Electric vehicles (EVs) are about to arrive in big numbers in the streets of America and, if you haven't already, you will soon experience your first sighting. Maybe not next month and maybe not this summer, but rest assured, sometime in the next 18 months it is very likely you will spot your first Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf (or Brammo Enertia or Navistar Modec or ...). Then it will happen again. And again. As oil becomes more expensive and batteries and other EV tech becomes better and cheaper, electric motoring will become an integral part of the mobility landscape.
With the re-introduction of this alternative drivetrain (a lot of EVs existed in the early 20th Century) many new companies, as well as the traditional manufacturers, will be fighting it out for a piece of this growing pie. While it's impossible to accurately predict the eventual size of the pastry or who will seize which slice, the near-term situation is becoming increasingly clear. If you're wondering how your early-adopter neighbor (or yourself) might be rollin' in the next year or two, skip with us past the break and take a look at what's coming up.
Nissan has been tinkering with lithium-powered electrics since 1998 when they came out with the ill-fated Altra. Since then, the company's EVs have been limited to some "interesting" concepts but a few years ago it started becoming increasingly clear that they were going to get serious about bringing an actual vehicle to market. Real serious. In fact, you could make the case that the head of the Nissan/Renault Alliance, Carlos Ghosn, is risking the financial future of that automotive giant on battery-powered cars with as many as eight different models planned. The Nissan Leaf (pictured above) will be the first of those to make it to America and the company is sparing no effort to make this new product launch the kind of success that should see the automaker get the largest piece of EV market share for some time to come. With aggressive pricing announced and over 56,000 people expressing interest at the Leaf website before anyone has even test-driven the actual car, we expect Nissan's goal of 20,000 reservations by the time they start shipping in December to be easily achievable. These early sales and (hopefully) positive consumer experiences should help pave the way for the automaker's follow-up models bolster the brand's market dominance.
Another high-profile entry into the EV market is the Chevy Volt. While not an "all-electric" – the car is an extended-range EV (eREV, aka plug-in hybrid) and the Volt's gas engine will come on after the initial 40 miles in electric mode are traveled – the vast majority of miles driven in these cars will be electron-powered and so it will have an impact in the EV space. How much of an impact depends on its pricing to some extent but, initially, its availability might be a bigger factor. The vehicle has attracted a lot of attention and finding buyers for the initial 10,000 units expected to be manufactured in the first year shouldn't prove too difficult. Again, if the consumer experience is a positive one, the evangelistic tendencies of happy owners could leave GM wishing they had planned for higher volumes. Another limiting factor for the General is the seeming lack of further models under development that make use of the Voltec drivetrain. While we do expect to eventually see some, their sluggishness leaves the door open for others reduce the General's potential market share.
Ford is another major manufacturer with major American EV plans. Taking a slightly different tack, its planned Ford Focus EV due out in 2011 will forego an "EV-distinctive model" and leverage an existing gas-powered platform. While this strategy may help the bottom line, it's not clear how well it will attract the early adopter. With performance and range not so different from that of the Leaf, it may have to rely upon competitive pricing to achieve decent sales numbers. Luckily for Ford, the brand is currently rather strong and consumer confidence should offer some assistance.
It also won't hurt Focus sales if the Transit Connect Electric, due to roll off the lines by the end of this year, boosts their EV bona fides. In fact, this vehicle could be a real winner for the company in the urban commercial vehicle space. Ford really has an advantage being the first to fill this niche and would do well to capitalize on that as Mitsubishi may have somewhat similar product in the pipeline and Nissan certainly does.
Other, Smaller Players
Besides the major manufacturers already mentioned, there are also some smaller companies with product becoming available in the near to medium term. The best known is, of course, Tesla Motors, which already has the Roadster available for anyone with $100,000+ to spend on a set of (very sweet) wheels. Tesla Model S, a very sexy performance sedan, may only be available in two years from now, but when it does arrive it may find itself owning that particular niche. That is, if Tesla can maintain its stellar rep for customer service and quality hardware. The superior range capabilities and superb styling won't hurt either.
For companies that have yet to put their first product out there – like Coda Automotive, BYD, Fisker Automotive, Th!nk, Aptera Wheego and others – large question marks about their futures remain. If they are to survive and maybe even thrive, they will need to demonstrate quality, value, performance and innovation (not necessarily in that order). The market will only get tougher and more crowded as the traditional automakers begin moving into the space that defines the electric vehicle market.