Electric Cars Prepare Consumers For Debut

by , Apr 23, 2010, 4:54 PM
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envo/GM's concept electric vehicle

The electric car is coming, but are consumers and the power infrastructure rolling out the welcome mat?

That question has been academic until now, as some 30 electric vehicles will enter the market in the next 18 to 24 months -- including cars from niche players like Coda and Tesla, and those from major brands like Nissan and Chevrolet. The latter on Friday sponsored a panel at Columbia University's engineering school to bat the question around, using the venue to show off the Chevy Volt plug-in electric car. One of the cars, going on sale this year, was parked on the main quadrangle.

The time -- the day after the launch of Earth Week -- and the place -- New York City -- were relevant for the discussion. The city, developers, ConEd, and automakers are trying to dream up a charging infrastructure that makes such cars appealing to consumers, about 16% of whom say they are willing to buy electric cars in New York.

Lawrence Burns, former VP of research and development at General Motors, one of the panelists, said "range anxiety" is probably the greatest barrier to consumer acceptance of electric cars -- something Chevy is hoping to ameliorate with its vehicle. The Volt is designed to go 40 miles on a charged battery, after which an onboard gasoline generator kicks in to power the battery. "Consumers don't want to make a trade-off on convenience, safety, security and time," he said. "They do not want to be inconvenienced because they don't have sufficient vehicle range on a charge. They don't want to be stranded somewhere."

Burns said any revolution in individual transportation must involve innovations beyond those pertaining to drive-train technology. He says urban transport must finally include "mobility Internet" where digitally connected cars communicate with each other, and with their environment and are thereby able to guide themselves to avoid collisions. "We will see vehicles that don't crash or run into people and objects, that can drive themselves so that texting won't be an issue. Most would conclude that driving is, in fact, the distraction -- not texting."

The company will show an example of this -- what it sees as the next iteration of urban mobility -- at the Shanghai "Better City Better Life" World Expo next month, featuring a 750-pound Segway-type electric vehicle for two people.

Panelist Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for Chevy Volt, said that the price for the new Volt, not officially announced, will be "a little more than a comparable compact car," less than $30,000 for the basic model.

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