DETROIT - Even though California has postponed its electric vehicle mandate once, the state should be willing to delay it again if battery costs don't drop dramatically before 2003.
So said John Wallace, director of alternative fuel vehicles for Ford Motor Co.
Why? Because battery costs remain the biggest obstacle to widespread public acceptance of electric vehicles, Wallace said.
Under a plan agreed to last year by the California Air Resources Board and automakers, 10 percent of sales in the state in 2003 must be zero-emission vehicles. That agreement replaced a mandate that would have required major automakers to make electric vehicles 2 percent of their sales in 1998.
Putting electric vehicles on the market is proceeding in three phases, Wallace said:
1. Prove out, which is where development stands now.
2. Niche market, or low-volume production.
3. Fully competitive, with annual U.S. sales of 100,000 units or more.
'But those phases are not driven by dates, or by regulation,' Wallace said. 'They'll be driven by the availability of batteries that meet certain characteristics at a certain price point.'
Until that happens, electric vehicles will remain in the first phase, Wallace said. And with some sarcasm, he noted, 'I'm glad that the Air Resources Board is so knowledgeable and understands when that's going to happen.'
Electric vehicles reaching the commercial and fleet markets now use either conventional lead-acid batteries, or more expensive nickel-metal hydride batteries.
Lead-acid batteries are cheapest, but have limited range. In the General Motors EV1, the battery pack has a range of about 70 miles in city driving.
Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. are using nickel-metal hydride batteries in their electric vehicles. That advanced battery gives the Toyota RAV4 EV a range of 100 miles in city driving, said Mark Amstock, electric vehicle project manager for Toyota.
But the battery is expensive. Toyota and Honda officials will not say how much the battery, developed with Japan's Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., costs. But industry sources say a nickel-metal hydride battery pack costs much more than $60,000.
Nissan decided three years ago to bypass nickel-metal hydride and has been working with Sony Corp. on developing lithium-ion batteries. That is the same type used in camcorders and personal computers.
The advantages are longer battery life, said John Schutz, director of regulator affairs for Nissan Research and Development Inc. Also, the battery does not develop a 'memory' that limits its ability to fully recharge.
On the down side, the lithium-ion battery is more expensive than nickel-metal hydride. Nissan and Sony have tried to find cheaper substitutes for cobalt used in the battery.
Wallace made his comments during an Automotive Press Association session to promote the International Electric Vehicle Symposium, to be held Dec. 11-17 in Orlando, Fla. The program included electric vehicle experts from the Big 3, Honda, Toyota and Nissan.
All six automakers plan to have big displays and make product announcements at the symposium, called EVS-14. Among them:
Nissan will use the event for the North American unveiling of its electric vehicle for the United States, said Schutz. The vehicle, a van that is slightly smaller than the Nissan Quest, will use lithium-ion batteries.
It will make its public debut at the Tokyo auto show in October. For the Japanese market, it will be offered with a gasoline engine only. Nissan currently offers the Prairie Joy, an electric-powered van with lithium-ion batteries, in Japan under a $2,500-a-month lease. The new U.S. van will use the Prairie Joy's powertrain.
Toyota will showcase the RAV4 EV, which it begins importing to the United States this fall for leasing into fleets, said Amstock. The automaker also has other new products planned for EVS-14, but is not releasing details yet.