Henrik Fisker, the company’s former chairman and founder, told House lawmakers that strategic financing at this stage could still allow the company to rebound. In any case, Fisker’s bevy of problems are unique to the company and do not reflect the electric vehicle landscape, says Alan Baum, a Michigan-based analyst specializing in the automotive industry. Start-up car companies—electric or not— often fail, he said.
The real next steps in the industry will come from the larger auto companies such as General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Mercedes, Honda, Mitsubishi and BMW. “All those automakers I mentioned have vehicles in the pipeline that will debut in then next two or three years if they have not yet,” Baum says. “Major carmakers know with electric vehicles you can’t just sit on the sidelines.”
Navigant Research predicted this month that a total of 21.9 million electric vehicles (both all-electric and plug-in hybrids) will be sold worldwide between 2012 and 2020. Its forecasts suggest a fraction—368,000—will be sold in the U.S.; and only 107,000 would be all-electric vehicles (instead of plug-ins). That means that in seven years electric vehicles are expected to comprise only a sliver of the anticipated U.S. car market in 2020—roughly 2 percent, says Dave Hurst, a principal research analyst with Navigant. It will be an uphill climb, Navigant’s researchers expect about 71,800 electric vehicles to sell in the U.S. this year, 17,300 of which would be all-electric vehicles.
One issue is cost. Even with up to $7,500 in federal tax credits, electric vehicle prices can be steep. Without the credits, Karma’s sticker price was in the six-figures. Tesla’s top-of-the-line Model S costs $95,000. The Chevy Volt sells for about $40,000 and the Ford Fusion Energi rings in at $39,000. The price for the Nissan Leaf, which recently moved its manufacturing operations to the U.S., has dropped to around $29,000.
Finding an advanced battery that comes in the perfect package—high in energy density, small in size and lower in price—remains one of the largest hurdles to getting more electric vehicles on the road. “If we want to change things dramatically in the next 10 years we have to find a new material set—a new cathode–anode electrolyte set that will hopefully decrease the cost and increase energy density,” says Venkat Srinivasan, deputy director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR). “If we can achieve that something dramatic would happen and significantly change the penetration curve.” JCESR, an “advanced battery hub,” was established in 2012 at DoE’s Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago with the far-reaching goal of finding batteries with five times the current energy storage at one fifth the price in five years.
On the research side, federal loans from the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan program (ATVM) have also supported other electric vehicle options, including Tesla, which received $465 million from DoE in 2010 and has said it expects to repay its loan five years early. Under this loan program, established under the George W. Bush administration, DoE also cut Ford a check for $5.9 billion to upgrade and modernize factories that produce vehicles including the Focus, Escape and Fusion. To Nissan, ATVM gave a loan for $1.4 billion to support the Leaf. And the Vehicle Production Group, LLC, received a $50-million loan to develop a wheelchair-accessible vehicle that will run on compressed natural gas. “To date, DoE has committed and closed five ATVM loans, totaling $8.4 billion, to auto manufacturers large and small who are adopting cutting-edge technologies and deploying them into the market,” Nicholas Whitcombe, former acting director of the ATVM program at DoE, told lawmakers Wednesday.