After many years struggling for recognition, electric cars suddenly are big news in Europe.
At the Paris auto show last month, Chevrolet, Nissan, Renault, Mitsubishi, Subaru and Smart displayed electric passenger cars. Other companies presented hybrids, battery-powered sports cars, light commercial vehicles and tiny electric city cars.
No model captured the change in attitude more dramatically than the B0 (pronounced "B zero"). The B0, a collaboration between French industrialist Vincent Bollore and the Italian design house Pininfarina, was unveiled on the Pininfarina stand alongside a Pininfarina-styled Ferrari California. The stylish, battery-powered B0 stole the attention from the Ferrari.
None of this would have seemed possible two years ago. But recent fuel price spikes and the threat of mandatory carbon dioxide emissions standards in Europe have led automakers to add zero-emission vehicles into their product plans.
In London, the city-center congestion charge has led to a number of tax-exempt, battery-powered commuter vehicles from start-up companies. Stockholm and Milan, Italy, also levy a congestion charge. With other cities likely to follow, automakers now are taking electric-car development much more seriously.
Analysts see battery-powered cars and plug-in hybrids as big business in the next decade, perhaps as much as 22 percent of western European sales, up from nearly nothing now. Between now and 2012, they are less certain about the likely increase in sales.
If fuel prices continue to rise sharply, customers will tend to buy smaller but stay with conventional vehicles, said Wolfgang Bernhart, a partner at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants based in Stuttgart. He said: "I see relatively low numbers of pure electric vehicles under that scenario."
But if fuel prices continue to rise and other conditions are met--battery prices come down; public utilities provide a suitable recharging infrastructure, and the European Union sticks to its 95-grams-per-kilometer CO2 emissions target for 2020--the future of electric vehicles, or EVs, will be much brighter, he said.
"I can see up to 3 percent of all cars being pure electrics by 2020, with a further 19 percent being plug-in hybrids," Bernhart said.
A plug-in hybrid such as the Chevrolet Volt has a much bigger battery than a conventional hybrid, allowing it to recharge overnight and accomplish most daily commutes with little emissions. The Volt's internal combustion engine acts as a range extender, thus removing what consumers perceive as the main drawback of electric cars: a limited range.
Whether plug-in hybrids will sell better than pure electric vehicles will depend not only on technical factors such as the cost and availability of batteries but also on what taxation rules are imposed on them, Bernhart said.
Renault-Nissan is among those betting on pure electric vehicles. Its first model will be based on the Kangoo van, derived from a car, and will reach consumers and business users in 2010 through leases in conjunction with electricity utilities. A concept version of the vehicle, the Z.E. (for zero emissions), was shown at the Paris show.
Two more vehicles will follow: an electric version of the Fluence sedan in 2011 and a purpose-designed electric small car in 2012.
Renault COO Patrick Pelata expects the French automaker to sell 20,000 to 40,000 electric vehicles in 2011 and more than 100,000 in 2012. "This is a strategic move," he said. Electric cars are "going to reshape the industry."
Renault-Nissan has gone much further than other automakers in revealing its plans for zero-emission vehicles. The automaker has a partnership with the electric-car infrastructure concern Project Better Place, of Palo Alto, Calif., and electric utilities to install electric recharging sites in Israel and Denmark starting in 2011.
Smart is testing electric versions of its ForTwo minicar in London and Berlin. Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche has promised "five-figure production numbers" by 2011 or 2012.
Mitsubishi says vehicles such as its i MiEV electric minicar are feasible now.
A number of smaller, independent companies used the London auto show in July to present battery-powered versions of small cars made in China or Hong Kong.
Established London importers such as GoingGreen, which imports the successful G Wiz from India, and Nice are exploring markets outside London. Nice plans to sell its car nationwide in the United Kingdom. "There is no need to sit back and wait for the majors to come with EVs," said Nice co-founder, ex-Lotus executive Evert Guertsen. "This market is for new entrants."
Norway's Th!nk, owned by Ford Motor Co. from mid-1999 until January 2003, is gearing up to make 10,000 cars a year.The revised Th!nk City, which Ford engineered, is selling well to private buyers in Scandinavia. In the second quarter of next year, sales will begin in western Europe, says incoming CEO Richard Canny.
Th!nk's initial markets will be Scandinavian and selected European cities such as Paris, London, Rome and Milan and Madrid and Barcelona, Spain, Canny told Automotive News Europe days after he was named CEO last month.
(Source: Automotive News)