European automakers say 'psychological' barriers of fueling electric cars can be overcome

LONDON -- Development of a public network of recharging points will be critical to the public's acceptance of a mass rollout of pure electric vehicles despite evidence that such networks are not actually needed, according to automakers Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.

With Nissan poised to start commercial marketing of its Leaf pure electric family car and Toyota road-testing its plug-in Prius hybrid, with a rollout planned for 2012, countries around the world are beginning to work on expensive public urban recharging networks.

"For electric vehicles, recharging infrastructure is essential in a way that it is not for plug-in hybrids, despite the fact that we all know that in most cases -- where they can -- people will recharge at home overnight," Graham Smith, managing director of Toyota Motor Europe's London office, told ClimateWire.

"We know there is consumer resistance to buying an electric vehicle in the absence of public recharging points," he said. "There are many, many issues such as standardization of the charging infrastructure -- whether it is AC or DC [alternating current or direct current] -- and others that are in play in the U.K., Europe and globally. But we can't see it as dramatically insurmountable to develop this infrastructure."

In the United States, where states and cities have begun to install charging stations, engineers call the fear of running out of juice "range anxiety." In Europe, where distances to be traveled are generally shorter, it is being described as a psychological barrier, but one that can be crossed.

If public recharging networks aren't available, the plug-in hybrid has an edge over the pure electric vehicle because it contains both an internal combustion engine and an electric one and can use either or both at the same time.

In Japan, public recharging is little used

In road tests in Europe, the United States and Asia, the Prius plug-in hybrid had a range of up to 12.5 miles on its electric engine alone, with a maximum speed of 62 miles per hour from its lithium-ion battery. Its fuel consumption was 108.6 miles per gallon, with carbon dioxide emissions of just 59 grams per kilometer -- roughly one-third the emissions of the average new car in the European Union.

Nissan's Leaf, by contrast, being pure electric, has zero tailpipe emissions -- it has no tailpipe in the first place. It has a maximum range of 100 miles on its lithium-ion battery when fully charged and a top speed of 90 mph. But takes eight to 10 hours to recharge, compared to two hours for the Prius plug-in.

"A charging infrastructure will be an important part of people feeling safe to buy an electric vehicle. But it is a psychological rather than a physical barrier," said Nissan U.K. spokeswoman Gabi Whitfield. "In Japan, there is a widespread charging infrastructure, but nobody uses it. They charge at home."

While a range of 100 miles is more than ample for the average urban commute, it is not enough for many longer holiday or weekend trips.

The Prius plug-in hybrid gets over this by simply switching over to its fossil fuel engine or using the two in combination. Nissan is discussing various ideas with its dealer networks, including offering Leaf owners the option of using a gasoline- or diesel-powered car at certain times for longer journeys.

"It is really important that people that think about how they use the car. We don't want them to have an unhappy experience," said Whitfield.

European auto manufacturers are talking with utilities as well as owners of potential charging locations like places of work, train station car parks, supermarkets and even filling stations.

For a commuting worker whose average workday is eight hours plus train journey time, that is more than enough to recharge both the Leaf and the Prius plug-in hybrid. However, 10 minutes in a filling station charging point means resorting to rapid recharging, repeated use of which is known to significantly shorten battery life. There is also the question of who will pay to install the infrastructure.

Still seeking a business model

"We are in the automotive manufacturing business. There is no question that we suddenly start providing charging infrastructure," said Smith. "The economic benefit of that infrastructure falls to the power generators because it is their power that will be used."

"However, there has to be a business model for them, there has to be a business model for us, and there has to be a compelling economic business case for consumers to adopt these technologies. Only if all three are in place is the market likely to develop. Absent any one of those, and it won't happen," he added.

There is also the tricky question of power demand management if electric car rollout reaches the kind of figures the International Energy Agency (IEA) has said is desirable -- production of more than 100 million vehicles a year by 2050 from the current level of a few thousand a year. Ideally, most would charge overnight at home or on the street, because nighttime is when electricity demand tends to be at its lowest, leaving ample surpluses of baseload supply that currently goes to waste.

At the Paris Motor Show last week, the IEA and a consortium of countries including China, France, Germany, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and the United States announced the Electric Vehicle Initiative to lay the groundwork for the rapid rollout globally of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

The initiative includes pilot programs in chosen cities, greater information-sharing on funding and research and development, and actual data on electric vehicle deployment.

According to the IEA, if successful, the plan would put 20 million electric vehicles on the road by 2020, 200 million by 2030 and 1 billion by 2050.

"To achieve a sustainable energy future, we need to transform global transport," said IEA Director Nobuo Tanaka. "This initiative will help to create the enabling environment to meet international targets, track progress and ensure the long-term success for EV/PHEVs."

But if every one of these anticipated hundreds of millions of cars plugged in at the same time, there would be a serious risk of overloading local electricity circuits and shorting out the local substations.

"I have seen slide presentations at conferences with pictures of the substation blowing up. That may be an acceptable exaggeration to make a point, but it is still an issue to be resolved," said Smith.

That is by no means an insurmountable problem. Demand management through development of smart grids could handle that, with utilities remotely instructing appliances -- including some of the electric cars -- to turn off or stop charging for a while.

"If you had a battery that stored energy as efficiently as a tank of gasoline or diesel, that would be a game changer," said Smith. "But the prognosis for that is not currently encouraging. The internal combustion engine is going to be around for a long time to come, although it will get increasingly more efficient and cleaner."