Decoding automakers’ promises about electric vehicles – Detroit Free Press
Dozens of companies in California are reportedly now test self-driving cars, with Samsung being the latest corporation to get permission from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. In a statement, a spokesman for Samsung said the car company will use a Toyota Prius and two Audi A3s for self-driving tests. According to Business Insider, in addition to tech giants Google and Apple, there are now almost 40 companies with permits to test self-driving cars in California, including carmakers BMW, Honda, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz.
Car buyers need to add a new nugget to their vocabulary: the difference between what automakers are promising — and charging for — when they talk about “electrification” vs. “electric” vehicles. The difference matters, in price, fuel economy, emissions, and perhaps most important, drivers’ expectations.
At the same time, people like me who report on the auto industry have to stop declaring the end of the petroleum age every time an automaker expresses enthusiasm for electric vehicles.
A future of all-electric vehicles may be inevitable, but it is not imminent. Realistic projections say millions of petroleum-burning vehicles will be in use around the world for decades.
That means those of us who want to turn back the clock on climate change should root for every improvement in fuel efficiency as well as breakthroughs in cars powered by batteries and hydrogen fuel cells.
Volvo, Jaguar Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz were among the first companies to — shall we say? — blur the line between vehicles that are actually electric and those that use electricity to make gasoline and diesel engines cleaner and more efficient.
You may think that an “electric car” and an “electrified car” should be the same thing — I might agree — but the world’s automakers have tacitly agreed to use the arguably synonymous terms to describe two very different levels of technology and cost.
If some buyers happen to get confused and believe they’re getting more than the car companies deliver, that’s not the automakers’ fault, is it?
Don’t answer that. It’ll only frustrate you, and it won’t change the companies’ behavior.
The solution is to be an informed consumer. Pretending “electric” and “electrified” mean totally different things may be a charade, but it’s a charade many automakers are playing. You need to play, too, if you’re considering their vehicles, or those that compete with them.
When they talk about an “electric car,” that’s a battery-powered vehicle that uses purely electricity when you drive. A Chevy Bolt, Nissan Leaf or Tesla S, for instance. Most automakers say they intend to make a wide range of these electric vehicles — some day.
“Electrification” is a much milder and more immediate promise. It means using electricity to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions from a gasoline or diesel engine. It’s widely done today, and will be universal on new vehicles soon.
Electrification can mean myriad things, including:
- Auto-stop that shuts the engine off while you idle at stoplights
- High-m.p.g. hybrids that can drive a short distance on electricity alone, such as the Toyota Prius
- Plug-in hybrids that go a longer distance on electricity — 53 miles for the Chevrolet Volt — and can go farther with a gasoline engine
- More powerful 48-volt electric systems to improve efficiency at a lower cost than today’s hybrids.
All those features improve fuel economy, but none of them make a vehicle emissions-free.
Speaking of emissions free, beware of hyperbole. A future of all-electric cars is more distant than it may appear, no matter have fervently automakers swear allegiance to it.
One generally excellent newspaper fell for that last week with a column declaring “General Motors … announced Monday that the end of GM producing internal combustion engines is fast approaching.”
That must have come as a surprise to GM product development chief Mark Reuss, who bent over backwards to avoid writing the internal combustion engine’s obituary when he announced GM’s plan to put at least 20 new EVs on the market by 2023, and to build fuel cells commercially in Michigan by 2020.
GM is throwing money and talent at expanding its line of electric vehicles and putting meaningful numbers of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road. The company is realistic, though. Different countries and different types of vehicles will adopt the technologies at different rates.
GM “wisely gave no timeframe for when its full line of products would be electric because, frankly, no one knows how the EV future will evolve,” Autotrader senior analyst Michelle Krebs said.
So if anybody bets you that internal combustion engines will be extinct by 2030, start counting your winnings. There may be a fool born every minute, but you don’t meet one every day.
Contact Mark Phelan: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mark_phelan.