November 16, 2010 / 12:47 AM / 9 years ago

Carmakers gearing up for mass market EVs

PARIS/DETROIT (Reuters) - When it comes to the outlook for electric vehicles, the auto industry is divided — there’s Nissan-Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn on one side and everybody else on the other.

A Citroen C Zero electric car is displayed on media day at the Paris Mondial de l'Automobile September 30, 2010. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

Thierry Koskas, head of French carmaker Renault’s electric vehicle project, told the Reuters Global Autos Summit in Paris on Monday that electric vehicles would account for about 5 percent of the world car market by 2016.

Koskas reiterated a longer-term forecast by Renault Chief Executive Ghosn, who said EVs could account for one in 10 new car sales by 2020. Koskas said the ramp-up would be gradual: “Probably in 2016 it will be half of that.”

But most other executives at the summit were less sanguine about the prospects for the electric car over the next decade. Ford Motor Corp’s head of product development, Derrick Kuzak, said that by 2020, between 10 percent and 20 percent of the auto market will be hybrid, plug-in or electric vehicles.

Of that piece, a sliver of just 5 percent will be battery-electric vehicles, Kuzak said.

“Frankly, it’s dependent upon whether there can be a next step in battery range technology that might change that number a bit,” Kuzak told Reuters.

Electric vehicles are plugged into an electric outlet to charge the battery and there is no internal combustion engine.

Renault, with Japanese alliance partner Nissan Motor Co Ltd, is aggressively pushing electric vehicles — the two partners are investing 4 billion euros together in such cars.

But a range of questions remains as to the viability of pure electric vehicles, such as charging infrastructure and the lifespan of the car battery.

“We do see a market for EVs but their cost and convenience is still a large question,” said Toyota Motor Corp U.S. brand sales chief Bob Carter at the summit in Los Angeles.

CHARGING STATIONS

Nissan’s all-electric Leaf will launch in dealerships in the United States in December and will take the roads of some European markets early next year.

Renault’s Kangoo and Fluence electric models are due to go on sale in September 2011. The French carmaker’s Twizzy mini-vehicle and Zoe urban car models will be available from the second half of 2012.

Early sales of fully electric vehicles are not expected to reach high numbers and will mostly be to businesses, but the first few thousand cars will road-test charging points and give an idea of the technology’s potential.

Carmakers are scrambling to ensure charging stations are in place at car parks, supermarkets and on streets to ease anxiety about the distances vehicles can travel before needing a top-up.

Renault and Nissan together have about 80 partnerships with local authorities, national governments and businesses to get charging points in place.

In the United States, buyers of electric vehicles are the beneficiaries of tax credits, rebates and other incentives that cut the price of a vehicle and boost demand ahead of the “natural curve” of demand, AlixPartners LP managing director John Hoffecker said.

“How long that will be sustainable for taxpayers who are funding that individual buyer to buy so we go ahead of that natural curve is the question,” Hoffecker said during the summit in Detroit.

THE ADOPTION RATIO

Allan Rushforth, vice president of Hyundai Motor Europe, told the summit, at the Paris office of Reuters: “We believe hybrids and electric vehicles are a long-term proposition. The 10-year share of the European market for those vehicles is probably single digit.”

Koskas added: “One of the limits is the adoption ratio, how quickly people will move to the new technology.

“That is something we observe in a lot of industries — when you introduce CD, DVD, Blu-ray, you have early adopters who jump straight away and people who wait.”

Green technologies are in focus in Europe, as the first mass-market EVs, including PSA Peugeot Citroen’s iOn and C-Zero, based on Mitsubishi’s iMiEV, prepare to take to the roads.

Gildo Pallanca Pastor, chief executive of Monaco-based electric sportscar maker Venturi, told the summit his company is working on two- and three-wheeled models.

Venturi may open up its capital to investors to help fund its growing series of electric vehicle projects, he said.

Venturi, which sells the Fetish electric sports car for around 300,000 euros, also has a deal in place with France’s PSA Peugeot Citroen to deliver electric Berlingo vans.

It also plans to start production of the Eclectic, a small car with solar panels, late next year, and this year set a world EV speed record of 515 kilometres per hour.

Reporting by Christiaan Hetzner, Gilles Guillaume and Helen Massy-Beresford; Bernie Woodall in Los Angeles; and Kevin Krolicki and David Bailey in Detroit; Editing by David Hulmes, Matthew Lewis, Gary Hill

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