Do you own a plug-in car? Do you even know anybody who does? Probably not. But that might very well change this year. Electric cars aren't new, of course. Mitsubishi's all-electric i-MiEV has been available in several countries since 2010. The US $35 200 Nissan Leaf, another pure electric vehicle, has been selling in Japan and the United States for more than a year. The Chevy Volt is also available in America, as is the Tesla Roadster, a $109 000 toy for the rich.
And yet, despite the intense press coverage and feverish anticipation, relatively few of these cars have found their way into garages and driveways. In 2012, however, a big influx of plug-in cars will help these vehicles start shedding their novelty image and in some places may even justify the construction of public charging stations [see "State of Charge," in this issue].
By the end of 2012, for example, Toyota will introduce no fewer than three new plug-in models, and Ford and Volvo will both have their first-ever plug‑in electrics in showrooms. Nissan and General Motors will ramp up production of the Leaf and the Volt as well. Nissan aims to produce about 4000 Leafs per month at its plant in Oppama, Japan. Capacity will rise by another 150 000 cars annually when modifications to Nissan's assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., are completed later this year, the company says. And Nissan projects that further production increases in 2013 will bring the total to about a quarter million cars a year, which is on par with the number of Volkswagens of all types sold in the United States. If Nissan achieves that kind of volume, the Leaf will have truly broken out of its niche, becoming the Prius of pure electrics.
Chevy's Volt, which costs a little more than $39 000, will also be seen in far greater numbers. Production of the Volt, which last year totaled about 5000 cars, is slated to rise to 60 000 in 2012, with some being sold outside North America.
Even Tesla is trying to go mainstream. This past October, the California carmaker showcased beta versions of an all-electric sedan, the Model S. At $57 400, it ain't cheap, but it's much less pricey than the Roadster.
To scale up its operations, Tesla acquired the New United Motor Manufacturing plant, in Fremont, Calif., where General Motors and Toyota formerly built cars. Tesla projects that later this year, Model S vehicles will be made there at a rate of 20 000 per year.
Much of the money to buy that factory and get it tooled up came from the initial public offering of Tesla stock, which raised $226 million for the company in June of 2010. Just weeks before the IPO, Tesla and Toyota agreed to collaborate on the development of electric vehicles. The two companies began by working on an all-electric version of Toyota's RAV4, an SUV. Commercial versions of that vehicle will be produced later this year alongside conventional RAV4s at Toyota's assembly plant in Woodstock, Ont., Canada.
This is not the first time the RAV4 has been electrified. Between 1997 and 2003, Toyota produced an earlier battery-powered version of this car, some 1500 of which were sold or leased in California. The later ones included a 27-kilowatt-hour nickel metal hydride battery pack, which provided a range of approximately 160 kilometers.