A more sober approach to electric cars via auto veteran Bob Lutz

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.