Grand Visions at the Geneva Auto Show

The car is not particularly attractive, and not even its name sounds overly appealing. The "i MiEV" is Japanese carmaker Mitsubishi Motors' new egg-shaped, subcompact car, and the company hopes it will ring in a new era in automobile manufacturing when it becomes available this summer.

The name is an abbreviation for "Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle." It runs on nothing but electricity, but the car's most salient feature is its speed.

Judging by Mitsubishi's technical specifications, at least, the car is impressive—with a top speed of 130 kilometers per hour (81 mph), a range of 160 kilometers (100 miles) on one battery charge and a charging time of only 30 minutes when plugged into a high-voltage current outlet.

Is this what the great white hope of the auto industry looks like, and could this be a way out of the doldrums brought on by the current global economic heart attack?

Probably not. Electric cars are all the rage this week at the Geneva Auto Show, but automakers seem to be at a loss for a real solution to their most pressing economic problems.

"There is no royal road out of the malaise," said Nick Margetts, an expert at Jato Dynamics, an automotive data research firm. "That's why most carmakers have settled for the tried and true."

VW is introducing the fifth generation of its popular Polo model, Mercedes is placing its hopes on the new E-Class of luxury car and Ford is introducing a new high-powered version of the Focus RS.

And Opel? Germany's venerable and embattled carmaker has chosen to ignore the present and look two years ahead, to 2011, when it promises to debut its new electric hybrid, the Ampera. But at a price estimated by an Opel spokesman to be "between €35,000 to €40,000," the Ampera—a European model of the much-anticipated Chevrolet Volt—will blaze no paths in the market for electric cars. And Opel seems fresh out of other ideas.

Developing a good electric motor is undoubtedly worthwhile. But it will still cost a lot more money than has already been spent, and pretending that electric cars are ready for mass production today is not only misleading but counterproductive. The public euphoria over the electric car is actually "harmful to the market," explains Bernd Bohr, the head of the automobile division at Bosch. According to Bohr, some consumers, loath to spend money on what they believe to be obsolete technology, are holding off on buying new cars with gasoline engines.

Mitsubishi's contribution, which is undoubtedly spectacular, shows just how far the new crop of electric cars are from being seriously ready for mass production. It is one of the first vehicles of its kind to store electricity in lithium ion batteries, the most powerful available on the market today. The batteries are located in the floor of the car, underneath the seats, weigh just under 200 kilograms (440 lbs.) and store 16 kilowatt hours of energy, roughly equal to the fuel value of two liters (.53 gallon) of gasoline.

However, no more than about two-thirds of this energy reserve is usable, because regularly draining the battery would mean that it would never last as long as the life of a car. When driven at higher speeds, this type of car has a range of no more than 80 kilometers (50 miles). The range Mitsubishi specifies—which is twice as long—is based on the assumption that the car will be driven at slow speeds typical of Japanese traffic.

But the i MiEV's biggest shortcoming is its price, which is about the same as that of a conventional mid-range car. Project manager Takayuki Yatabe admits that to cover its costs, Mitsubishi had to charge about 4 million yen, or roughly €32,000 ($40,000), for an i MiEV. To sell its planned production of 2,000 cars in Japan in the first year, the company hopes to qualify for government subsidies of about one million yen per car.

A car that costs as much as a Mercedes, but lacks the power for a weekend outing? It's not even ready for a niche market. For this reason General Motors (GM) has opted for an electric model that features an auxiliary engine, also known as a serial hybrid. It will be available in the United States next year as the Chevy Volt and in Germany in 2011 as the Ampera, marketed by GM subsidiary Opel.

Like the i MiEV, the battery in the Volt/Ampera provides 16 kilowatt hours of power. According to project director Frank Weber, eight of those kilowatt hours will be used, and the vehicle will have a range of about 60 kilometers (37 miles). Once that range is reached, a gasoline engine takes over and produces electricity through a generator. As a result, the car is completely suitable for daily use, although production costs are even higher than those of the i MiEV. GM has officially announced an anticipated retail price of about $30,000 (€24,000) for the Volt, which won't even come close to covering production costs.

It is almost comical that the moribund players in the industry are now posing as innovators anxious to jump on the electric car bandwagon. GM and Mitsubishi barely have enough money left to stay afloat, and not enough to act as pioneers in the field of electric mobility.

The Battery Problem

The firm that invented the automobile in the first place is better equipped to embark on this venture. Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche has made it clear that his company's development budget won't suffer, even during the worst crisis in postwar history. One focus of Daimler's researchers is battery technology.

Drawings of historic racecars hang on the walls in the office of Herbert Kohler, at Mercedes headquarters in Stuttgart's Untertürkheim district. Kohler is head the head of research at Daimler AG, and he spends more and more time thinking about a future free of the smell of gasoline. "In 2008, I saw everything there is to see in terms of noteworthy battery cell production around the world," he says.

The most noteworthy come from Asia, mainly firms in Japan and South Korea: Seoul-based LG Chem, the supplier to General Motors; GS Yuasa, partnered with Honda and Mitsubishi and based in Kyoto, Japan; as well as Enax, Sanyo and Panasonic, the supplier of batteries for Toyota's hybrid vehicles.

Germany—once the uncontested center of competence in the electrochemical industry—has only one manufacturer, a new company.

