By Kevin Schweitzer, Special to Tribune Newspapers
7:00 PM EDT, April 14, 2011
GM and Nissan have electrified not only their cars but visions of the automotive future with this year's release of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf. But prices of these and other plug-in electric vehicles may give some buyers electric sticker shock. The Leaf starts at nearly $33,000 and the Volt, which has a backup gas engine, tops $40,000, both higher than the average new car price of roughly $29,000. Other, lesser-known plug-ins are even pricier.
And prices aren't likely to drop for years, because the biggest component of cost in plug-ins is the battery pack, a technology that's in its infancy for use in cars.
Although manufacturers do not discuss the cost of the packs, the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium — a research group that includes car and battery manufacturers and research institutions — has a long-term goal of $250 per kilowatt hour of battery power. (The Leaf, for example, has a 24-kWh battery pack.)
Estimates of current prices run considerably higher than that, and Mark Verbrugge, a management committee member with the consortium, readily conceded the $250 number is an aggressive target.
"We set it so that if somebody achieves the goal, you'll have something of consumer value," he said.
In terms of when that might happen, Verbrugge said his hope is that cheaper battery packs will be available for the next generation of plug-ins, due out in five to six years.
"But to get it into those cars, we'd have to have it available in the next couple of years. It could be 10 years before you see it on the street," he said.
Mike Omotoso, senior manager for global powertrain at J.D. Power and Associates, also predicted that it would take at least 10 years.
"It's going to take two or three generations for price to come down," he said.
Though several experts suggested that manufacturers are looking to save costs by experimenting with different materials in the lithium-ion family, Verbrugge said much of the research being done right now is in enhancing the performance of existing materials, to coax more power out of a battery without adding to the cost of materials.
The task of matching the power and efficiency of gasoline for energy delivery is daunting. One gallon of gasoline produces on average 132 megajoules of energy; one kilowatt hour is equivalent to 3.6 megajoules. In practical terms, the Leaf's 24-kWh battery pack lasts up to 100 miles; by comparison, a similarly-sized Nissan Versa's 13-gallon tank might give a driver more than 300 miles in real-world driving.
"There's a very rational reason why we have gasoline-powered cars," said Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book.
All of this adds up to a current-day scenario in which plug-in electrics are being sold to early adopters, not to mainstream buyers.
"Really the target market early on for these vehicles is the environmentalist, the heavily green person who wants to showcase that, or the high-tech person," Nerad said.
Industry sources, however, note that other breakthrough products also carried a high-cost premium when first introduced to the market, yet got past the early adopter curve.
"The high prices are a challenge at the early stages, but not an unmanageable challenge. What did your first flat-screen cost you? What did your first cellphone cost you?" said Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, a Washington-based advocacy group.
And manufacturers are quick to point out that the prices are mitigated by a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 for buyers of plug-in electric cars.
Omotoso noted one wild card — gasoline prices — that could drive demand. The national average as of April 11 was $3.77 a gallon and rising. That's within the "tipping point," which Omotoso put at $3.50 to $4 a gallon.
"Then more people would be willing to save on the cost of gas in the case of the Volt or not pay for gas at all in the case of the Leaf," he said.
Meanwhile, if you want a Volt or a Leaf, you might not be able to get one. Neither is available nationwide yet, and production numbers are so limited that the niche market demand isn't an issue. "They are being sold almost as soon as they get off the truck," Rob Peterson, Chevrolet Volt spokesman, said of the car. He also said the car is being built in low numbers intentionally, with only 10,000 scheduled in the 2011 model year and another 45,000 for 2012.
Nissan also is ramping up the Leaf slowly, with plans for initial sales of 50,000 a year globally, eventually building to 150,000 to 200,000 units a year, spokesman Brian Brockman said.
As people get into the cars, several experts expect the quiet and smooth operation to turn people on to plug-in electrics.
"People have a different experience when they get in these cars," Wynne said. "They're really dynamic; they're fun to drive. At the end of the day, that's a factor."
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