Looking ten years into the future of plug ins.

Ten years ago, we were still in the last great EV revolution. The EV1 was still on the road (although GM had by this time decided to no-longer make them), and the general public were getting used to seeing funky charging stations. At least, they were used to that in the select areas of the US where electric vehicles were being used.

Europe too, was undergoing something of a mini-revolution. The french conglomeration of Citroen, Peugeot and Renault were making commercially available electric cars and vans. A few years later, just like the EV1, RAV4EV and Ford Th!nk to name but a few, these vehicles disappeared from the market.

Here we are, in 2009, with lots of exciting developments in the world of plug in vehicles. As someone heavily involved with plug in vehicles it feels to me as if we’re just about to enter a truly golden age of the electric vehicle. But we’ve seen this kind of activity ten years ago. How do we know it’s not going to end in tears again?

Thirty Years ago the Enfield 8000 EV seemed like the future. What does the next 10 years hold for us?
Thirty Years ago the Enfield 8000 EV seemed like the future. What does the next 10 years hold for us?

More after the jump.

Politically, we’re in a very different place to ten years ago. Economically too. Plug in vehicles are also more in the public consciousness, thanks to the efforts of organizations such as Plug in America and the fantastic film Who Killed The Electric Car?. A failed war in Iraq has made the world lick it’s collective wounds and examine the motivations of those who govern us. Questions are being raised now more than ever about the future of our planet too, as global catastrophe looks ever certain unless we change the way we live our lives on this world.

Ten years ago, all of those efforts and unanswered questions existed too – but the lack of a world-wide crisis seemed to make people less keen to stick their necks above the parapet and make a change. Whole governments colluded with OPEC, to ensure that the multi-trillion business which surrounded the petroleum industry did not fail. After all, there was nothing to worry about there. As far as the general public were concerned, fuel was cheap and we could have as much of it as we wanted.

We’ve since seen just how bad things can get when the price of oil sky-rockets. We have seen the death and destruction that the pursuit of securing oil supplies can bring. And I’m not just talking about the Middle East here. Drilling in our world’s last great frontier threatens more than just human life.

Combined with the global economic crisis, the impetus to effect change in the motor industry has been growing. More and more are questioning the status quo, asking why vehicles need to be powered by inefficient combustion engines. Consumer electronics products are much more likely today to include a high power rechargeable battery pack than they were ten years ago – and the rise of the mobile telephone has familiarized the public with the concept of plugging in to charge. If a laptop and a mobile phone can run off high density lithium batteries, why not a car?

If all the cars which are promised come to market then within the next two years there will be at least twenty different makes of plug in vehicles on the market. Combined with the scrapping schemes that many countries are offering it does seem likely that, provided the current economic crisis resolves itself quickly, there are going to be more new cars coming to the market. But are they going to be electric?

The market share of electric vehicles at the moment is so small that it’s well under 0.1% of the new car market. With car companies offering newer, more fuel efficient cars at prices starting at under £5,000 it’s going to be difficult for any electric vehicles to compete for the market share on price alone. Even taking into consideration the UK government’s £5,000 payment scheme for anyone looking to buy a plug in vehicle from 2011 onwards, the difference in price between a gas car and a plug in is going to be more than £5,000. And with the Government scheme not coming into effect for another year and a half, it’s highly likely that sales of plug in vehicles will stagnate until 2011. After all, who would want to buy a plug in now for £5,000 more than it will cost in two years’ time?

So, things are likely to get worse before they get better. It’s highly likely that for at least the next two years the take-up of plug in vehicles is going to be painfully slow, unless the government causes legislative or policy change to take place. It’s also highly likely that some electric vehicle manufacturers may either go out of business, or face financial crisis, either due to being priced out of the market by larger, more powerful auto makers or, (more likely) by sales figures dropping thanks to the above governmental scheme. The first casualties may not even get out of the starting gate. Th!nk may be one of them. Their price for the vehicle is so astronomically high that it’s hard to anticipate any sales for the next two years in the UK. And by that point, it may just be too late.

I don’t anticipate good things for the NEV market either. If Mitsubishi, GM, Toyota, Ford and all the other major manufacturers decide to go for the plug in in a big way they will almost certainly be able to produce vehicles which are made in a larger scale and thus sellable at a lower price. While the small companies currently giving us fantastic City EVs and converted-from-gas electric vehicles are essential to promoting the take-up of EVs it could very well be a short-lived success. When the big boys come out to play, expect many of these firms to go bust.

Or will they?

At first glance, it may be obvious to expect that smaller companies will die off. The Auto giants, after all, have much more clout in the market place. But when those behemoths are themselves facing financial crisis nothing is a foregone conclusion. Smaller companies, cottage industries if you will, are by their very nature much more versatile and able to react more quickly to changes in markets and regulation. While they may not be able to produce vehicles in the scale of the larger auto companies they very often have the head-start when it comes to knowledge of the plug in technology. And many are already producing vehicles which the large auto companies are still procrastinating over.

So, what does this mean for ten years hence? It’s hard to say.

One of the things I think we can be sure of though, is that a point ten years from now is going to include a mixture of technologies and vehicle types. For those brave enough to stand up to the bleeding edge of vehicle design (and those willing to pay through the nose for the privilege) a reasonable selection of electric vehicles will be available. They’ll not have any battery swapping technology yet (although that may be in the pipeline by 2019) and will still undoubtedly receive some benefits over their gas-guzzling cousins. In terms of percentage of vehicles on the road, pure EVs will probably make up between 5 and 10% of all vehicles.

Plug in Hybrids, be they range extended vehicles like the Volt, or more conventional plug in hyrbids like the plug in prius, will probably still be taking up a lot of the plug in market. By 2019 I hope that the market for plug in hybrids and REEVs will have reached a peak and be slowly on the decline, being replaced by fully electric vehicles. But in 2019 the market share of these particular brand of plug in vehicles will probably still be greater than pure EVs.

Twenty years into the future the petrol based vehicle will be on the decline. With scrapping schemes being in place for over 20 years there will be very few classic vehicles on the road. A point which makes me very sad. While I’m all for new technology in vehicles and while I’d love every vehicle on the road to be electric there is a lot to be said for keeping the older vehicles which have helped our transportation journey alive. Not only that, but older, mechanically sound vehicles deserve to be converted to EVs – not crushed.

Hydrogen will not have a place. Unless of course, someone figures out how to produce hydrogen cleanly, cheaply and environmentally responsibly. If (and when) that happens the game may change completely.

Only time will tell. In the meantime, we all need to support plug ins (be they fully electric or plug in hybrids) in every which way we can.