DETROIT -- As the era of the electrified car shifts into second gear, a central question looms:
Can electric vehicles gain mass acceptance despite their limited range? Or must electric cars have gasoline range-extenders so the car can meet all its owner's needs?
And Nissan, BMW and General Motors have different approaches to that crucial issue.
BMW's Rich Steinberg says drivers find they love the electric Mini E, whose 100-mile range handles nearly all daily driving needs.
But at GM, Micky Bly, approaching the launch of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, says automakers must go beyond early adopters and sell a car that can handle the weekend trip as well as the daily commute.
"I feel strongly the early-adopter movement is done in North America," Bly, GM's executive director for global electrical systems, hybrids, electric vehicles and batteries, told the Automotive News Green Car Conference/Exhibition here last week. The early-adopters market soon will be sated in Asia and Europe, too, he said.
Bly is in charge of the Volt, which is scheduled to arrive in October or November. He touts the Volt's gasoline generator as the way to attract mainstream buyers. If there were any doubt about GM's position, Bly's presentation included a slide saying: "The mass market EV has to be CAPABLE of being your primary vehicle."
"I think pure battery electric vehicles -- they're not going to be niche vehicles, but they're not going to be a primary vehicle," Bly said in an interview.
By contrast, Nissan says its first-generation electric Leaf, to be launched late this year, will hit the mass market fast.
Rich Steinberg, manager of electric vehicle operations and strategy at BMW North America, says most drivers in BMW's Mini E electric vehicle test fleet say they can handle daily driving without worry -- and they love not going to a gas station. Most recharging occurs at home.
The additional cost and complexity of range-extended vehicles eventually will turn off buyers, he says. EV owners will realize that they can do their typical daily driving without running low of juice.
"I think with time, when people live with the car on a day-to-day basis and they realize 'I'm not visiting the gas station more than three times a year,' they're going to decide: 'Why did I invest in that gasoline engine when I'm not really going to use it?'" Steinberg said.