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Auto industry pros counter electric-car hype

At the Business of Plugging In confab, the verdict is clear: adoption of electric vehicles won't be quick or easy. But there still will be gains from the push to electrify.

An electric mini and plug-in hybrid charging up.
An electric mini and plug-in hybrid charging up. Martin LaMonica/CNET

DETROIT--The future of autos is electric. Or is it?

Even though the new big thing in the auto industry is electric cars, there is not a clear consensus on how big of a role electric vehicles will play in the coming years.

Auto and utility industry executives at the Business of Plugging In conference here today took pains to point out the significant hurdles to adoption that plug-in vehicles face in becoming mainstream.

In addition to the higher cost of components, such as batteries, there is also the question of building a charging infrastructure in public places and the customers' overall experience with electric cars.

That's not to say that electric vehicles aren't real. Aided heavily by government incentives for consumers and manufacturers, electric cars designed for everyday use, such as the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, will start to be delivered in the coming months, with many more types of plug-in vehicles planned forrelease in the next two years.

But whether plug-ins will inhabit a niche, as current hybrids do, or reach beyond the two percent of "early adopters" is the open question today.

On a panel discussion, a Toyota executive projected that sales of EVs will be at most two percent of sales by 2020, while Nissan said that 10 percent of all car sales is possible. Regardless of the projected percentage, nobody seems to think that EV adoption will be quick and easy.

"Whether it's 3 percent by 2020 or 10 percent still has to be seen...but there is a very long way to go before we get a significant percentage of pure plug-in vehicles in the market," said Neil Armstrong, president of Mercedes-Benz research and development in North America.

The market will develop along two lines in the coming years, with pure electric vehicles doing better in the cities of developing markets than plug-in hybrids in the U.S., Armstrong said. Because plug-in hybrids offer longer range, the technology is better suited for the suburbs of the U.S., panelists said.

In general, panelists said that it's not a black and white discussion between electricification and oil-based transportation.

The electric-vehicle technology now being commercialized can be coupled with traditional gasoline and diesel engines to make cars cleaner in the decades ahead, panelists said. Electrics and hybrids can benefit from an industry-wide push toward efficiency with other technologies, such as light-weight materials and more efficient internal combustion engines.

"I think it's a little early to know absolutely what the right solution is, but certainly electrified powertrains, whether it's hybrid, range-extended electric, or pure electric, have a very high potential for solving mobility challenges for the next 50 years and beyond," Armstrong said, adding that consumers, rather than regulators, will largely determine which technologies take hold.

Managing expectations
In the near term, however, auto manufactures and utilities are taking great care to make sure that early buyers have a good experience with their electric cars.

Nissan and GM, for example, are trying ease the installation of charge stations at people's homes and will provide customer care for early buyers who get a $7,500 federal tax credit off the purchase price. These automakers have also partnered with utilities and local governments to build out a public charging infrastructure and to set preferential rates for off-peak car charging. Detroit Edison, for example, is experimenting with a flat $40 a month fee for electric-car drivers who charge at off-peak hours from 11 p.m. to 9 a.m.

Nissan is bullish on all-electric vehicles because it believes there is a significant customer base of people who want gas-free driving, said Scott Becker, the vice president of administration and finance at Nissan North American. So far, Nissan has gotten 20,000 reservations in the U.S. for the Leaf, exceeding its expectations.

Other industry executives are less optimistic. Bill Reinert, Toyota's national manager for its advanced technology group, said that electric vehicles have to be superior to internal combustion engine cars in every way for customers to buy them in large numbers. But right now, there are a number of trade-offs, including the cost and the issue of "range variability."

Driving range can vary as much as 30 percent depending on driving habits, temperature outside, and whether the terrain is hilly or not, he said. Few customers are fully aware of this.

"There's no way knowing upfront with customers how to deal with this at the dealer sales level. We have to start having the dialogue or we risk having unhappy customers and that's what we don't want in this nascent market, because that will poison the well," he said.

Giving consumers information through smartphones that tell people how much charge they have left or let people schedule charge times for off-peak hours, can help address a number of these issues, Reinert said.

Meanwhile, utilities say that taxing the local grid is a very real issue. If four or five drivers come home and plug in at the same time, it could cause a brownout or blackout on a local transformer that serves about 10 or 12 houses, said Tony Early, the CEO of utility DTE Energy.

He said utilities will be able to find out which neighborhoods will have a concentration of electric cars and upgrade their transformers to handle the bigger load, or they can install smart meters which allow people to charge during off-peak times.

But for all the challenges, electrification of some sort offers the best path forward to clean transportation, said Mark Little, the head of GE Global Research, echoing other speakers. Compared to biofuels, electric-vehicle technology is available now and they offer a fun-to-drive experience.

"Once you get electric vehicles out there and people see they are not toy cars, that they're not dangerous, we're going to get a lot people swinging to it," he said.