Navigant Research Blog

In the Right Cities, EVs Are the Right Choice

John Gartner — October 26, 2012

As detractors are quick to point out, it is not difficult to create a case against the widespread adoption of battery electric vehicles (BEVs).  The high cost of the vehicle, limited driving range, and steep learning curve for automakers in marketing to consumers present obvious challenges, which is why without a leap forward in battery technology, BEVs are destined to be a small fraction of the automotive fleet.  Therefore, it’s not a surprise that most of the large automotive OEMS (Renault and Nissan excepted) are taking a cautious approach to launching BEVs.

Despite these hurdles, BEVs can be highly satisfactory, if not superior, vehicles for certain driving cycles.  For short driving trips in urban environments, driving electric can be a convenient and, in many cases, cost-effective mode of transport.

With the recent introduction of the Scion iQ EV, Toyota has joined Daimler as a major OEM offering an electric commuter car aimed at a relatively narrow audience.  The limited production (only 90 planned to be offered in the United States this year) commuter car will be targeted at car sharing and campus fleets.  Toyota has interestingly attempted to “right-size” the battery,  just 12.5 kilowatt-hours, to keep the cost down.  The company claims that this reduced sized pack will provide approximately 50 miles of range, a much shorter distance than Daimler’s Smart ED or the Nissan Leaf.

For BEV drivers in urban settings, however, 50 miles can more than sufficient.  At a Toyota media event in Denver last week, the University of Colorado at Boulder released a study of Boulder drivers who were given a prototype Prius Plug-in Hybrid.  The study showed that even when range was not an issue (due to the extended range provided by the gas tank), drivers traveled just 22 miles between charging events, with more than half of all trips under 13 miles.  The study found that increasing the number of public charging stations in the city (there are currently less than 10) could increase the ratio of electric to gas miles without having to increase the size of the battery.  Unfortunately for automakers, they don’t have much say in where charging infrastructure is installed, so instead they are targeting sales to regions where there believe their vehicles will be best supported.

While Boulder is a smaller city (about half the size of San Francisco geographically), the 50-mile-range Scion IQ EV or other BEVs can work well as commuter vehicles in larger cities that have considerable charging infrastructure today.  For example, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s not-quite-comprehensive Alternative Fuels Data Center, San Francisco has approximately 64 public charging stations, which makes it possible to charge in nearly any neighborhood.  BEVs and car sharing can make sense in these cities where parking and gasoline are at a premium.

Until the prices of lithium ion batteries fall, OEMs are likely to take a targeted approach in delivering BEVs to cities where commutes are shorter and plug-in locations are readily available.  BEVs may never be appropriate for more than 10% of drivers, but selling to a niche audience hasn’t prevented the Mustang, the Beetle, or the Cadillac Escalade from being successful.

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