By Mark Glover
December 24, 2011
Those electric vehicles popping up in driveways look a lot like their gas-powered cousins. But under the hood, they're different machines, and their potential problems are foreign to many drivers and mechanics alike.
Any suggestion that they might be more dangerous — true or not — could stop sales cold, analysts say. That's why the industry shuddered last month when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into the Chevrolet Volt's lithium-ion battery pack.
NHTSA said two Volt batteries caught fire after crash simulations — one three weeks after the crash, the other a week later.
A nationwide survey by Bandon, Ore.-based CNW Research showed a sharp decline in consumer consideration of the Volt in the aftermath of the NHTSA investigation, even though Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the Volt is safe to drive.
General Motors took the unusual step of offering free loaner cars to concerned Volt owners during the probe. It was characterized as a goodwill gesture, not an admission of safety concerns. GM says it has had few takers.
GM insists that the Volt — which the automaker spent years and millions of dollars developing — is solid, wave-of-the-future technology, not unlike early internal combustion engine-powered cars that went through some growing pains.
"This technology should inspire confidence and pride, not raise any concern or doubt," said Mark Reuss, president of GM North America.
Auto industry analysts say the attention given the Volt — which can be charged via a plug in a standard electrical outlet, then driven longer distances with a gas engine replenishing the battery — is indicative of the high stakes in the evolving electric vehicle, or EV, industry.
Billions of development dollars are on the line, not to mention the jobs that go with building and servicing EV systems.
Jesse Toprak, an analyst for TrueCar.com, noted that GM took a long time to bring the Volt to market, working to perfect the complex battery, a primary source of heat generation. He said perception sometimes trumps reality in new technology, and the spotlight on the Volt could upset future GM plans.
If GM "can replicate the (Volt) technology into different categories of vehicles, including SUVs and trucks, that will be a game-changer," he said.
Dave Barthmuss, a GM spokesman who specializes in California environment/energy issues, believes the public ultimately will sort out and understand EV technology, just as it did for decades with gas-fueled cars.
"It is evolving," he said. "You can have a gasoline vehicle that can pose just as many challenges if faced with the right circumstances. The Volt is safe. I wouldn't hesitate to put my children in it.
"Because (EVs) are an evolving technology, we have to be as responsive as we can be to all problems and public concerns," Barthmuss said. "Public education is a process that's likely going to take multiple years."
A generation ago, onboard battery packs were not on consumers' radar. That began to change in 2000, with the introduction of the Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid sedan.
Now, a host of hybrids are on the U.S. market. The next wave in the evolutionary process is all-electric drive systems.
Current electric models include the Nissan Leaf, a five-door hatchback that can go about 100 miles per charge; the Tesla Roadster, a high-performance luxury electric convertible; and the Fisker Karma, a plug-in hybrid capable of 125 miles per hour.
More electric vehicles are in the pipeline as public and government pressure grows to ease foreign oil dependence, decrease household gasoline bills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Rising EV numbers have created challenges in the vehicle repair/service industry.
"It's a huge challenge," said Doug Brauner, a certified mechanic who runs two auto shops in the Sacramento, Calif., area. "We're just now after all of these years seeing an acceptable number of techs that have the appropriate amount of hybrid training."
When it comes to fully electric vehicles, he said, "I have yet to see anybody in this marketplace who has received appropriate and reasonable training."
Brauner said the auto service industry was "slow to react to hybrid training. I hope our industry is a little more proactive" with EVs.
Analysts said consumers pondering the purchase of an electric vehicle will need to be more proactive in asking questions at dealerships. Kicking tires and raising the hood won't cut it.
A buyers' checklist should include: What is the warranty on the battery? How much does it cost to replace key electric system components? Are all or some of those components under warranty? Do I need a 240-volt charger? Do you have a number to call if the car just stops on the roadway? What happens if I accidentally detach the plug from the vehicle? Should the vehicle be moved if something like that happens?
Brauner recommends that prospective electric vehicle buyers get online and tap into the ocean of information available on the latest EVs.
Brauner and other mechanics agreed on one other break with the past: EV owners should never grab a wrench and start tinkering with the electronic components of their car.
"If you wouldn't take the back off your TV, then don't delve into your electric car."
Electric/alternative fuel vehicle glossary:
Note: Emission classifications are general definitions, as some language differs in state and federal standards. Some standards apply to conventional engines.
—AFV: An alternative fuel vehicle is powered by fuel other than gasoline or diesel.
—BEV: A battery electric vehicle is one powered by electricity stored in batteries.
—Charging station: An external power source that can be used to recharge an electric vehicle equipped with a plug.
—Electric "horsepower": In the electric car industry, 1 horsepower is defined as 746 watts.
—Electric vehicle or EV: A vehicle with an electric motor driving the wheels.
—Fuel cell: The onboard mechanism that converts fuel into electricity.
—Full hybrid vehicle: A hybrid auto that can be propelled by the engine's electric component alone.
—Hybrid electric vehicle: One that combines conventional power production and an electric motor.
—Low emission vehicle: One with relatively low levels of tailpipe emissions.
—Lithium-ion battery: Rechargeable battery technology used in electric and hybrid cars. When a lithium-ion battery is charging up, lithium ions move from a positive electrode to a negative electrode. When the battery is discharging, the process is reversed.
—Mild hybrid vehicle: A hybrid auto with an engine that has an electric component that can assist an internal combustion engine (improving gas mileage) but is incapable of propelling the vehicle on its own.
—Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle or PHEV: A vehicle that utilizes rechargeable batteries, or another energy-storage device, that can be restored by connecting a plug to an external power source.
—PZEV: A partial zero-emission vehicle is one with a 15-year or 150,000-mile extended warranty for the emissions system and has zero evaporative emissions.
—SULEV: A super ultra-low-emission vehicle is one producing emissions typically 90 percent less than gasoline-fueled equivalent vehicles.
—ULEV: An ultra-low-emission vehicle is one producing 50 percent fewer polluting emissions than the average of new cars released in a given model year.
—ZEV: A zero-emission vehicle is one with no emission pollutants produced by the power source.
Sources: Electric Auto Association, California Air Resources Board, McClatchy Newspapers research.