GENEVA AUTO SHOW

EVs: Limited range, unlimited buzz

Mitsubishi’s i MiEV -- one of many electric cars displayed in Geneva -- will launch in June in Japan. Photo credit: PHILIP MEECH
GENEVA — Electric vehicles were everywhere here at the auto show, ranging from tantalizing roadsters to stubby microcars. But for all the buzz, automakers still have no solution to the longstanding problem of limited range.

EVs arriving in the next few years will be limited-range "city cars." Whether electric cars will move beyond that small market segment is unclear.

But automakers very much want zero-emissions electrics in their lineups. Last week, Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally said his company will emphasize EVs. "In 10 years, 12 years, you are going to see a major portion of our portfolio move to electric vehicles," Mulally said at a conference in California.

Industry attention has turned to two proposed solutions: quick battery recharging and battery-swapping stations.

"In the beginning when the infrastructure isn't anywhere, EVs are going to be predominantly in the city," said Andy Palmer, senior vice president of Nissan Motor Co. "But once you've got the fast-charging stations or the swap stations in place, I don't see them being any different from gas-fired cars, to be honest."

Other executives remain unconvinced. One Daimler executive, for instance, decries quick-charge claims as "fantasies."

Too quick?

Quick-charging advocates say widespread installation of commercial chargers would remove consumers' worries about dead batteries. Nissan, which plans to introduce an electric vehicle for fleets in the United States in 2010, says recharging could restore 80 percent of a battery's energy within 30 minutes.

But Herbert Kohler, Daimler vice president for group research and advance engineering, said quick recharging would cut the 10-year life span that Daimler plans for battery packs.

"Don't believe those kinds of fantasies to say it could be in a few minutes," Kohler said, referring to recharging time.

"Two hours, maybe one and a half, in order to be sure that the lifetime of the battery will stay as announced. Otherwise you will ruin the battery, and those kinds of lifetimes we discussed are never to be realized."

But Nissan's Palmer said that if carefully controlled, "fast charging doesn't have a detrimental effect."

Swap batteries

Battery swapping — promoted by Shai Agassi, founder of the company Better Place — envisions stations where a driver could pull in, have a depleted battery replaced and drive away. Better Place is testing the concept with Renault-Nissan.

Bart Sloep, product group manager for Mitsubishi Motors Europe, said the variety of automotive battery packs poses a major obstacle to swapping.

"It's so complex to have a battery swap system for a large number of cars," Sloep said. "It's impossible because of how many battery packs you will have to keep in stock."

Battery packs weigh 200 kilograms (440 pounds) or more, he said, making replacement difficult. And today's batteries likely will soon become obsolete.

"The current technology in batteries is progressing so fast — what is the residual value of a battery pack in five years?" Sloep said. "Who wants to put money in that?"

Sloep said Mitsubishi, which will launch its i MiEV in Japan in June, sees electric vehicles as city commuter cars: "There will not be an electric car for every situation."

Thomas Weber, Daimler's management board member for group research, said Mercedes-Benz tested battery swapping in fleets of electric prototype cars in the 1970s, but it has rejected the idea for the current generation of electrics.

Despite the uncertainty about bringing electric vehicles into the mainstream, interest is intense.

Supplier Magna Steyr built a concept electric vehicle for Geneva to attract customers for its contract manufacturing plant in Graz, Austria. Erwin Bair, Magna Steyr's chief engineer for powertrain, said automakers constantly ask about electrics.

"Every customer is talking about it," Bair said. "Every one." 

Reuters contributed to this report

You can reach Dave Guilford at dguilford@crain.com

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