, respectively. BEVs could remain flat, but see improvements in vehicle range and performance during that period.

The auto industry has been trying to stay up to speed to the demand and supply changes that the hitherto-niche market of EVs has been evolving with.

It was in 1973 that General Motors possibly developed a prototype for an urban electric car and somewhere around the same time that the likes of NASA chimed in with an electric lunar rover as the first manned vehicle to drive on the moon.

Towards 1975, US saw a flurry of electric delivery jeeps that the United States Postal Service used in a 1975 test program and the pot was stirred time and again with regulations and policy makers too. For instance, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment, the 1992 Energy Policy Act or transportation emissions regulations issued by the California Air Resources Board.

GM’s EV1 was developed from the ground up and swiftly gained a cult following and had it not been for the high production costs, due to which it was discontinued in 2001, the car would have kept the spark going.

But today, after a long and pregnant pit stop, car-makers are trying not to miss this new bandwagon.

Every auto-major worth its salt or steel, is trying best to outrace their rivals. The market today has everything from a two-passenger Smart ED to the midsized Ford C-Max Energi to the BMW i3 luxury SUV. The road is well occupied with exclusive brands dedicated to this segment – picture Nissan’s Leaf, GM’s Volt, Toyota Prius and the likes.

Toyota Prius, for instance, made its mark as a notable name for mass-produced HEVs where Toyota used a nickel metal hydride battery — a technology that was supported by the Energy Department’s research.

GM’s Volt, an HEV had a gasoline engine too to supplement its electric drive once the battery is depleted so that consumers may be able drive on electric for most trips and gasoline to extend the vehicle’s range. Nissan’s LEAF was an all-electric vehicle BEV powered by an electric motor.

Tesla Motors has commendably attacked the market smartly and it started producing a luxury electric sports car that could go more than 200 miles on a single charge but has oft been criticized for its support from government credits and environment incentives.

Electric vehicles sales could to grow to nearly 7 percent of new vehicles— or 6.6 million per year — worldwide by 2020, as per some reckonings by Navigant Research.

SONY DSCAt Detroit this year, GM’s Bolt announcement made a lot of headlines and now Nissan is also planning an electric car with similar range as the Bolt concept’s 200 miles.

How would someone like Tesla react here? At the face of it, the cult-EV maker has welcomed Chevy’s new hat in the ring and Musk’s team could be heard saying.” We are always supportive of other manufacturers who bring compelling electric vehicles to the market, Tesla applauds Chevrolet for introducing the Bolt, and we are excited to learn more about the product.”

In a statement, Tesla even stamped Bolt’s introduction as a sign that electric cars have a bright future ahead of them. Musk has quipped that “[Automakers] are uncertain about the demand for electric cars; It’s sort of a chicken and egg problem.”


The flamboyant CEO calls this wave of electric cars at the auto show as ‘great’. “I think that’s great. I hope to see a lot more of that.” But he hastens to qualify that “it is hard to take them seriously until we see a lot more serious numbers.”

Potshots aside, ‘serious numbers’ is indeed the plug that this market segment needs.

Would next year’s Detroit bring that ‘Bling’?


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