June 29, 2012

To meet hype, electric car prices need to go lower, batteries longer, automotive executives agree

By Mark Golden

STANFORD, Calif.-- Electric vehicles have a long way to go if they are to meet the high expectations of environmentalists, some investors and the media, according to several automotive industry executives speaking at the Silicon Valley Energy Summit at Stanford University.

Sticker prices must fall, batteries must last long enough for potential buyers to get home without recharging, and charging stations need to become as common as gas stations are today for electric cars to gain a major share of the market, said representatives of Nissan, Mercedes-Benz and consultancy Gartner.

electric car charge port“There are a lot of hurdles, primarily from a consumer point of view, and with infrastructure issues, too, but right now I think there is a little bit too much hype,” said Thilo Koslowski, founder of the automotive practice at Gartner.

About 22% of Americans are interested in learning more about electric cars, according to a Gartner survey, but once a realistic price is brought up, the level of interest falls to a small fraction of that, said Koslowski.

For other drivers, the barrier is driving distance.

“The Mercedes customer is very picky. They expect the best and it has to work,” said John Tillman, manager of regulatory affairs for Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America. “For the electric vehicle to take hold, the driver has to have a seamless experience.”

But solving the problems of price and battery range simultaneously is a challenge, because the better batteries raise costs. Nissan North America’s west coast project manager, David Peterson, agreed that “prices are still too high,” but he expressed optimism that several manufacturers are expanding production enough that economies of scale will cut costs. Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tenn. is slated to produce 150,000 Leaf model cars a year, as well as 200,000 battery packs.

“Electric vehicles are probably underappreciated by the general public and overhyped by the media. People generally only pay attention when they are shopping for a new car, which on average is every six years,” said Peterson. “Nissan takes a long-term view on this. We know we are going to have to do a lot of work on educating the general public.”

Major Changes to Infrastructure

At least 90% of Leaf buyers have no complaints about the car itself, Peterson said, though they can be frustrated by the difficulty in finding charging stations. Since charging takes hours, most consumers need them two places -- at home and near work -- to consider buying an electric car.

Pasquale Romano, chief executive of Coulomb Technologies, owner of the “ChargePoint” network of charging stations, insisted that the infrastructure is improving rapidly. “We believe that a vehicle has to be able to tell where a charger is and that the charger has to communicate: Okay, I’m up and running,” the company’s chief executive said.

Most car GPS systems have either outdated information on charging stations or none at all. As a result, Coulomb and its competitors produce a mobile applications to get that information to drivers, at least for their individual networks. Coulomb is trying to include stations owned by other companies to make its application more useful, Romano said, but getting that data is a slow process.

Even if today’s infrastructure barriers were overcome, larger ones loom. The new generation of chargers, known as “Level 3,” can charge cars very quickly, but the power grid is not ready to handle the big, instantaneous demand.

Meanwhile, said Koslowski, most buyers of electric cars keep a traditional gasoline powered vehicle as their “backup car” for when they have trips that exceed their electric car’s range. That cost, he said, is a deal breaker for most Americans.

The Silicon Valley Energy Summit, which is hosted annually by Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, covers the best practices, technological advances and policy developments related to more sustainable energy use.

(Mark Golden works in communications at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University.)


Media Contact: Mark Golden, (650) 724-1629,