SINGAPORE — Does 2010 mark the start of a new era in road transport as electricity increasingly takes over from petrol and diesel engines as the source of power for vehicles?
Some signs point this way in the United States, Europe and Asia, where demand for cars is growing fastest. Japan’s second-biggest car maker, Nissan, said recently it would launch a major marketing campaign for its new electric cars in the U.S. this year, to be followed by similar drives in Japan and Europe.
Asia is probably the key to the future of a land transport revolution. If small, affordable electric cars catch on in Asia, their success is likely to be assured and production costs across the whole range of electric vehicles will fall as output rises and technology advances.
Global demand for oil in the future will also be less than forecast and — if vehicles are powered by electricity from hydro, wind, solar, geothermal or other forms of clean, renewable energy — greenhouse-gas emissions from transport will be substantially reduced. Nuclear power in combination with electric vehicles would achieve the same result.
The International Energy Agency has forecast that without major oil-saving reforms, global oil demand will rise from around 83 million barrels per day (mbd) now to 88 mbd in 2015 and 105 mbd in 2030.
General Motors of the U.S. and India’s Reva Electric will begin joint production of a “highly affordable” battery-powered car in India later this year, while China is promoting manufacture of electric-drive vehicles and the onboard batteries.
Such vehicles range from all-electric to more widely available hybrids like those from Japanese manufacturers Toyota and Honda that use rechargeable battery power and petrol motors.
Nearly all major car makers are betting that cheap oil is a thing of the past and that governments will raise taxes on fossil fuels and curb carbon emissions.
GM is due to launch its Chevrolet Volt in the U.S. and Europe later this year. The Volt, to be sold in Europe as the Ampera, is a new hybrid design in which the wheels are driven only by the electric motor. A petrol engine creates more electricity to extend the car’s range if needed, but the batteries are mainly re-charged by plugging into an electric power source.
France’s PSA Peugeot Citroen says it will be the first automaker to market a full range of electric cars in Europe after it starts selling them this year. Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are developing luxury battery-powered models.
Nissan and its French parent Renault are making a huge investment in four electric models to be launched in 2011 and 2012. They are also investing heavily in production of batteries for the cars.
Singapore is launching a three-year program this year to collaborate with electric vehicle manufacturers to test their cars in an urban environment. It is also working with local firm Keppel Energy to develop charging stations and other infrastructure to support electric cars on city commutes. Similar test-bedding is under way in Israel and Denmark.
At the Tokyo Motor Show in October, Carlos Ghosn, the head of Renault-Nissan, said the electric car is “no longer a daydream.” He predicted that pure electric vehicles could account for 10 percent of all new car purchases by 2020 — by far the most ambitious forecast in the industry. By contrast, U.S. research firm CSM Worldwide estimates that automakers around the world will build only 100,000 electric cars in 2015, accounting for about 0.1 percent of total production.
The main barriers to widespread adoption of electric vehicles are high cost, limited range and lack of infrastructure. Most electric cars can be driven for no more than about 150 km before their batteries have to be re-charged or swapped for a full battery. In Southeast Asia, this range may be cut by up to 20 percent with air conditioning. Still, research shows that most car owners in the U.S., Europe and Japan drive less than 100 km a day, making electric vehicles a practical proposition except on long journeys.
Cost is a bigger obstacle. Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV model, to be tested in Singapore, retails for about $114,000 — $71,000 more than the petrol-run version. However, Toyota is planning to make and sell an all-electric four-seater “urban commuter” with a price tag of about $20,000 in 2012.
New lithium-ion batteries, the technology expected to underpin the next wave of hybrid and electric vehicles, promise to extend the range of electric cars. They provide the same power at half the weight of the current standard nickel-metal hydride batteries. Lithium batteries, though, cost three to four times as much as nickel ones, and the price of the older technology is continuing to drop fast.
A standard recharge of a lithium battery would take about eight hours while a quick charge at a special high-current point would take about 30 minutes — still much longer than filling up with petrol.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.