Daimler's head of research has spent a lot of time lately in Kamenz, a small city northeast of Dresden in the eastern state of Saxony. Evonik, a chemical corporation based in the western city of Essen, established a subsidiary, Li-Tec Battery, in Kamenz three years ago. Li-Tec was Daimler's choice for a battery supplier.

Of course a German solution has its appeal, says Kohler. But above all it has to work—and work better than an Asian battery. That's his objective.

Li-Tec owns the patent for a discovery that makes a high-energy battery possible without the risk of fire. An extremely thin separating membrane inside the cells is made of a ceramic material and could prove to be the key to substantially more powerful batteries.

Daimler plans to build an electric version of its tiny Smart car, using Li-Tec batteries that will store about 20 kilowatt hours in the available installation space, by 2011. The batteries have already survived more than 3,000 charging cycles in lab tests. That corresponds to more than 300,000 kilometers (187,000 miles) on the road. The Li-Tec battery would give Daimler's city car a reliable range of at least 100 kilometers (62 miles)—but at what price?

This type of lithium battery now costs at least €20,000 ($25,000), which puts the market prospects of an electric Smart at zero. But Daimler engineers hope to push the price down to a quarter of the current level through large-scale production. With a €5,000 ($6,250) battery, the urban electric car would still be more expensive than a Smart with a gasoline engine, but—depending on what happens to the price of oil—it would no longer be out of the question.

Volkswagen also promises to introduce an electric city car by about 2011. Just who would supply VW with the batteries remains unclear. A joint venture with Toshiba was recently announced as "one of several options," says Jens Hadler, in charge of battery development at VW.

VW's choice of Toshiba came as a surprise to the automotive world. The Tokyo-based company is known for its extremely durable lithium-titanate batteries. But with an energy density of little more than 60 watt hours per kilogram, this type of battery would be too heavy for use in cars. Daimler supplier Li-Tec is focusing on a lithium-manganese-nickel-cobalt combination, which already achieves an energy density of close to 150 watt hours per kilogram.

Toyota, the automaker still considered the world leader in electric motors, is also enthusiastic about the performance of Li-Tec's battery. Toyota uses Li-Tec batteries in Formula 1 racing, where the use of electric auxiliary motors was recently approved.

Japanese carmakers Honda and Toyota were well ahead of the curve when it came to mass production of hybrid powertrains consisting of gasoline engines and electric motors. Today the two companies already have a full decade of experience under their belts, which may be the reason they seem hesitant to switch to completely electric motors.

"The batteries available today are not good enough," explains Honda research chief Masaaki Kato. The total electrification of the automobile, says Kato, is "not something we have to work on in a hurry."

The experts at Toyota voice similar skepticism, though they are more willing to talk about how to move development along. In fact, Toyota is doing so much that all its competitors should be alarmed.

The world's biggest carmaker has an enormous R&D center for electric powertrains at its Nagoya headquarters, where more than 2,000 employees are examining the potential for electric vehicles. Mercedes, by comparison, has 400 engineers working in the new field.

Toyota has in-house departments for developing all facets of electric powertrains. The company is careful not to leave anything up to potentially incapable suppliers, in particular the development of batteries.

For the past six years, Toyota has produced its own lithium batteries and tested them in various environments, such as in the automatic start-stop systems in conventional cars. The batteries at first were produced at a rate of 100 a month, but a new automated production line will increase production by a factor of 100.

The head of this one-of-a-kind research facility is Koei Saga, one of the key figures behind Toyota's hybrid success. He speaks slowly, with the serenity of someone who has no need to make promises he cannot keep.

"We see no breakthrough in battery technology," says Saga. He's cautious in what he says about the ambitions of other manufacturers. He has "no comment" on a pure electric car based on the Mitsubishi model, although the tone of these two words suggests that he does not take the project seriously.

He is more interested in the General Motors serial hybrid, an electric car with an auxiliary engine. "We put a lot of thought into that," says Saga, explaining why the principle was eventually discarded.

A serial hybrid is only a good solution if the internal combustion engine is used very rarely, according to Saga. It is undisputed that in gasoline mode, a car with a direct mechanical transmission operates far more efficiently than one with an engine that merely generates electricity to drive the electric motor. This concept, says Saga, can be feasible and marketable only with more powerful and less expensive batteries.

For now, Toyota will stick to a more modest concept and develop its existing Prius hybrid into a "plug-in hybrid," which still drives primarily on gasoline but, for shorter distances, relies on an electric motor that can be recharged in a standard electric outlet.

A lithium battery, charged with about five to eight times as much energy as a battery in the ordinary Prius hybrid, will let the plug-in Prius travel some 20 kilometers in city traffic on electricity alone. The internal combustion engine takes over after that.

Production of the plug-in Prius will begin this year, in small numbers that will step up gradually. Saga predicts world sales of the plug-in Prius to reach about 15,000 in 2012. This, he says, is the "biggest step possible" at the moment.

Toyota prefers to leave the production of show cars with no market prospects to other carmakers. BMW is launching a test in the United States of 500 electric Minis it says will have a range of more than 200 kilometers (125 miles). The batteries take up the entire trunk space and rear seat area, and they have also proven to be unexpectedly thirsty during charging.

In fact, the batteries sucked up so much current that circuits became overloaded in many places.

With reporting by Jürgen Pander. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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