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The spark has gone out of EV sales, but auto makers are making a committed effort to bring back the sizzle (REUTERS)
The spark has gone out of EV sales, but auto makers are making a committed effort to bring back the sizzle (REUTERS)

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Will car buyers ever plug in to electric vehicles? Add to ...

GM plans to use Volt EV technology in the upcoming Cadillac ELR. Next year, GM will launch the fully electric Chevrolet Spark EV in certain North American markets, South Korea and elsewhere. Meanwhile, GM is putting to use less elaborate forms of “electrification” in mainstream models. For instance, the company expects to sell more than 50,000 electrified vehicles, including the Volt and vehicles such as the Buick LaCrosse, Regal and Chevrolet Malibu with the company’s mild hybrid system called eAssist.

“In fact, our future portfolio calls for eAssist to be on hundreds of thousands of GM vehicles annually by 2017,” said Barra.

Ford, for its part, is launching its 2013 C-MAX wagon with a lineup of models all powered in some way by electric drive – from the more traditional gasoline-electric hybrid version ($27,199) to a plug-in hybrid called the C-MAX Energi ($36,999) capable of going more than 40 km on battery power alone. Like many car companies, Ford says its long-term strategy for electrified vehicles includes hybrids, plug-in hybrids and full-battery-electric cars. The vast majority of vehicles using some form of electric propulsion will be hybrids such as the 2013 Ford Fusion and Toyota’s Prius.

Indeed, Toyota just announced that it has reached its long-stated goal of selling one million hybrids in a single year. Through the end of October, the hybrid pioneer had sold 1.02 million hybrids around the world in 2012. Since 1997, Toyota has sold more than 4.6 million hybrids, the vast majority of which have been Prius models. Toyota says it now has 19 hybrid models for sale, plus one plug-in hybrid. Toyota sells at least one hybrid model in 80 different countries. In Canada, the Toyota and Lexus brands sell a combined 10 hybrid models. By the end of 2015, Toyota says it plans to launch 21 new hybrid models by 2015.

The latest Toyota hybrid in Canada is the 2012 Prius Plug-in ($35,700), which is capable of going up to 25 km in the city on battery power alone. Like the C-MAX Energi, the Volt, and pure battery-powered cars like the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the Prius Plug-in is eligible for taxpayer subsidies in certain provinces. Prius Plug-in buyers can get a taxpayer-funded rebate of up to $5,092, while C-MAX Energi buyers can get as much as $5,830 in a rebate.

All these auto companies believe hybrids will dominate the world of electrified vehicles for at least the short- to medium-term. In fairness, Toyota was the first global car company to commit fully to hybrid as a “core vehicle technology,” though the largest Japanese car company is hardly alone today. Every auto makers has an active EV program in place, though some are more committed than others.

That said, the barriers to a deep and comprehensive adoption of electrified vehicles are many and formidable. But none are more daunting than the challenges facing battery technology and, more specifically, the leaders in battery technology.

Last month, A123 Systems Inc. – which supplies advanced lithium ion batteries to General Motors, Fisker and others – filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States. As I write this, there is an ongoing struggle for control of A123 between American and Chinese suitors. Automotive News reports that Chinese auto parts maker Wanxiang Group Corp. is eager to buy A123, while Wisconsin-based Johnson Controls is also in the running to take over the Massachusetts-based battery maker’s assets.

A123 is a global leader in battery technology and has received nearly $250-million (U.S.) in U.S. government grants, thus making the bankruptcy issue a highly politicized issue. The Obama administration has been eager to nurture a market for EVs and has plowed billions into supporting this nascent industry. Alas, notes Automotive News, A123 “has been bleeding red ink since 2001. In the past five years, the company has lost $877.7-million, including a loss of $269-million through August.”

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