Thursday, September 12, 2013

Europe goes electric

The Economist
WHEN the Frankfurt motor show opens its doors to the public this weekend, visitors better watch their step: they will encounter many new models getting their power by plugging into the wall. This is the year of the electric car, at least as far as European carmakers are concerned. They are ready to deliver a record number of hybrids, plug-ins and pure battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), covering just about every size and price range.
Europe’s brands have good reasons to go electric. Their home markets boast some of the world’s highest gas prices. The technology will also prove critical if carmakers are to meet the continent’s ever more stringent limits on CO2 emissions—a particularly tough challenge for high-line manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, which is introducing a new plug-in version of its big S-Class sedan at the Frankfurt show.
At the other end of the spectrum, Volkswagen has its eyes set on emerging markets with the new e-Golf, a version of its ever-popular hatchback line, as well as the smaller e-Up! “The empire strikes back,” proclaimed Heinz-Jakob Neusser, as the two models rolled onto the stage at a launch event during the media-preview days in Frankfurt. Europe’s largest carmaker now says that it wants to have 40 hybrids, plug-ins and BEVs in the showrooms of its dozen brands by 2018. This represents a significant shift: at the beginning of the decade the firm’s senior executives were still dismissing battery technology.
Volkswagen isn’t the only brand that has had a change of heart. “All makers are going to come to the table because they just can’t do without electric propulsion,” Carlos Ghosn, boss of the Renault-Nissan alliance, said at a press conference in Frankfurt. The Japanese half of the partnership is now the biggest maker of BEVs with its Nissan Leaf. It also has plans to have at least four more electric models in showrooms by decade’s end, along with new plug-ins and conventional hybrids.
Mr Ghosn has been one of the leading proponents of battery technology, but he acknowledged that consumers have not embraced electric propulsion nearly as rapidly as anticipated. All told, battery-powered vehicles still account for less than 4% of America’s car market. In other important markets the numbers are even worse. Only in Japan have consumers made an electric car one of the top sellers: the Toyota Prius hybrid.
That could change as there are more options to choose from. Equally important will be a better charging infrastructure, proponents point out. Motorists will then not have to wait until they come home to plug in. But the real motivator will be the pocketbook, according to Volkswagen’s Mr Neusser. “It’s always about energy costs,” he said. The company claims that the e-Golf and e-Up! each require just a little more than €3 worth of electricity for 100 kilometres of driving. Even with the most fuel-efficient conventional powertrains, travelling that distance would cost at least two to three times as much.
Granted, there is the initial cost penalty when buying electric vehicles, as well as technical restrictions, such as limited range and long charging times (which is why even an optimist like Nissan’s Mr Ghosn doesn’t expect battery-based vehicles tp pick up more than a 10% market share over the coming decade). But there is a less tangible, emotional element, according to Andy Goss, currently boss of Jaguar/Land Rover (JLR) in America: many buyers of battery-powered vehicles simply want to do the right thing for the environment. Others want to wear a green halo.
That could help selling JLR cars with a new diesel-hybrid system. It is being shown in Frankfurt for the first time in a number of Range Rover models. The technology is said to reduce fuel consumption by about a quarter while maintaining the performance of a big V-8, the carmaker claims.
JLR’s models are not the only ones being unveiled at the trade show that may do away with the trade-off between fuel economy and performance. BMW brought to Frankfurt the second of two new battery-powered models that will make up a new electric sub-brand. The i8 is a high-performance plug-in sports car, whereas the i3 revealed earlier this summer is a pure battery city car.
And then there is the Porsche 918, a plug-in hybrid supercar (pictured), which is also on display in Frankfurt. At a price of $845,000, a buyer isn’t likely to make the monthly payment up on fuel savings. But in this case, going green comes with the added benefit of having 718 horsepower under the hood—enough to charge from 0 to 60 in 3.1 seconds.