Fiat Chrysler Pauses From Gas-Guzzlers to Tout Electric Van

  • Automaker unveils self-driving Chrysler Portal concept at CES
  • U.S. unit remains laggard in EVs, hybrids and fuel economy

Race To Build Self-Driving Cars Accelerates

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV is laying out a vision of a battery-powered, self-driving minivan that it bets even a millennial could love. That may not be enough to shake the automaker’s image as the purveyor of the least fuel-efficient fleet in the U.S.

The automaker’s fifth-generation minivan, whose design concept is called the Chrysler Portal, would have a 250-mile (400 kilometer) electric range and enough screens, ports and social-media options to entertain young families while software handles much of the driving. It was unveiled Tuesday in Las Vegas, where consumer technology show CES 2017 begins this week.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV Self-Driving Chrysler Portal minivan.

Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV

It’s always a long way from concept cars until a vehicle enters production -- if ever -- and so far Fiat Chrysler’s U.S. unit hasn’t said it actually plans to build an all-electric minivan like Portal. What the automaker’s effort may produce, however, is a change in the conversation: It’s been criticized for adding ecological powertrains more slowly than rivals like Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Co. and for failing to gain ground on fuel economy.

“It’s an attempt to change the subject from the fundamental problem of not being in a position to meet the standards,” Dan Luria, an analyst at the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Institute, said in December, after an initial report of the company’s plans to show an electric minivan at CES. “This is not a seriously competitive vehicle.’’

The Portal nonetheless gives the third-largest U.S. automaker a place in the discussion about fuel-saving technologies. Fiat Chrysler’s stock languished for most of 2016 in part because it was perceived as being the least prepared for the tightened fuel-economy standards put in place under President Barack Obama’s administration.

In a twist, the company’s U.S. shares have surged since the November election victory of Donald Trump, whose pledge to reduce regulations has led to speculation he’ll dismantle Obama’s mandates. The stock soared 29 percent since Election Day to end 2016 at $9.12, its highest close since the last day of 2015. Ford Motor Co. rose 5.7 percent and GM gained about 10 percent in the same period.

Fiat Chrysler shares rose 4.7 percent Tuesday to $9.55, the highest closing price in 14 months.

Interior of the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV Self-Driving Chrysler Portal minivan.

Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV

Chrysler Portal

The six-passenger Portal concept “explores the possibility of what a family transportation vehicle could look like,’’ Fiat Chrysler said in a statement. The idea is to create a third environment, aside from home and the office, with connectivity to personal devices and the cloud.

“The car recognizes your face and your voice, and welcomes you, and opens the door,” said Emilio Feliciano, a user-experience designer for FCA. “There’s no key fob. The car knows you. Once you’re in the seat, it adjust all the settings, and starts playing your favorite music, just way you like it.”

The Portal would handle steering, braking and acceleration on sections of highway approved for this purpose and would alert the driver to retake control if necessary. Nissan Motor Co. plans a similar system, including for urban streets, by the end of the decade.

Flat battery packs would be built into the floor, like in Tesla Motors Inc.’s Model X sport utility vehicle. With a fast charger, drivers could restore enough power for 150 miles of driving in 20 minutes, the company projected. While Fiat Chrysler said the vehicle would be aimed at “cost-conscious” millennials, it gave no projected price range.

Expensive Technology

Such technology doesn’t come cheap, at least not yet. The only comparable vehicle today is the seven-passenger Tesla Model X, which weighs 5,400 pounds (2,450 kilograms) with its batteries and costs $93,000 on average. Current Pacifica minivans cost half that and weigh in at less than 5,000 pounds for the hybrid, which is rated to provide 33 miles of all-electric range.

Fiat Chrysler made no mention of how it’s developing the self-driving technology and didn’t specify suppliers’ roles. Last month, the company said it has delivered 100 Pacifica hybrids to Waymo, the autonomous-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet Inc.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV Self-Driving Chrysler Portal minivan.

Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV

The agreement may help Fiat Chrysler -- building prestige and pricing power -- if Waymo ends up putting thousands of such minivans on U.S. roads before other companies, said Mike Ramsey, research director at Gartner Inc.

“It could help them charge more for everything they sell,’’ Ramsey said.

Lagging Peers

While the Portal gives a glimpse of where Fiat Chrysler sees transportation headed, for now the company in many ways remains a technical laggard. Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne has focused on paying down what is now $6.5 billion in industrial debt, and warned in 2015 that Fiat Chrysler and other automakers need to merge to afford technologies like self-driving and electric cars. After a rebuff from GM, Marchionne said any combination will have to wait until he retires in a few years.

In 2015, just 0.4 percent of the company’s U.S. fleet was powered by alternative-fuel vehicles like electric cars, about one-seventh as much as Germany’s BMW AG including its Mini brand, government statistics show. Its cars tied with Mercedes for second-worst in fuel economy in 2015. The new Pacifica variant, its first hybrid in eight years, is just hitting the streets while Toyota makes about a million hybrids every nine months. Consumer Reports ranks Fiat Chrysler as producing four of the 10 least reliable vehicles. Less than one in 10 of its models come with direct-injected and turbo-charged engines to conserve gas.

For the 2016 model year, U.S. regulators predict the automaker’s trucks will average 25.7 miles per gallon, excluding credits for some fuel-saving technology. That average will have to rise to 31.8 mpg by 2020 to meet the U.S. standard, according to Gopal Duleep, president of H-D Systems, a Washington-based research company. By that same year, Fiat Chrysler’s cars will need to average 41.8 mpg, up from 31.2 today, he said.

“FCA may be able to get pretty close to meeting the standard at least through 2021,’’ Duleep said. “After that, the truck standard really starts to shoot up, and it gets rough for them.’’

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