This year will see the GM Volt and Nissan Leaf go on sale and likely deliver to buyers following the Tesla Roadster success with electric motors connected to the driving wheels.  The two are of three very different designs representing the three main manufactured groups of choices we’ll see.  Then there are the Do It Yourself crowd’s ideas that likely will find some role in the manufactured area someday.

Its been a long time coming, electrified personal transport is far to sensible to overlook, particularly in energy efficiency, but as manufacturing volumes go up, the basic personal investment needed will come down, too.

Volt Leaf Prius Tesla

The two cars are opening rounds for the three main types.  Hybrids that are powered by fuels, fueled hybrids that plug in to the grid and fully plugged in vehicles with no fuel for extending range.  They are very different paths to personal transport.

Some 20+ models of hybrids powered by fuels are on the market now soaking up about 2.3% of U.S. new car sales, down from 2.8% a year ago.  The Toyota Prius takes about half of the market.  The Prius is the model for many, its fueled without a grid connection, gets better than 50 mpg highway and sells in the high $20K range.  Most of the other 25 models work much the same – all the energy comes from the fuel – the energy is simply handled more efficiently.

The GM Volt is expected to sell at $41K before dealers gouge the first buyer group.  The Volt can be plugged in to the grid – replacing gasoline with generated power for the first miles of a trip.  For most trips that could be all grid energy.  The Volt does have serious appeal on this point.

The Nissan Leaf is much more daring.  Less complex than the Volt, no generation set is aboard; the Leaf relies on the plug in to get energized.   With 24kWh of battery capacity fully loaded and kind weather that capacity will satisfy a huge segment of the driving public.  The price will be some anxiety on range and perhaps some new habits, like plugging in.  The Leaf is thought to be sold out already.  Some say the Nissan dealers are more decent about price than the GM dealers.  The sales when deliveries begin promise to be interesting. Then the owner reports will be critical for the future.  Who gets stopped on ‘E’ looking for a plug or a tow and why will matter to the rest of us.

The Leaf also cracks the $400 per kWh battery price point.  The Times of London is reporting that Nissan can load the battery at under $9,000US. But Nissan has an advantage – the sales volume is set across much of the world instead of just the U.S.  Without internal combustion engine emissions compliance, variations across markets for the standardization gets much simpler, which cuts back on engineering, tooling and parts costs.

The GM Volt rumors have the Volt’s battery estimated at near $600 kWh.  The U.S.’s Advanced Battery consortium has a target of $400 by the mid 2010s.  Even more significant is Nissan is using air-cooling for the batteries while others, significantly the Volt, using liquid cooling – again simplifying and cutting costs.  The maintenance of air over liquid will be a long-term advantage for owners, too.  No surprise here, the Japanese have been crushing U.S. makes for decades, and the trend looks to continue.

These observations will take second seat to the customer’s ideas of what’s important.  Nissan trumpets some wild numbers for the equivalent miles per gallon.  That’s a topic yet to be standardized and when it is – it will be complex.  Owners will get to compare the power bill for a month over a chosen previous month with the earlier periods gasoline bill for hard numbers.  It will be cheaper.  Lots less money if done smartly.

The problem that can come up is range.  The needs in the car’s cabin are going to drive engineers a little nuts trying to come up with heat and air conditioning.  Leaf and other full plug ins are going to need some serious effort at getting to less energy demand for the vehicles interior.  Hybrids with generator sets are going to have a perceived advantage if not a deal making advantage.

Finally the incentives – the Prius seems to miss the Federal tax credit of $7,500.  That tax credit requires an adjusted gross income better than $55K for single filers or $74K for married couples.  That might slip when the tax rates go back up – but not a huge amount – leaving a huge part of the market out of the deal.  This will hurt many for the benefit of a few.  The tax credit idea might haunt manufacturers for years.

For better than one hundred years racing has lead automobile technology.  For the electrification of personal transport the racing crowd has started in and may offer some great ideas soon.  If anything electric vehicles are entertaining.  While one isn’t seeing 500-mile races the ¼ mile accelerating ‘drag race’ is seeing lots of innovation.  While battery or ultracapacitors could bring the long milage races into reality, the drag race is the scene for now.  And it’s quite a scene.

What follows is the ‘White Zombie’ from Oregon that has gone through the quarter mile from a dead stop to 117.23 miles per hour in just 10.4 seconds.  That’s supercar/musclecar territory.  Owned, built and driven by John Wayland the 1972 Datsun (now Nissan) has been a project for 16 years.  The Datsun sports a 22.7 kWh lithium manganese cobalt polymer pack battery running at 355.2 volts.  In the video the Datsun is paired to a Nissan GT-R supercar with 485 horsepower.  For the run Wayland boosted the power to 1800 amps and the motor current to 2000 amps.  Poor GT-R, not fair is it?


10 Comments so far

  1. JD on August 12, 2010 12:15 PM

    “The needs in the car’s cabin are going to drive engineers a little nuts trying to come up with heat and air conditioning.”

    Heat is simple. Install a small fuel fed heater in the vehicle (alcohol would work fine). Cars built for northern Europe have had them for decades. There’s even options for the heaters to auto ignite to keep engine blocks warm when temps hit the -20 or lower range. It’s not rocket science and shouldn’t cost much unless the engineers are incredibly stupid in their choices.

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