The auto industry hopes to rev up the public's acceptance of electric cars with the rollout of the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. But ultimately, the speed at which America embraces the gas-free vehicles rests with large fleet operators.
Barriers to mass adoption of electric cars, like high price tags and limited access to recharging points, will be more easily overcome by companies and governments with bigger budgets and predictable driving routes, say industry officials.
And while ordinary Americans are seen as essential to lift the niche market to mainstream, they may be the slowest to jump on board.
The 2012 models of the passenger E.V. Leaf and the plug-in Volt start around $36,000 and $39,000. Even with federal tax credits of up to $7,500 for the first 200,000 cars sold by each automaker, they're a tough sell in a downtrodden economy.
The suggested retail price for a fuel-efficient, gas-powered Chevy Cruze Eco, by comparison, is around $16,700.
Many fleet owners will be willing to shell out the extra upfront cash for electrified cars and infrastructure, because of the huge savings they'll rack up on fuel, maintenance and operating costs over the lifetime of hundreds of cars, said Sam Ori, policy director for the Electrification Coalition in Washington, D.C.
"They're interested in the total cost of ownership. That's their number one priority," he told InsideClimate News. "If you can show [operators] there is a value over six to seven years, you’ve got a foot in the door."
As early fleet adopters grow their carbon-free fleets, they'll be making the cars more affordable for all, he predicts. A boost in bulk orders of electric trucks, delivery vans and company cars could ramp up production of lithium-ion batteries and lower the price tag for passenger cars. The battery used in most E.V. models costs $16,500—nearly half the cost of the vehicle and up to eight times more expensive than the lead acid batteries used in gas cars, say estimates.
"By fleets being first movers, they can help scale up the battery industry in a significant way in the early years of the electric vehicle industry," Ori said.
Another hope for the nation's fleets: They'll spur a rise in public charging networks by boosting demand for recharging points and working out the kinks of the installation process. Charging infrastructure is needed to alleviate "range anxiety"—the fear of running out of electricity en route.
Fleet Owners, First Movers
Fleet operators have the numbers to at least begin to make a difference. The coalition reports that about 16 million government and commercial trucks, vans and cars were on America's roads in 2009—about 6 percent of the nation's 255 million light-duty vehicles.
Fleets will buy more than 200,000 all-electric and plug-in hybrid cars between 2011 and 2015, according to estimates by the Electrification Coalition.
For governments and businesses the capital outlay is all about "economic payback," said Ori.
The impact of fuel savings alone is expected to be significant. On a cost-per-mile basis, "electricity is about a quarter of the cost of gas on today's prices, and electricity prices can be pretty stable going forward," said Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association.
According to Wynne's group, charging up a plug-in costs two to three cents per mile. For a standard car, it's more than five times that on average. Because commercial and industrial firms generally pay cheaper electricity rates than homeowners, fleets can save considerably more from getting off gas and diesel.
Fleets can also trim vehicle costs by getting manufacturers to tailor-make their batteries—a benefit not afforded to the public. If a company has short routes and a particular truck in mind with a large and long-lasting battery, the automaker can swap it for a smaller, cheaper power pack in some cases.
Another lure: the prospect of reduced maintenance costs.
Electric drive trains require far less upkeep than the heavy internal combustion engines of conventional cars; full E.V.'s don't have engines, conventional transmission or a host of related components. Consumers would realize the same long-term savings. But for fleets, the advantage is magnified by the amount of vehicles they own and the heavy wear and tear their fleets endure over time.
"Past 60 to 70,000 miles [of driving], maintenance costs go through the roof," said Ori. "For companies like FedEx," he added, "that's a huge expenditure over a 10-year lifespan."
FedEx, UPS, Others Add E.V.'s
In August, the Memphis-based shipping giant brought its total of all-electric vans to 43 across four U.S. cities plus London and Paris. Last month, its competitor UPS said it bought 100 all-electric delivery vehicles to replace older diesel trucks in California.
PepsiCo's Frito-Lay North America is busy building what could be the largest, though still-small, fleet of all-electric delivery trucks on the continent, with a total of 170 vehicles to be deployed by 2011.
In June, the U.S. General Services Administration launched a pilot program to incorporate more than 100 electric vehicles into the federal fleet, which the Department of Energy and other agencies will lease. The effort will help the government meet Obama's goal of getting federal agencies to purchase only alternative-fuel vehicles by 2015.
