DETROIT - Electric vehicles are struggling in the USA. Just 1,661 have been sold since 1996.
This represents the combined sales figures of the six largest automakers selling in the USA, according to an Automotive News survey. It is equal to one day's sales of Chevrolet's full-sized pickup.
Sluggish sales are one sign of the technology's murky future. Batteries are costly, driving range is limited and what little customer demand there is has been spurred by the government.
'It is unkind to say these programs are failures,' said John Wallace, director of Ford Motor Co.'s
alternative fuel vehicle program. 'I think there is a small market for battery-powered electrics. There will be unique (uses for electrics) which have benefited from this exercise.'
Hybrid electric vehicles powered by fuel cells might someday command mass-market sales, but while this technology is developed in the laboratory, 100 percent electric vehicles are being sold as the best available clean powertrain.
The Detroit companies and the US sales arms of Toyota, Honda and Nissan are the only automakers making significant efforts to sell electric vehicles in North America.
They may be required to sell electric cars in California someday, and already California accounts for the largest portion of sales and leases - some 883 vehicles since late 1996.
Private citizens bought or leased roughly half of all electric vehicles. GM's EV1 is the leader, with 339 leased in California and 140 outside the state.
The Honda EV Plus is second, leased by 120 Californians.
All other electric cars and trucks are aimed at fleet customers. Fleet customers outside California bought 678 electric vehicles over the past two years.
Limited demand is making some automakers nervous. For example, Ford has sold 250 electric Ranger pickups this year - far short of its initial goal of 1,000.
'It wasn't as many as we'd hoped,' Wallace said. 'As we've been saying for a very long time, 1/8It's the battery, stupid'.'
Limited range is likely to be a long-term headache, suggests a recent staff report by the California Air Resources Board. In July, the agency issued its range estimates.
The top performer was the Nissan Altra EV equipped with lithium ion batteries. The Nissan's range is 120 miles (193km). At the bottom was a Chevrolet S10 powered by lead-acid batteries. It had a range of 30 to 50 miles (48km to 80km) per charge.
Fleet customers interviewed by Automotive News gave good reviews to the Toyota RAV4. It is powered by nickel-metal-hydride batteries - larger versions of the batteries that power many laptop computers. 'The RAV4 has been very popular,' said Michel Wehrey, acting manager for Southern California Edison's electric transportation division. The utility was not happy with its eight S10s and their lead-acid batteries.
Nickel-metal-hydride batteries appear to be the technology of choice for every automaker except Nissan. They store more energy than lead-acid batteries, and they have proven their versatility in road tests.
However, nickel-metal-hydride battery packs cost over $20,000.
GM will start equipping some S10s with nickel-metal-hydride batteries later this year.
'The range of our lead-acid
batteries is limited,' said Ray Bush, brand manager for the electric S10.
Eventually he expects GM to equip all electric pickups with nickel-metal-hydride batteries.
In its July report, the California Air Resources Board predicts that lithium polymer batteries - an experimental technology in the bench-test phase - could be the industry's best hope.
However, the Board concludes that the batteries are not likely to meet long-term range goals set by the US Advanced Battery Consortium for 2003. The goal is batteries that can power a small car 200 miles (320km) or more.
A cheap, high-performance battery will be a key issue if the California Air Resources Board sticks to its target for 2003. By then sales of electric vehicles are supposed to equal 10 percent of each carmaker's sales in the state. Ford's Wallace says, 'The 10 percent goal is ridiculous.'
California regulators defend the sales target, arguing that motorists could probably live with an electric vehicle with a daily range of 100 miles (160km). Several years ago, a study concluded that the typical Californian commuted about 30 miles (48km) a day.
'The bottom line is that 85 percent of the population can use present-day technology,' said California Air Resources Board spokesman Jerry Martin. 'The cost of these batteries is probably a bigger factor.'
A conventional lead-acid battery pack might cost about $4,500. A motorist might replace those batteries after two years.
A nickel-metal-hydride battery pack might cost four times more, and even then is heavily subsidized by the automaker.
'We could live with shortfalls in performance,' said Wallace, 'but the cost issues are murdering us.'
Given the twin hurdles of high cost and limited range, Wallace estimates nationwide fleet demand will average 1,000 electric vehicles per year in the near future.