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Summary:

From the sidelines of the Detroit Auto Show, former GM Vice Chairman, Bob Lutz tells us about how the transition to electric cars will be gradual and a lot more sober than the electric car hype of a few years ago.

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Over the past two or three years “electric vehicles have been way over hyped by the media,” and it’ll actually be a lot more of a gradual transition, says auto industry veteran Bob Lutz, during a phone interview from the sidelines of the Detroit Auto Show on Monday morning. By 2020, I’d expect only 10 percent of cars sold to be electric, says Lutz.

Lutz, who is well known for his outspoken opinions, has a unique vantage point on electric cars. As former GM Vice Chairman, he acted as the public face of the Chevy Volt, and once said that startup Tesla had inspired him and GM to seriously tackle vehicle electrification. Lutz retired in 2010, and now is on the board of startup VIA Motors, which converts gas-powered vans and trucks into extended range electric cars for company fleets.

The reality is that many electric vehicle startups struggled in 2o12, like Better Place, Coda, Fisker, Think and A123 Systems (battery maker). The media reports from a few years back claiming a sudden and swift transformation to electric cars now stand in stark contrast to these current difficulties.

VIA Motors could be an example of a more sober approach to electric cars. As Lutz explains it, the fuel-savings that companies, like Verizon and PG&E, can gain by buying extended-range electric vans and trucks from VIA Motors is a lot easier sell economically, than the fuel savings from electric cars for consumers.

Verizon has bought two of VIA Motor’s extended range electric vans (a pilot purchase), which Verizon technicians will use to drive to customer sites and install its fiber network and support its wireless and wireline network. Verizon’s Chief Sustainability Officer Jim Gowen told me that Verizon will evaluate the fuel savings of the VIA Motors vans this year, and he expects that multiple vans could save a 100,000 gallons of fuel over a year.

But conversions could be a limited business. VIA Motors told us last year that its vehicles cost 35 percent more to buy up front, but that the fuel savings provides a return over time. Smith Electric vehicles has also been focused on the corporate fleet market, and withdrew its IPO plans last year.

The road is hard for even a more sober approach to selling electric fleets. While VIA Motors was expecting to start volume production on its extended range conversions in 2012, Lutz tells me that the company is now expecting to start production in the late Spring or early Summer.

  1. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has said for awhile now that the take-up of electric cars will be gradual – and he’s the one who brought the Leaf to market.

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    1. Thanks Rich, good point. Vaclav Smil is another one that’s said repeatedly that the transition will take decades.

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  2. Dan Frederiksen Monday, January 14, 2013

    Lutz was always a putz. noone really spoke of a rapid takeover by electric cars. that’s just him being an idiot and pretending he was the voice of reason all along.

    ask him if global warming is real. he’s still stupid enough to deny that.

    electric cars could take over quite quickly but not with the idiot car makers that we have. both incompetent and evil, with financial interests in opposing it.
    and tesla wont be our salvation. they messed up too. the cars are not efficient enough, the model S weighs a ton. or two. and critically, Elon completely failed to manage cost so they are hopelessly in debt and burning cash at an unstoppable rate. Tesla will go bankrupt soon

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  3. brianmschoedel Monday, January 14, 2013

    The funny part about hybrid or electric cars is that once the masses have shifted to this “green technology” you will be charged a similar price to fill up your car with electric versus today’s gasoline.

    As far as the environment will it reduce the carbon footprint by burning a coal plant to supply electric far away versus burning gas in our neighborhoods? Hopefully this will at least be better for your health as long as you don’t live downwind from the electric plant.

    Does anyone have a hybrid diesel turbo in the US yet?

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    1. yes vw jetta hybrid td

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    2. “As far as the environment will it reduce the carbon footprint by burning a coal plant to supply electric far away versus burning gas in our neighborhoods?”

      Yes, is the answer to that. The conversion of thermal energy to electricity, and back to kinetic energy with an electric motor is a lot more efficient than burning fossil fuel in an internal combustion engine.

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    3. You’re wrong on both counts.

      1. Electricity rates would have to more than triple for it to cost the same to fuel your car as compared to gasoline. If retail rates were to increase by, say 30%, there would be a massive shift to renewables, further reducing the unit cost of generating the electricity. And if you don’t like the idea of paying a utility to fuel your car, make it yourself. A $10.000 investment today will provide most of the fuel you will need for one car for the rest of your life.

      2. Burning coal for electricity and sending it via the grid to propel your electric car is several times more efficient than the current method of burning gasoline in a small internal combustion engine in each car. Besides The US grid currently gets about 40% of its electricity from burning coal and that number is dropping. Some regions of the US get very little electricity from burning coal, particularly where the is an abundance of hydropower.

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    4. @brianschoedel, The U.S. grid is only 39% coal, and that is dropping fast. Even if you use a mostly coal-generated grid mix, the EV is still considerably cleaner than the most efficient gas burner.

      The beauty of the EV is that you have the CHOICE to use renewable energy for charging. This is never a choice with gasoline. If you have a problem with dirty electricity, you should not be using it to run your home. Most utilities have a renewable energy program, so you can switch to that. Or, if you have the roof for it, solar is now cheaper than grid power in many states. Here in CA, it’s been cheaper than grid power for more than 5 years. You can lease a solar PV system for less than you are paying the utility for their dirty energy.

      Once you switch your home to clean energy, then your car will also run on that zero-pollution energy. It’s all there for the taking, but YOU have to act!

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  4. The carbon footprint of hybrid and electric cars will get better as electricity production moves away from coal.

    Installation of solar panels are accelerating this move.

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  5. I have zero plans to buy a new car. I don’t ever see me owning one because it will be a used one and one worthwhile will need to come out in the next 10 years for it to happen.

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    1. I sell the LEAF for a Nissan dealer in LA. We are getting used 2011 LEAFs in trade for newer models. The 2013 LEAFs will be selling next month. I already have a long list of people who want to trade. The used LEAFs will be selling for less than $20K. They are as good as new since EVs require virtually no maintenance. They will continue to work perfectly all the time.

      Every year, the used LEAFs will become more plentiful and get lower in price. The cost of operation is extremely low.

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  6. Interesting. I think GM’s stated goal is to be selling 500,000 battery tech vehicles in 5 years (ev, hybrid, and light hybrid). That should be somewhere between 4% and 6% of their worldwide sales. That doesn’t seem to fit with 10% of all sales as ev sales by 2020.

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  7. Thanks for your great coverage of VIA Motors extended-range electric trucks, vans and SUV’s, which drive using the same concept as the Chevy Volt but for large vehicles. I drive a Chevy Volt and am averaging 2,000mpg and it costs me about $1.50/day to charge in electricity at my home. I recently applied for a solar roof grant and hope I am chosen so I can hopefully power my clean car using clean energy. I love my Chevy Volt but would love a VIA luxury electric SUV so I can cart my kids around without polluting! :)

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