Electric Cars Roll Into Showrooms and Find Believers

Blogger Phil T picked up his Nissan Leaf on March 31 and has been posting about his experiences ever since.

His reviews?

“We’re very pleased with it,” he writes. “The LEAF drives like a real car, accelerating and stopping quickly.”

Phil T’s experiences are being repeated across the country as others take the electric car plunge and embrace a technology with a decidedly short consumer track record. Pioneers like Phil T, who recounts in detail all his thoughts and experiences on drivingelectric.blogspot.com, blaze the trail for others.

Just how many will follow is one of the big questions on the minds of many. (Well, mine at least). For instance, what about that limited range issue? Will the Chevy Volt, which has a much shorter all-electric capability than the 100-mile Leaf, be the bigger seller?

Will electric vehicles remain a niche market limited to true believers or users whose driving requirements benefit from a zero-emissions ride?

Answers to these questions and many more will materialize over the next year or so. In the meantime, developments in the sector are coming so fast and furious that they’re hard to keep up with. I’ll recount about a half dozen in this post.

For instance, Google’s gotten into the game, promising to map EV recharging stations.

Google has teamed with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and others in the venture, establishing a nationwide online network via GPS. Projects under way via the Clean Cities Program “include the deployment of electric vehicles and chargers” and other technologies like biodiesel and natural gas, U.S. Department of Energy officials said.

Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research just released a report acknowledging the entry of the electric automobile and saying its biggest impact may be preparing the market for the electric scooter and motorcycle. Pike Senior analyst Dave Hurst and President Clint Wheelock write that the market, currently suffering from low demand, is poised for growth in North America and Europe, especially in cities where the relative silence of the electric two-wheelers enables residents greater access and less irritation.

But Asia’s the big buyer with projected sales of 19.6 million e-scooters and 2.9 million e-motorcycles by 2017, Hurst and Wheelock write. North America’s relatively puny but significant e-scooter and e-motorcycle markets are expected to grow to 41,146 e-scooters and 27,971 e-motorcycles in the same period.

Another indication that we aren’t in Dorothy’s Kansas anymore comes from General Motors, which released a statement saying it received 135 clean-energy patents — more in 2010 than any other organization, according to the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index of U.S. patents. Patents include an ultra-efficient hybrid electric vehicle transmission, seamless start-stop fuel control system and a system to preheat the EV battery, improving range.

“GM has clearly put forth a lot of effort in a range of clean-energy technologies,” said Victor Cardona, co-chair of the Cleantech Group at Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti, publisher of the index, in the statement.

Across the pond, Hertz Corp. has teamed with Mitsubishi Motors in the United Kingdom to roll out Mitsubishi’s electric i-MiEV tiny city car as part of its rental fleet. Lance Bradley, Mitsubishi’s UK managing director, underlined the status of the car to the Japanese manufacturer. “The i-MiEV is a very important vehicle for us, making a statement to the global car industry,” he said in a press release.

Plymouth, Mich.-based AVL, a manufacturer of automotive power trains, recently announced its sponsorship of EcoCAR 2: Plugging into the Future, a collegiate engineering competition. AVL will provide resources and guidance, “offering hands-on experience to automotive engineers of the future, advancing the electrification of vehicles,” officials said.

EcoCAR 2 was established by DOE and GM and is meant to train aspiring engineers and develop clean technologies through competition. The 16 university teams were selected when the three-year competition started this spring.

If the level of corporate firepower is any indication, electric vehicles are here to stay. How they will integrate into the current mix and whether alternative fuel like isobutanol, biodiesel, hydrogen or compressed natural gas will play a significant role is a question for the futurists.

In the meantime, people like Phil T will be telling the rest of us how it’s done. His real-world insights provide invaluable information to newbies. For instance, in a recent post, the Leaf owner writes that the farthest he’s driven in a day is 68 miles. He also says range can be variable.

“On the most surprisingly short range day, the range display showed 71 miles in the morning. But after an 8 mile trip taking the family out to lunch and a quick 20 mile freeway drive with air conditioning, the range display only showed 21 miles,” he says. “That’s a reduction of 50 miles of displayed range after driving only 28 miles.”

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