Auto Industry Revving for EV Renaissance, or Stuck in Neutral?

When the Big Three auto executives drove away from Capitol Hill last month, they left a trail of buzz about the electrification of the auto industry. GM’s plug-in hybrid Volt, which the company says will enter production in less than a year, and Chrysler’s proposed portfolio of electric vehicles assumed starring roles in the automakers’ pitch for federal aid. So it was little surprise that this week’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit kicked off with plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles in the spotlight. But has the Detroit show revealed an industry revving up for renaissance with its 2010 lineups, or stuck in neutral — years away from commercializing electric vehicle technology?

Chrysler, which debuted five electric concept vehicles this week, faces particularly long odds, given the company’s ongoing financial struggle. Government rescue or an acquisition would have to come sooner rather than later for those vehicles to hit showrooms. “It’s as if they’re just putting those in the shop window to make themselves more attractive for sale,” said Mike Omotoso, an analyst with J.D. Power and Associates who specializes in alternative-fuel vehicles and powertrains. “It’s hard to see them developing the electric vehicles they showed.”

So, despite all the excitement about cars like the Chevy Volt, Cadillac Converj, Chrysler 200C EV and Dodge Circuit EV,  hybrid technology — yes, that old thing — is the one poised to take hold in the next couple years. Sure, the Toyota Prius has been available in the U.S. since 2000, and in Japan for more than a decade. But with three new hybrids, including the $18,000 Honda Insight, slated to roll out in 2010, the Prius now faces competition — and pressure to drop prices — like never before.

Today, hybrid technology has made its way from a sneaker lookalike that could never haul a load of lumber into SUVs and pick-up trucks. That’s not to say that Toyota can’t handle the fight; the company still has a first-mover’s advantage. Increased variety from competitors could open the hybrid market to a much broader consumer base. While this could put a dent in the market shares of more established automakers — Honda and Toyota — these companies have had time to lower production costs.

Not so with EVs, which still occupy a niche luxury market: Silicon Valley startup Tesla Motors’s all-electric Roadster goes for $109,000, and it’s second vehicle planned for production will retail for at least $20,000 more. “It’s luxury because we have to make money,” said Henrik Fisker, founder and CEO of Fisker Automotive, whose plug-in hybrid Karma (slated to enter production this year) will retail for at least $87,900. GM expects to lose money on the first generation of Volts priced at $40,000, which in the midst of recession could throw a wet towel on demand. R&D chief Larry Burns has said he expects the Volt sticker price to drop for future generations, with profits rolling in by 2020 as production volume increases.

Still, EV industry observers have reason for optimism. “Everyone — government, manufacturers, consumers — is on the same page, chomping at the same bit,” said Electric Drive Transportation Association spokesperson Jennifer Watts.  Whereas hybrids started out with a solitary entry (that sneaker-like Prius), then grew to two, three, and now more than 20 models on the market, electric vehicles are coming out in concept form (and are slated, at least, for production) at a more rapid pace. “We’ve solved the desirability factor,” Fisker said. “Now automakers will want to show they’re a part of it.”

So what happens between now and 2020? Fisker says he thinks surviving automakers and new startups will scramble to get electric concepts ready for 2010. A few of them will follow through to production, and eventually, mass-market affordability. Fisker anticipates a $20,000 plug-in hybrid will be available within six years. Otomoso said plug-in launches slated for the next three to four years are realistic. That means the age of the hybrid has arrived. If battery technology and recharging infrastructure (not to mention favorable gas prices and tax policies) come into place — and if automakers maintain the serious focus of this year’s show — the age of the EV could follow.