Still Baby Steps for Big Auto & Electric Cars

With the launch of Nissan’s all-electric LEAF and GM’s range-extended EV the Volt, the first mainstream electric cars are finally reaching customers in the U.S. But after surveying the electrification plans of the bulk of Big Auto at the L.A. Auto Show last week, it’s clear the industry as a whole is still in the baby step stage.

The biggest news out of the show last week were the launches of electric cars that will act as test cases for companies, and may or may not reach large volume commercialization. Take Toyota’s unveiling of an electric version of its RAV-4 SUV, which will be built in conjunction with Silicon Valley’s own Tesla Motors (s TLSA) and will offer a production version sometime in 2012.

Remember Toyota actually made a limited run of the original RAV-4 EVs back in the late 90s, and stopped the line because of what it said was a lack of consumer demand. Now Toyota is bringing back that flagship EV, and, with Tesla, will make 35 test vehicles in the near term. Toyota execs described the RAV-4 EV they showed off at the L.A. Auto Show as being in “Phase 0,” with basically a RAV-4 body combined with Tesla’s powertrain and battery tech in it. Phase 1 and Phase 2, which will be developed over the next 2 years, will deliver a more modified version of the car that will be designed based on the test data of driving the demo cars.

Volvo was also showing off its electric car, the C30, at the L.A. Auto Show, and the company started testing the car with demo-drivers and fleets this week in California. But again, the C30 is still in the prototype phase, and Volvo isn’t providing many details about pricing or launch plans. At the end of the day, it could just end up as an interesting pilot program for the automaker.

I also test drove BMW’s all-electric MINI E, which is one of 500 test MINI-E’s out there right now. While BMW has just received the first big chunk of data about how MINI-E’s “perform” in the wild, the automaker will not be producing the MINI-E in large volumes. Instead, BMW will launch a different EV still under development in 2012.

The other big EV news at the show was that Honda showed off an electric concept version of its compact Fit car. The Fit EV is also in the development stage, and a production version of it won’t be unveiled until 2012, too. Like Toyota, Honda also developed a similar EV — the EV-Plus — in the late 90s, which it killed off due to lack of consumer demand.

Looks like 2010 is the year to start reviving these former experiments. Will these automakers have more commitment to the EV this time around? Not necessarily. If consumers don’t buy these cars (if the Nissan LEAF isn’t a success) I would bet that the RAV-4 EV and the Honda Fit EV won’t be made in very large volumes again this time around.

The electric vehicle market is still in a very nascent and critical stage right now. As John Gartner, analyst with Pike Research, put it last week: “It could easily take several years for mainstream car shoppers to get comfortable with the idea of electric vehicles.” Auto makers know that and the bulk of them are taking baby steps into EVs.

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