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The Global EV: Three Trends to Watch

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece containing the five lessons I'd learned about EVs during a recent visit to California, the epicenter for green cars in the U.S. But it's a big world out there, and EVs will be a global phenomenon. Here's some of what appears to be happening internationally, as the cars roll out in Europe and Asia:
  • European automakers are warming to EVs. Diesel rules in Europe, and such automakers as Audi, Mercedes, VW, Volvo, BMW and Saab have long seen that technology as the righteous path for green cars to take. But diesel is heavily subsidized in Europe, and it's still slow to catch on in the U.S. And that means many of these same automakers are belatedly getting into the hybrid and plug-in game. In some cases, as in BMW's alliance with AC Propulsion to get the Mini E to market, it means taking on partners because there isn't time to do the work in-house.But plug-in Europe is accelerating. VW has a hybrid Jetta, Golf and Passat coming. BMW is working on an electric 1-Series, and an all-new battery-powered city car. Volvo is introducing a plug-in hybrid, and electrifying the C30. Saab has a battery car partnership with Boston Power. Porsche has a very high-performance plug-in hybrid 918 Spyder coming. Mercedes, working with its partner Tesla, has developed a small fleet of electric A-Class cars (and I had a wonderful drive in one at Tesla headquarters in Palo Alto last week).
  • China will grow as an EV market and center of manufacturing. The Chinese already have a considerable lead with lithium-ion battery production (initially for electronic applications), and they're able to make auto packs much cheaper than anywhere else. Companies like BYD, which has suffered reverses on the domestic market recently, are a double threat because they're both a high-volume battery company and a leading green carmaker.The Obama administration has recently gone on an offensive to ensure that some of that production comes to the U.S., and it has subsidized a range of companies (mostly in Michigan). But one of the biggest barriers to EV acceptance is price, with battery costs looming large. That guarantees that China will remain a big battery player. Plus, the Chinese government seems willing and able to subsidize EV rollouts, so its own market for these cars could grow much faster than that of the U.S.
  • New global players will get in the game. I was delighted to drive a Yulon minivan with an AC Propulsion drivetrain in Los Angeles last week. Yulon is the biggest automaker in Taiwan, but it's hardly known in the U.S. Do many people even know they make cars in Taiwan? Another announcement I heard recently is that Korean automaker CT&T is talking with the State of Hawaii about building 10,000 EVs there annually. It's safe to say that nobody's ever built a car in Hawaii before (though the first car imported into that island state was electric). And CT&T is no household name like Hyundai or Kia.But that doesn't mean it's not ambitious. I was startled to see the company's stand on Electric Avenue at the Detroit Auto Show two years ago. CT&T had a full range of EVs there, including small cars, pickup trucks and even a hot dog wagon. I wouldn't be surprised to see credible EVs emerge from such countries as Spain, Switzerland, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil. People forget that EVs are, at heart, kind of simple: Source a chassis from somewhere, a set of batteries (probably from China, see above), a controller and a motor and you're an instant carmaker. The barrier to auto production is a lot lower than it used to be. Why shouldn't the rest of the world get into the action as this new form of transportation takes off?
When it comes to electric cars, the smart money is on expecting the unexpected.


Photo: Porsche of America