IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Plenty of car batteries, but no magic bullet

Battery-powered vehicles are capturing the spotlight at the current L.A. auto show. But drivers will depend heavily on conventional engines for the foreseeable future.

Grabbing its third significant honor in as many days, the Chevrolet Volt was named Green Car of the Year at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show Thursday. Earlier in the week, the new plug-in hybrid picked up the influential Motor Trend Car of the Year award and was named Automobile of the Year by Automobile magazine.

The sweep does more than just recognize the engineering prowess of a resurgent General Motors on the same day it marked its return to public trading on the New York Stock Exchange. It also underscores the nascent transition electric propulsion is moving from niche to mainstream in the global automotive market.

Yet even while the floor of the just-opened L.A. show is littered with battery-powered and plug-in electric vehicles, industry executives say electricity alone cannot solve the twin issues of environmental degradation and petroleum dependence.

“No one technology will be the answer,” said Jim Lentz, head of Toyota’s U.S. sales unit, who often says there is “no single silver bullet” for solving the two issues. In fact, he said, the answers offered by auto executives at the Los Angeles show “will probably be different from the ones in Dallas or New York or Shanghai.

At the sprawling L.A. show it’s hard to find a single automaker that isn’t putting a spotlight on some new battery-powered vehicle, from luxury brands like Jaguar, whose C-X75 turbine-powered plug-in hybrid is making its American premier, to Toyota, which took the wraps off the new RAV4-EV, a pure battery-electric vehicle, or BEV.

Yet even while electrified cars grab the spotlight, conventional hybrids such as Toyota's Prius account for less than 2 percent of American sales, and U.S. makers remain heavily focused on downsizing conventional powertrains from, say, eight cylinders to six or four. In Europe, diesel is king, accounting for roughly half of annual sales.

“The combustion engine will continue to play a significant role,” emphasized Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Chrysler and Fiat, following the Italian carmaker’s news conference at the opening day of the L.A. show.

Fiat is a good example. Although the maker is developing a battery-powered version of its subcompact 500 model, the company is emphasizing a conventionally powered version with  "TwinAir" technology. The turbocharging allows the car to deliver significantly more power out of the microcar’s 1.4-liter engine than might be expected, without sacrificing mileage. Notably, in a year when anything battery seems to have a leg up on honorifics, the TwinAir technology this week was named Best of What’s New by Popular Science magazine.

Ford, meanwhile, has been capturing kudos for its own gasoline-based EcoBoost technology. The technology will help the maker’s new Focus model deliver what Ford likens to V6 power even though the compact car will get as much as 40 miles per gallon on the highway, territory that, until recently, only the best hybrids could reach.

Indeed, all versions of the new, gasoline-powered 2011 Hyundai Elantra will top 40 mpg highway.

“We’re still learning what we can do with combustion” engine technology, said Marchionne, who believes that instead of being seen as the villain, “Combustion will be much easier to present as part of the solution to the public.”

George Peterson, senior analyst at consultancy AutoPacific Inc., agreed. Though he says the L.A. Auto Show might seem to be “all about” battery power, it’s really more a matter of “flavors and shades.”

While automakers around the world may be investing billions in their so-called electrification efforts, Peterson said the real challenge is winning customer acceptance. Even while spotlighting the RAV4-EV, Toyota’s Lentz acknowledged that will be a difficult challenge.

The new model developed as part of a new joint venture with the Silicon Valley start-up, Tesla Motors, is actually the second to bear that nameplate. An earlier RAV4-EV was launched at the L.A. show 14 years ago, recalled Lentz, and while “Enthusiasts loved the [original] RAV4-EV,  mainstream buyers [were] not so much” enthralled, and the vehicle was soon pulled from the market.

The key challenge to battery power, of course, is range.

With rare exception, the best models available now or soon deliver no more than 100 miles on a charge. And while that is technically more than what 90 percent of Americans drive in a typical day, according to government data, it is nonetheless not enough to avert “range anxiety,” defined as the fear that a vehicle doesn’t have the power to take you where you want to go.

Plug-ins like Volt and the Jaguar C-X75 hope to avert that issue by adding a conventional gasoline or diesel engine that kicks in when the batteries are drained. But that technology adds to the hefty premium for battery power. Volt, for example, carries a base sticker price of around $41,000.

The good news is that range should grow, even as costs come down on next-generation battery technology, said Elon Musk, Tesla founder and one of the most vocal proponents of electric propulsion.

“The target we aspire to is having the incremental cost of the drivetrain be less than the [$7,500] federal tax credit” for electric vehicles, said Musk.

How soon that will happen is anything but certain. Even Musk acknowledged promises of better batteries are frequently made and seldom delivered upon.

That’s a key reason why the research firm J.D. Power and Associates took a gloomy position when predicting the acceptance of battery technology over the coming decade.

By 2020, Power’s Drive Green report forecast, it will capture no more than 7.3 percent of the global automotive market — including not just battery-electric vehicles but plug-ins and conventional hybrids as well.

Significantly better batteries — at markedly lower costs — could be the much-needed breakthrough. Or there could be pressure from government — such as a 65 mpg national fuel economy standard under discussion by federal lawmakers. GM officials, among others, believe that would be impossible to meet without a wholesale shift to electric power.

Barring such a legal requirement, it is far too early to forecast the demise of the internal combustion engine. Though battery power will continue to capture the imagination, more conventional — if equally advanced — forms of propulsion will still be what consumers turn to for most of their needs.