President Obama inspects the 2011 Chevrolet VoltEnlarge Photo
Since 2008, Barack Obama has consistently promoted the goal of having 1 million advanced technology vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015.
The number refers to plug-in vehicles that use grid power, stored in lithium-ion battery packs, to operate their electric traction motors. Regular hybrids like the Toyota Prius don't do that. The all-electric Nissan Leaf, the series hybrid Chevy Volt, and an upcoming plug-in hybrid version of the Prius do.
But recent analyses by experts and industry analysts differ sharply on whether that number is achievable. Many say that high cost, limited range, a nascent supply chain, and consumer hesitancy will make 1 million vehicles in five years impossible.
Advocacy groups, other analysts, and the U.S. Department of Energy insist the number is reachable—even if it may be a "stretch goal," in the words of market research firm J.D. Power & Associates, which considers 750 000 more reasonable.
First 2011 Chevrolet Volt built on production tooling at Detroit Hamtramck plant, March 31, 2010Enlarge Photo
In January, a panel of industry experts, convened by Indiana University, issued a 78-page report, Plug-In Electric Vehicles: A Practical Plan for Progress, that called the 1 million goal undoable. The panel based its conclusion on announced production volumes of plug-in vehicles and its own analysis of consumer demand.
Just days later, the DOE riposted with an 11-page status report, One Million Electric Vehicles by 2015. Its conclusion was different: Based on "conservative" estimates of production plans, it said, a total of 1.22 million plug-in vehicles could be built and sold by the end of 2015. The DOE report, oddly, sourced not automakers but media reports of their plans.
The DOE predicted that two-thirds of the 1.22 million could come from General Motors (with its plug-in series hybrid Chevrolet Volt) and Nissan (which sells the battery-powered Leaf and will add other models by 2015). It omitted estimates for hybrid powerhouse Toyota—which will sell a plug-in version of its Prius next year—and estimates from at least five other companies planning to sell plug-in cars.
Fast Charging 2011 Nissan LeafEnlarge Photo
Several points should be kept in mind about Obama's goal. First, it's cumulative over five years, not an annual sales rate. Second, it includes both retail buyers and fleet purchases. Third, 1 million vehicles in five years pales next to the 50 to 75 million new vehicle sales predicted in the United States over the same period—even more so against the 250 million vehicles on U.S. roads today.
Finally, with U.S. corporate average fuel-economy standards set to exceed 30 miles per gallon (or fall below 7.8 liters per 100 kilometers) in 2016, automakers know they must start work on plug-in vehicles to prepare for the next round of even more stringent standards.
Analysts who say the goal isn't reachable cite three areas of doubt: supply, demand, and cost. Supply is easiest to analyze: Automakers rarely cite production targets, but estimates are leaked to trade journals or at industry events. Still, by most analysts' tally, global production of electric vehicles will clearly surpass 1 million by 2015. It's the number sold in the United States—a demanding market with very competitive pricing—that remains in doubt.
© 2011 IEEE. Reprinted, with permission, from One Million Plug-In Cars By 2015? by John Voelcker, IEEE Spectrum, April 2011.
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