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Electric Car Promise “Undoable”

Posted By Tait Trussell On November 29, 2011 @ 12:03 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 17 Comments

President Obama, enthralled with electric automobiles in the near future, sees the Chevy Volt as a hot car. It is hot; so hot in fact that its batteries are catching on fire.

The government is looking into new fires involving the lithium-ion batteries in the General Motors electric cars to judge the potential and frequency of fire risk in these vehicles after crashes.

One Volt battery pack that was being monitored caught fire Nov. 24 after a government crash test, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said. It began a formal investigation of fire risk.

Obama grandly promised in his 2011 state of the union message that the United States would be “the first country to have one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.” He counted cumulative auto production and sales during the 5-year span.

The federal government has invested billions in research and development to improve electric vehicle batteries, all part of the attempt to reduce petroleum use. The large, high-voltage batteries used in plug-in cars can be damaged more easily than traditional batteries in gas-powered vehicles in the event of a crash. Even isolated problems “related to their safety or reliability can affect how consumers and investors view them,” as a New York Times story Nov. 11 pointed out.

The Chevy Volt has a gasoline engine, in addition to the battery. The gas engine takes over when the battery is depleted.

As GM’s stock prices fell in recent months, so did Chevy Volt sales. The 281 Volts sold nationwide last February didn’t exactly make the 125 sold in July a whopping sales month. A GM spokesperson claimed that the company was virtually “sold out.”

But associate fellow Marc Modica at the National Legal and Policy Center said, in effect, that assertion was bogus. He said a search on the cars.com site showed close to 500 Volts for sale across the country. “The demand for Chevy Volt is not as strong as GM would have us believe.”

The president also had proposed that Congress turn the $7,500 tax credit into a rebate for consumers who buy “an advanced technology vehicle,” such as the Volt or Nissan’s Leaf (which is all electric, rather than a hybrid). Anything to save more fossil fuel, because of the baseless fear of global warming. That’s the administration’s almost religious faith.

Despite Obama’s romanticized view of technology, electric cars appeal to a relatively tiny demographic group of “only young, very high income individuals”—those making $150,000 to $200,000 a year—who would be interested in buying an electric car.

According to Deloitte Consulting, which interviewed industry experts and 2,000 potential buyers, found that purchases would be small over the next decade and that by 2020, electric vehicles may makeup about 3 percent of total auto sales. Only 17 percent of potential buyers said they were willing to spend 8 hours recharging their car batteries.

Safety regulators will start a formal investigation of the fire risk in Volts after the above-mentioned tests that resulted in one battery pack igniting and one smoking and sending off sparks, a Detroit Free Press story Nov.26 reported. A test was conducted in May in Wisconsin. The Volt’s batteries, in that incident caught fire three weeks after the crash test.

NHTSA said it was not aware of any roadway crashes that have resulted in battery fires in Chevy Volts or other vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries. Chevrolet dealers have sold about 6,000 Volts, said a GM spokesman. All Volts, he said, are equipped with an emergency safety notification system. Nissan Motors says it was not aware of any fires in its electric car, the Leaf.

The Department of Energy and others figure that “battery costs need to come down to $350 per kilowatt-hour to make electric vehicles competitive in the market place, according to the Institute for Energy Research.

Scientific American in February wrote: “It is difficult to say how likely such an arbitrary goal [Obama’s forecast of one million cars on our roadways by 2015] might be….”

Of course, the Obama administration realizes that attaining such a goal will be impossible without help from the federal government. To that end, the article mentions the $7,500 tax credits, the $2.4 billion subsidy for high-powered batteries for the electric vehicles, $300 million in “clean city” grants, $115 million for installation of electric charging infrastructure in key metropolitan areas and the $25 billion being doled out to U.S. car companies to retool.

The Electrification Coalition, an organization of hopeful pro-EV leaders from companies including Nissan, Federal Express, Coda Automotive and Coulomb Technologies, and others predicted that as many as 14 million EVs could be on American roads by 2020 if lawmakers create “electrification ecosystems” in major U.S. cities simultaneously. Extremely unlikely.

Even with all the federal funding, “a million EVs on the road by 2015 may still be just a pipe dream,” said James Sweeney of Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center. He calls the plan “very aggressive.” He explains that it took over a decade for hybrids—which “did not require any difference in infrastructure and had as great a range as conventional vehicles– neither of which is likely to be the case with electric vehicles”—to capture three percent of the U.S. passenger car and light truck market. EVs would have to achieve the same market share in just four years if Obama’s goal is to be realized.

In January, a panel of industry experts, brought together by Indiana University, issued a 78-page report that said the one million goal was not doable. It based it’s conclusion on production volumes and its analysis of consumer demand.

The Department of Energy (DOE), political to the core, shot back in an 11-page report saying based on “conservative” estimates of production plans, a total of 1.22 million plug-in vehicles could be built and sold by the end of 2015.

Astonishingly, but unsurprisingly, the DOE gave its source not from car makers but from media reports of plans, with two thirds of the 1.22 million coming from Government Motors’ hybrid Volt.

Dream on, DOE.

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