7 trends driving electric vehicles in 2012

Electric vehicle choices will multiply and charging networks will spread, but so will concerns about safety.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

As 2011 draws to a close, the environment for electric vehicle adoption remains positive -- despite a dramatically altered political landscape, which could result in reduced federal financial support for pilots or individual purchases moving forward, and battery safety concerns raised by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), related to several post-crash fires caused by lithium-ion batteries.

Cleantech forecast firm Pike Research offers a pulse of the electric vehicle industry in its white paper, "Electric Vehicles: 10 Predictions for 2012." Based on my reading of their paper, as well as my own gut take on technologies likely to emerge during the next 12 months, here are 7 trends I believe will drive the electric vehicle industry in 2012.

#1: Would-be buyers will have far more choices in 2012. Pike Research predicts that unit sales of plug-in electric vehicles will reach 257,000 units globally next year. The pioneering technologies found in the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf will be joined by models from BMW, Ford, Honda, Toyota and Volvo, as well as the newcomers Coda and Fisker. North America will account for about 66,000 of those unit sales, slightly more than for all of Europe but about half of what is predicted for the Asia/Pacific region.

A limited production run for the new Ford Focus Electric will be available in 2012 (Image courtesy of Ford)

A limited production run for the new Ford Focus Electric will be available in 2012 (Image courtesy of Ford)

#2: Prices will remain high for electric vehicles. Pike Research notes that even though the Chevrolet Volt will have a pricetag that is $1,000 less in 2012, its stripped-down feature set will turn off many potential electric vehicle buyers. In fact, prices for the Nissan Leaf will be higher for 2012 than they were for 2011. The research firm believes that $23,750 is the optimal price range to inspire more mainstream adoption, but most of the models that consumers will consider in 2012 will all be priced at more than $30,000. That includes the Toyota Prius, the Ford Focus EV, and the Honda Fit BEV. Even though an anticipated glut of electric vehicle batteries will affect the market in 2012, most of the batteries for the 2012 models were ordered before increased production helped bring down prices. So, battery availability won't help with pricing until 2013 or 2014 model years, Pike Research predicts.

#3: Real estate companies and parking lot operators will continue to install electric vehicle chargers as a service. A number of companies, including one of the nation's biggest parking-lot operators, announced plans to invest in technologies. This is a trend that is likely to continue over the next 12 months, provided vehicle sales don't lag too much. The more likely it is for a person to juice up their car running errands or if they are traveling to a city for the day, the better the chances for adoption.

#4: More businesses will install chargers. A number of high-profile companies (Adobe, GM, SAP, Google) have started installing chargers in office parking lots and this trend will continue in 2012. Consider it to be one of the latest employee perk fads.

#5: Wireless charging technologies will get wider testing. I literally just heard from Evatran, the maker of the Plugless Power wireless charging technology. It has just starting offering incentives to drivers of Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt that want to test out its technology. The first 500 drivers that get involved will be eligible for up to six months of free electricity for charging their vehicle. Sounds like Sears will help get the installations up and running.

#6: Models will emerge for vehicle-to-grid electricity distribution. In scenarios where a house loses power, electric vehicles could play a role as back-up generators. Pike Research predicts that applications will continue to emerge that hook electric vehicles and their charging infrastructures more tightly into the home.

#7: Safety issues will get closer scrutiny. The NHTSA's declaration in November that it would look more closely into battery safety related to post-crash fires in the Chevrolet Volt had electric vehicle critics clamoring, "I told you so." Let's be clear, the NHTSA is just doing its job AND it has publicly stated: "NHTSA is not aware of any roadway crashes that have resulted in battery-related fires in Chevy Volts or other vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries. However, the agency is concerned that damage to the Volt's batteries as part of three tests that are explicitly designed to replicate real-world crash scenarios have resulted in fire."

Finally, before I sign off this long-rambling blog entry, I wanted to revisit the piece I wrote earlier this year about 2011 electric vehicle trends. In that article, I offered five trends that I figured would help shape the electric vehicle market over the past 12 months. Here's what I said, and how I did:

#1: The majority of people who drive a plug-in vehicle won't own it. This observation was spot-on, if you consider the strategies by a number of rental car and hospitality companies to arrange for rentals of electric vehicles so that individuals and companies could try them out. Enterprise and Hertz were especially active in this regard.

#2: "Automakers will get pushback from EV owners regarding the length of time it takes to fully charge a vehicle." This continued to be a theme in 2011, but many of the emerging electric vehicle charging networks are focused on Level 2 technologies that allow for both slow and fast charging. The primary drawback of fast charging remains its impact on batteries; it can tend to degrade existing electric vehicle battery formats. Technology is on the way to help cut the average slow charging time for many vehicles from six hours to three hours.

#3: Many EV charging stations will spend the majority of their time idle." This has led to the rise of applications, such as PlugShare, that show where drivers might find residential and commercial charing stations that could be used in a pinch.

#4: 'Range anxiety' will prove to be more fiction than fact."Research shows that the average American drives less than 35 miles, usually, for any given trip, which makes all the angst over electric vehicle ranges kind of moot. After all, the Nissan Leaf can provide up to 75 miles on a single charge. Yes, people going on extended weekend journeys will have challenges. That is why many electric vehicle infrastructure plays are being focused on providing options throughout regions of the countries, rather just in specific metro areas.

#5: "The best-selling EVs won't have four wheels."Pike Research predicts that compound annual growth rates for sales of e-motorcycles and e-scooters will surpass 71 percent between now and 2017. The fact is, their price points make them much more easier to justify than electric vehicles, especially in large urban centers where limited parking also presents a challenge.

The Brammo Empulse retails for less than $10,000 (Photo courtesy of Brammo)

The Brammo Empulse retails for less than $10,000 (Photo courtesy of Brammo)

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