But the largest fleet purchase so far is from General Electric, which said late last year that it would buy 25,000 electric vehicles by 2015 for its own global fleet and the 65,000 customers in its worldwide fleet management businesses. The purchase is partly a way to drive demand for GE's portfolio of E.V. infrastructure products, including charging stations, circuit protection equipment and transformers.
GE will convert half of its own 30,000-unit fleet to electric cars by 2015. This year it will buy 12,000 GM electric vehicles, including the Chevy Volt.
In the consumer market, limited releases of Leafs and Volts have been selling fairly well since their debut late last year. So far, Nissan has sold more than 6,100 of its all-electric cars in the United States, while GM has sold nearly 3,200 plug-in Volts.
'Range Anxiety' Barrier Persists
But as more passenger cars hit the road, speedier home-based charging stations and public recharging networks haven't caught up, doing little to ally fears of all-electric cars running out of juice.
Range anxiety isn't entirely warranted, said Ori. "The average American drives 40 miles a day, therefore an electric vehicle that gets 100 miles of range should provide more than enough range," he said. "Of course, consumers don't buy vehicles that way. You want the vehicle to be able to meet your needs for all kinds of different things."
Part of spurring consumer acceptance of E.V.'s is changing the way drivers think about refueling, said Ori. Consumers accustomed to a five-minute fill-up in a country with 170,000 gas stations across are naturally weary.
For now, most E.V. drivers plug into a 120-volt, level 1 charger at home every night for eight to 10 hours. Homeowners can cut charge times in half with a 240-volt, level 2 charger at a price of $2,500 to buy and install the equipment, though a federal tax credit of up to $1,000 is available.
Drivers' next option is to fill up at one of the country's 3,100 public charging stations located at supermarkets, drug stores and public lots with additional parking fees—nearly one-third of which are in California. The level 2 chargers take around an hour and a half for a top off. Hundreds of half-hour fast-chargers are set to roll out nationwide in the next year but are not compatible with the Volt.
City dwellers without garages, or condo residents with shared parking, are particularly dependent on the limited public charging infrastructure.
Fleets have the easiest time to skirt this problem, Ori said. Back at their depots or delivery points, off-duty delivery trucks can plug in for long periods. And since they run the same routes day after day, companies can set up charging stations where vehicles are most likely to need a fill up.
The more recharging spots they add, the better, argues the Electrification Coalition. The need for fleets to charge multiple vehicles at once means fleets will have to make big purchases of charging units. This could drive early production volumes and give valuable experience to utility companies and local transit authorities, who are otherwise unfamiliar with the permitting and installation processes for charging stations.
Gov't Incentives Needed, Too
While large-scale orders from fleet companies will help cut consumers' cost and infrastructure concerns, they will only take the industry so far, said Simon Mui, a scientist with the National Resources Defense Council's Air & Energy Program. Federal financial incentives like tax credits or rebates must be included in the mix.
Most importantly, existing federal and state tax benefits for advanced manufacturing "will be critical to helping drive down the costs of [battery] technology."
The Obama administration's $2.4 billion in stimulus grants to 30 automakers, advanced battery makers and battery material suppliers is giving legs to a nascent industry in the United States, he said. More-efficient technologies, coupled with a surge in domestic production, could slash component costs and shipping expenses, making for cheaper batteries.
"The critical issue is getting economies of scale with battery production," said Mui. "We know that costs can come down through scaling-up facilities, but it takes large volumes to get there."
Ori and the Electrification Coalition advocate the "electrification deployment community" concept embraced, in part, by a set of bills tabled in Congress earlier this year and expected to be considered in the next session. The idea is to subsidize E.V.'s in key markets.
Groups of public and private entities would develop strategies with local utilities, municipal and state governments, automakers and large local employers to accelerate the deployment of electric vehicles in their cities. They locate the best spots to put public chargers, install them and give homeowners incentives for off-peak charging at home.
A number of cities could then apply to the U.S. Department of Energy for funding and logistical support to roll out the plan.
"This is really a launching pad to proliferate mainstream adoption," Ori said of the deployment communities. "The regulatory environment and the business environment is geared toward making these vehicles fit seamlessly into the system and making it easier for consumers to own them."
The DOE is also backing the $230 million E.V. Project, a public-private partnership funded 50-50 by federal stimulus dollars and private financing. San Francisco-based ECOtality, Inc. is managing $130 million of the project to develop and install 15,000 charging systems in Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona, Tennessee and Texas and the District of Columbia.