Another broadside for the EV industry

Christina Rogers covers VW and regulatory/legislative issues for Automotive News.

DETROIT -- As if we need another reminder that the initial glow around electric vehicles is fading, the Center for Automotive Research this week canceled its 2012 Business of Plugging In conference, mostly because of a lack of interest from the fledgling industry’s stakeholders.

The conference, started in 2009 by the Ann Arbor, Mich., center, focused on the emergence of plug-in vehicles and the challenges facing the auto industry as companies seek to put more of these vehicles on the road. (One big hurdle, of course, is simply finding a place to plug in.)

Brett Smith, CAR’s co-director of conferences, said it became clear from talking to the car companies that they no longer wanted to highlight just one advanced technology.

“Some could look at this as the industry is dead and no one cares about this anymore,” Smith said.

But that isn’t necessarily so, he said: It’s just that the newness of plug-in vehicles is wearing off.

With the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and the Nissan Leaf EV on the market, “we don’t need the message of how they will fit in,” Smith said. Now, “they’ve got to live or die on their own.”

That’s not to say that the conference didn’t have a good run. Over the past three years, it attracted some of the auto industry’s electrification leaders, including bigwigs from Ford Motor Co. and General Motors.

But lately, the buzz surrounding the green car industry has begun to sour.

And it’s no surprise that car companies are seeking to distance themselves.

Last year, the media pounced when the feds announced they were investigating the Volt for battery fire risks. The probe was closed in January and the Volt was deemed safe. But the damage was done, GM officials said. U.S. sales of the Volt in 2011 fell short of GM’s 10,000-unit target.

This week, electric and hybrid powertrain developer Azure Dynamics went under, adding to the doom and gloom. The company, which worked with Ford to electrify the Transit Connect van, filed for bankruptcy after years of losses.

And let’s not forget Fisker Automotive’s troubles.

The high-end plug-in hybrid maker was late with the retail launch of the Karma, has delayed production on a second model, this one to be built in the United States, and is fending off bad press about the Karma shutting down during a Consumer Reports test. Fisker officials claim the car is designed to turn off if it detects a fault -- and in this case the battery made by A123 Systems was the problem.

Surely, this hasn’t been a great start for a technology once touted as key to reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

The Business of Plugging In conference won’t return for 2013 either, Smith said, adding that CAR knew from the beginning it would have a finite life span.

Asked whether CAR will refocus its conference planning on another car technology, Smith said that’s yet to be decided.

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