Selling Electric Cars Requires Plugged-In Drivers

If you build it they will come. Starting in Q4 2010, that's what the Big Three and other manufacturers are banking on as they begin to roll out the first serious wave of electric vehicles to hit the market since the 1990s. International representatives from GM, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota, and dozens of manufacturers, utilities, EVSE suppliers, experts, and enthusiasts convened last week at Plug-in 2010 in San Jose to prepare. The principal theme uniting the disparate stakeholders was a call to raise consumer awareness for the changes to come.

Although EVs and plug-in hybrids represent 1 percent of global automobiles, this segment is expanding as consumers seek ways to save money and reduce consumption of foreign oil. During the gas price spikes of 2008, U.S. buyers of electrified solutions such as the Toyota Prius reached 3 percent. Manufacturers believe it'll happen again, and when it does, consumer commitment will escalate from there. Even now, "early adopters and do-it-yourselfers have created substantial market pull," said Alan Montemayor of Southwest Research Institute.

Consumers' choices are due to proliferate substantially starting later this year. The Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt will lead the next generation of electric cars out of the gate. The 2011 LEAF, a zero-emission BEV with a range of 100 miles, will be deployed first in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, and Tennessee. In January, the LEAF will launch in Texas and Hawaii, and will roll out to all states by the end of 2011. The Volt is an extended-range electric vehicle or PHEV (depending on whom you ask) with a capacity to go 40 miles on pure electric power plus 260 additional miles with a 1.4-liter engine powering a generator to sustain the battery charge. The Volt will launch in California, New Jersey, New York City, Connecticut, Washington D.C., and Texas by 2011, and will reach all states and Canada by mid-2012.

The base MSRP for the LEAF is $32,780 and for the Volt is $41,000, but Volt buyers can also choose to lease the cars for 3 years with $2,500 down and $350 per month. This makes the cars roughly the same price per month to drive. Both cars qualify for a $7,500 Federal electric-vehicle tax credit. Both cars come with an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty. This neck-and-neck competition to win over drivers suggests that consumers are in the driver's seat of the latest electrified solutions.

Niche innovators are carving off their own piece of the market. I test drove the THINK City, a highway-approved vehicle with refined, IKEA-inspired styling. The car has appeal for Cultural Creatives and empty nesters alike, although initial sales are focused on fleets until U.S.-based service centers are up and running.


Think City electric vehicle


Sustainability has long been a competitive differentiator for several standouts. Now it seems that few manufacturers can afford not to pay attention. "Electrification will be embedded into the fabric of Ford Motor Company going forward," said Nancy Gioia, Director of Global Electrification for Ford. Although hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and BEVs comprise only 1 percent of today's Ford fleet, the company estimates between 10 and 25 percent if its fleet will be "electrified" by 2020.

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