An inside track on electric cars
How American automakers are staying competitive with electric vehicles, and what car companies in other countries are bringing to the market.
Ford Motor Company's head of electrification, Nancy Gioia, says the electric Focus is coming in 2011 -- no word yet on the price tag. GM's main electric offering, the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid, rolls out late next year.
Environment writer Jim Motavalli calls the field embryonic now, but close to explosive growth. He's the author of the book "Forward Drive," and writes about electric cars for the "New York Times."
"I think Ford is actually at the forefront of the three, big American automakers," said Motavalli. "I think they actually have a good overall strategy. General Motors could be said to be putting all of its efforts into the Volt, and I think time will tell whether that's a good strategy or not. Because of its economic woes, Chrysler has announced that it's going to be building electric-drive vehicles, but I think they've been able to spend very little on developing those."
While Ford may be at the forefront, Motavalli says the company is still "very conservative" in the space. "They don't think there's a lot of early adopters out there."
Internationally, he thinks Japan's Nissan has the "smartest overall strategy for vehicle electrification."
"And what's smart about their approach is they've also got into the charging business. The Renoit-Nissan alliance has built strategic alliances around the world to set up charging stations."
The Chinese, Motavalli says, are very well poised for the electric car market. "The Chinese companies, in many cases, are vertically integrated and also own battery companies.
"The most prominent player in this space is BYD, which is a Chinese company. I think the name translates to Build Your Dreams, and Warren Buffet is a ten percent owner in this company now, and probably would buy more if they let him. And they are one of China's biggest battery makers. They make batteries for all kinds of portable electronic devices.
"But they have also got to be a fairly large automaker in China -- they introduced the world's first plug-in hybrid car on the Chinese market, and they're planning to bring a battery car into the US that would be competitive with vehicles like the Ford battery-electric and the Nissan Leaf."
Motavalli has been visiting a lot of automakers, going to companies both big and small, and test driving a lot of vehicles. He says he's seeing the more creative and innovative ideas coming from the startups.
"Tesla's only built 700 cars. Fisker has not yet actually put out its Carma vehicle; it's going to come out next year. But, I do have confidence and I think that some of the startup companies have really smart technology, really good people working on it, and I think they are worth supporting.
"Though I think that the General Motors efforts to date show they are capable of reinventing themselves and rethinking their old paradigms. I mean, you take GM as the classic example of the high-bound, bureaucratic company and, if you look at it today, you see a lot of evidence of new shoots and growth and new thinking, and I think that's crucial if GM is going to survive."
Motavalli doesn't believe electric cars will come to dominate the roads in the next five years, but the ones that will be out there will put a dent in greenhouse gas emissions.
"I wish the timetable was faster. We still have a massive learning curve in the American people to get them used to the idea of driving an electric car and charging up. I do see a very fast spread in which charging technology will take off and big-box stores, for instance, will have free electric car charging, and this will get people to visit them.
"When you think about it, a charge doesn't cost very much, it might cost three or four dollars; but if you get somebody in the store and they basically have to stay there until the car is charged -- a fast charge might take 20 minutes -- you've got a captive shopper for 20 minutes. That is worth more than four dollars. That's why you get this move towards not only widely available charging, but free charging as a competitive advantage."
Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More "Living on Earth."