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Electric cars win hype, staying power questioned

Electric cars win hype, staying power questioned

LONDON (Reuters) – Electric cars are riding high, as incentives and new models make them a realistic option, but the fresh attention may highlight flaws compared with gasoline and alternatives such as biofuels.

The attention rankles with some in the biofuel industry, whose own hype was abruptly halted by a glut of production in 2007, subsequent bankruptcies and a fall from grace after a link was drawn — which they dispute — between biofuels and spiralling food prices and rising hunger.

Gasoline may beat off both alternatives for decades as the least-worst option, with wider adoption of more efficient conventional cars helping to curb carbon emissions and oil dependence.

The uncertainty is striking for a $5-6 trillion global auto and fuel supply market, where there is agreement only that the number of cars will keep rising, perhaps doubling to 2 billion by 2050.

The momentum is with electricity, following an oil price spike in 2008, lavish government incentives and a crippling downturn across the wider car industry. Last week the United States finalised fuel efficiency standards, following similar rules in Europe.

Green cars grabbed centre stage at auto shows this year in New York, Geneva and Detroit, including all-battery cars, hybrid varieties that switch between electric and gasoline, and small, more fuel-efficient conventional cars.

EXPENSIVE

But battery electric vehicles (EVs) are expensive.

Mitsubishi Motors and Nissan Motor Co last week announced prices for their i-MiEV and Leaf battery-only electric cars, in production already or about to debut, at 3.98 million yen ($42,520) and 3.76 million yen respectively before state subsidies, several times the cost of equivalent cars.

Reality bites with driving ranges of about 100 miles (160.9 km), far less than for a petrol car which U.S. customers expect to exceed 300 miles.

And electric cars have to contend with the multi-billion-dollar cost of a new charging infrastructure, although they benefit from running costs at about a quarter of gasoline at today’s prices, according to electric car advocates.

“The electric vehicle sector certainly has momentum, but it’s questionable whether it has the legs for the longer term, at least at the moment, and whether it has enough scale,” said Peter Wells at Cardiff University’s Centre for Automotive Industry Research, who expected big cost reductions.

Success depends on drivers accepting limitations on range and on re-charging time, which takes several hours, said Pierre Gaudillat, research and development manager at the UK-funded Carbon Trust.

“I don’t see any major breakthrough on the horizon,” he said. Customers may have to compromise on what they expect from a car, perhaps tailored for commuting, and from ownership, for example buying the car but renting the expensive battery.

Hybrid gasoline-electric cars overcome the range problem but are still pricey because of their complexity and battery costs.

Sales of hybrid-electric vehicles are expected to reach about 1.3 percent of an estimated 67 million light vehicle sales this year, according to the information company J.D. Power and Associates.

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Nissan rolls out new electric car

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Nissan rolls out new electric car

Japanese carmaker Nissan has unveiled its first electric car, taking it closer to its aim to become the first car firm to mass produce the vehicles.

The zero-emission hatchback vehicle, called Leaf, is set to go on sale in Japan, the US and Europe next year. Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn did not announce the prices but said it would be “very competitive”.

“The monthly cost of the battery, plus the electric charge, will be less than the cost of gasoline,” Mr Ghosn said.

Nissan, Japan’s third largest carmaker, has been slower than rivals Toyota and Honda to embrace hybrids, which run on petrol and electric engines, and is instead pinning its hopes on solely battery-powered cars.

Electric cars have struggled to become mainstream because of limited battery life and high costs. But Mr Ghosn insisted that the Leaf would not be a niche-market vehicle.

“We need to invest a lot of money to build the car plants and the battery plants at a moment where all the auto companies are saving investments,” he said.

“But there is such a high potential that we (will) go ahead with it.”

Nissan has chosen the UK as one of its bases to produce batteries for electric cars. It is investing £200m at its Sunderland factory, which is expected to create 350 jobs. Nissan has said that it plans to make 100,000 electric cars a year by 2012.


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