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Updated: March 24, 2010 17:03 IST

Car makers gearing up for electric future

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In this file photo, security guards walk past the Mitsubishi Motor Corp.'s i-MiEV on display in Tokyo, Japan.
In this file photo, security guards walk past the Mitsubishi Motor Corp.'s i-MiEV on display in Tokyo, Japan.

Major car makers are positioning themselves for a new era of electric mobility, investing massively in a new technology that is on the edge of a market breakthrough and is expected to dominate the industry in coming years.

The Bain consultancy group has predicted that every second car sold in the next decade will come with electric technology with ten per cent of all the new cars running completely on electric engines.

Some of the cars, either fitted with an additional electric engine as a support to the conventional combustion motor or built complete with zero-emission E-Drive, could be seen at this month’s Geneva Motor Show.

French car maker Peugeot is launching in October the electric I-On which is almost identical to the Japanese Mitsubishi i-MieV. Nissan is following with the Leaf while Mercedes is planning a small production run of the A-Class on electric technology. General Motors is launching the Chevy Volt and the European Opel Ampere next year with a planned production run of 60,000 units.

Daimler, which is working on plans to mass produce an electric version of the Smart, has just announced that it is cooperating with the Chinese battery and car producer BYD on developing an electric car mainly for the Chinese market.

BMW is working on a “megacity vehicle” project of small cars fitted with lightweight body panels and electric engines. Plans are to produce the cars at the eastern German Leipzig factory starting in 2015.

A definite latecomer to electric technology is Europe’s largest car maker Volkswagen, which lost time by concentrating a lot of its energy on low-consumption combustion engines. But in Geneva VW CEO Martin Winterkorn threw the gauntlet down to his competitors by announcing that “we want to build the electric car that everyone can afford.” Next year an electric version of the VW Golf will be supplied to selected customers. The year 2013 will see the launch of the electric city car Up, the E-Golf and the E-Jetta.

Toyota is meanwhile concentrating on hybrid technology combining the combustion engine with electric motors. It sees the hybrid as an alternative and not as a transition vehicle to the pure electric car.

It cites the expense of the lithium-ion battery as the big obstacle to a market breakthrough of electric vehicles.

In fact electric vehicles can cost as much as 50 per cent more than the same car running on a traditional petrol engine. The Bain consultancy finds however that in Europe alone demand for E-Vehicles is at 100,000 and more per year. Fans of the electric car can be found in the metropolitan centres where most commuters travel less than 30 kilometres per day by car.

Tax subsidies for electric vehicles and mass production could in the long run reduce the cost of the batteries by as much as half.

But in a recent interview the head of the French battery producer Saft, John Searle, called talks on French state subsidies as “frustrating.” He argues that “if you want to compete against such an established technology as the combustion engine you need help.”

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