Detroit Auto Show: The (Niche) Future of Electrics

by Henry Payne



Detroit –
The Detroit Auto Show showcased more green cars than ever this January, even as American demand for hybrid-electrics shrank to below three percent of market in 2014. Driven by President Obama’s 54.5-by-2025 mpg mandate as well as state mandates (most significantly in California, which requires 15 percent of vehicle sales to be EVs by 2025), automakers continue to produce electric vehicles as a compliance measure — and for positive press.
 
But as customers remain cold to electrics, the Detroit Show was evidence that the future of EVs – despite Obama’s Utopian dreams — lies in niche markets like performance sports cars and big utility trucks.

To be sure, Tesla CEO Elon Musk is determined to prove that EVs can appeal to a mass market. Like his idol Henry Ford and his Model T, Musk is determined to bring a game-changing, $30,000, 200-mile range electric vehicle to market. Just as millions of Model Ts on the road stimulated oil infrastructure, the $30K EV could similarly jump-start charging-station infrastructure. His promised, 200-mile range Model 3, however, failed to show in Detroit.

Instead, Chevy beat him to the punch with its 200-mile range Chevy Bolt (not to be confused with the poor-selling plugin Volt). Every auto executive I spoke with, however, believes that the 200-mile EV isn’t a game-changer — but another way to earn federal mpg credits.

So what is the future of EVs? Consider the $150,000-plus Acura NSX supercar at the show, which promises 550-horsepower and neck-snapping, sub-3 second 0-60 dashes from its plug-in electric-twin turbo V-6 powertrain. No mention of saving the planet.

Or consider Bob Lutz’s (the founder of the Volt in his GM days) latest venture with VIA Motors: Converted, electric pickup trucks marketed to large company fleets.

Targeting customers like Time Warner Cable (13,000 service trucks) and Verizon (38,000), VIA promises that companies will make up the $50,000-per vehicle conversion costs in gas savings. Plus, utility truck routes are predictable — making it easier to recharge vehicles overnight (as well as use them onsite to recharge equipment).

VIA has already begun converting Chevy Silverados with a goal of selling 3,000 vehicles this year, said VIA President Alan Perriton here.

Still, the business model is built on an uncertain foundation: Gas must be over three dollars per gallon long term; the feds must subsidize each truck purchase with a $7,500 EV credit; and corporations like VIA customer Duke Energy must have “sustainable business goals” like EV set-asides.