If you want to get an answer to the question of whether or not consumers will flock to plug-in vehicles, Southern California Edison's Ed Kjaer and Better Place's Sven Thesen would be great people to get to put up some answers. That's exactly what happened at the Austin Alt Car expo last weekend, where they presented an optimistic yet realistic assessment of what PHEVs might bring to the auto industry. The real question, Kjaer said, isn't "Will Consumers Buy In?" but will the OEMs build PHEVs in volume? And that is not a given, not by a long shot. Kjaer didn't dodge the original question, just posited that the answer is a pretty obvious "yes." Whether or not we get the chance is the issue. Follow us after the jump for all the details.

Right now, PHEVs are at the center of a perfect storm of interest. The issues of population growth, tremendous oil price volatility, an emerging carbon policy (and the longstanding tailpipe emissions policy), lots of media attention, and the fact that PHEVs are a bi-partisan issue, with both McCain and Obama talking about plugging vehicles into the grid, means that if any new technology has a lot of positive potential, PHEVs are it. Plus, Kjaer said, "we're angry, as consumers."

Still, even given all these factors, there is a reality check on all things PHEV, Kjaer said: the economic crisis (no surprise). Plus, the oil price volatility works both in favor and against PHEVs making an impact. If the price is low some days, will a lot of people make the plug-in choice? Another important questions to raise is: Are we swapping a reliance on foreign oil for a reliance on foreign batteries? Maybe not, because there are large lithium deposits in Nevada but not a lot of American companies are developing the knowledge to build these batteries.

Taking the long view, Kjaer said that we've heard a lot of big promises before, and the auto industry has been "fishtailing" in trying to find the answer to getting off of foreign oil. Kjaer said: "We started out 25 years ago, and methanol was the silver bullet. 15 years ago, electric cars were the silver bullet. 10 years ago, hybrids were the silver bullet. Five years ago it was fuel cells. Three years ago it was ethanol. Today it's plug-ins. Tomorrow?"

In the end of the day, [PHEVs are] coming. We need to make sure the pressure is there.
The truth is that the OEMs will be losing money on every single PHEV for the first few years. In the current economic environment, does it make sense for
collaboration - between governments, automakers, battery companies and utilities - will be key in bridging the gap between the years when PHEVs lose money for the OEMs and when they can finally make money on these appealing vehicles.

Better Place's Sven Thesen explained how his company's battery-swap model can break our oil addiction. The numbers behind the battery-swap look like this:

  • there will be 12 batteries in each station.
  • It takes five minutes to swap a battery.
  • It takes 30 minutes to charge each battery.

There's lots more when you go to the tape. Listen here (45 min):

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