Electric Vehicles 2009: Two Steps Forward...

By Bill Moore

Posted: 28 Dec 2009

It's easy to see 2009 in a negative light: General Motors and Chrysler were forced into bankruptcy, the former losing two CEOs in the same year and the latter compelled to ditch its own electric car program in a shotgun marriage with Fiat. Aptera, the once-high-flying start-up found it hard to find money after hiring a new CEO and CFO, the latter once implicated in a SEC probe over accounting irregularities, while it booted its two co-founders. ZENN, still waiting on EEStor to come through, began shuttering its NEV business and shelved its city-class EV program, shifting its attention to developing electric drive systems for others.

Despite being first to market with a plug-in hybrid and buoyed by Warren Buffett's investment luster, BYD's F3DM has seen lackluster sales in China. Meanwhile over in Merry Ol' England, NICE Cars went into the British equivalent of receivership. So did Vectrix.

Did I miss anyone?

Oh yes, Toyota. Seems they too have had their share of problems with accelerators sticking on the Generation II (2004-2009 model years) Prius and now brake failures on the Gen III Prius.

Then to add insult to injury, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, through its National Research Council, issued a scathing report critical of plug-in hybrid vehicles authored by the same committee that had earlier reported favorably on fuel cell technology. [See "The cost premium for hydrogen fuel cells to be offset by savings in fuel costs by 2023.'] Numerous media outlets from the respected Washington Post to right-wing cranks jumped all over the report, seemingly without bothering to actually read it critically, especially its overly-conservative battery cost forecasts.

Suddenly, electric cars are dirty, expensive, impractical silent killers. The great green hope began to lose some of its moss-colored patina.

Fortunately, despite the naysayers, 2009 still has been a good year for electric transportation. Consider the following events:

Despite all its financial woes and organizational upheaval, General Motors stayed the course on its Chevy Volt, moving from mules to pre-production models. They opened one of the world's most advance battery test facilities and started construction of the first battery assembly plant owned by an American OEM. While there's still work to be done, it would appear that the company will keep its promise to launch commercial production in November 2010.

The boxy Nissan EV01 that I got to drive briefly around the parking lot at a state park north of New York City last May, was overshadowed by the introduction of the LEAF near summer's end. While production is still months away, Nissan has been active establishing partnerships with a dozen or so cities who have pledged to support the launch of the all electric car with an estimated "real-world" range of up to 100 miles.

Nissan's French cousin, Renault surprised the automotive world at the Frankfurt Auto Show in September by introducing four all-electric vehicles, the Fluence being specifically engineered with Better Place in mind, offering a swappable battery pack.

Better Place then announced it was ordering 100,000 of the cars for its electric car network, that includes the first fully robotic battery exchange system, which it demonstrated earlier in the summer in Tokyo.

With the resuscitative powers of the Phoenix, Norwegian electric car maker Think, got a major capital infusion from Ener1, and found a manufacturing partner in Valmet in Finland, resuming production just weeks ago, its order book having some 2,400 vehicles backlogged.

Despite early teething problems and not-unexpected shortened range issues in a wintry New York area, BMW's Mini-E experiment with 500 electric versions of the Mini Cooper, has been a relative success, enough so that the company appears to be moving towards building a dedicated EV model.

Ford hit a home run with its Fusion and Milan Hybrids, garnering praise once reserved for Toyota while attracting legends of new customers.

Also in 2009, the U.S. federal government provided billions of dollars in grants and loan guarantees to prime the electric car industry from battery companies to motor makers, as well as OEMs, though it might be argued they left a lot of hopefuls like Bright Automotive, Imara and the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Batteries (NAATBatt) out in cold.

The idea of electrifying the U.S. Postal Fleet started to build momentum again after nearly a decade hiatus, inspired perhaps in part by France's La Poste deciding to convert its fleet over to electric vehicles.

Despite its cautious view of plug-in conversions like our Plug In Conversions Corporation-adapted Prius, and hundreds like it, Toyota has decided to move forward with its own PHEV Prius, with early prototypes rolling out early next year, and production set for 2012.

And as the year closed, a high-profile coalition announced its Electrification Roadmap setting down an ambitious agenda to have 75% of all passenger vehicle miles be in electrically-propelled vehicles by 2040.

Beyond the conventional four-wheeled, OEM-produced products, a number of small, would-be Fords and Hyundais popped up in the year, some with fresh new designs like the NMG2 and new players like V-Vehicles, Acrimoto and Tinitron's Neutron3.

Electric-powered flight also made important advances with successful test flights of the Yuneec two-place E430 and the giant Solar Impulse, as well as the hydrogen fuel-cell powered Antares DLR-H2 and the FES-equipped LAK17A.

In the marine environment, maybe the most exciting development of the year was the introduction of the world's entirely molten carbonate fuel cell-powered surface ship, the Viking Lady, a 5,900 metric ton North Sea supply ship. There were also other fuel cell vessels launched including river shuttles, ferries and yachts.

So, overall, 2009 hasn't been a bad year for electric vehicles, vessels and craft of all shapes and sizes. And I think my personal favorite is the YikeBike for its ingenuity and design finesse, but it was just one of many out-of-the-box EV innovations that debuted this year; all of them demonstrating that invention is alive and well and while we may have been handed a few setbacks, we did, in fact take two steps forward for every one back. And even in those setbacks are lessons to be learned and opportunities to grow and improve.

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