Kate Mackenzie Electric vehicle excitement keeps growing

It seems that with each new auto industry show we hear more and more about electric vehicles. This week and next, it’s Geneva’s turn.

Nissan/Renault’s Carlos Ghosn re-iterated his goal for Nissan to lead in mass market EVs, saying that his competitors – most of whom are more conservative about the near-term outlook – will be caught by a scramble for the vehicles. From the FT:

“If I had to make a bet today, I’d say we’re going to be very quickly in short capacity for electric cars,” said Mr Ghosn. “From everything I’m seeing, in 2011 or 2012 we’re going to have to rush to build capacity for both batteries and cars.”

More intriguingly, German auto maker Daimler announced plans to work with China’s BYD – the Warren Buffett-backed company that recently began selling its E6 model electric vehicles in China and plans to sell vehicles to the US by the end of this year.  Daimler last year bought 10 per cent of Californian high-performance EV maker Tesla, so the move wasn’t entirely out of the blue.

Meanwhile there were a few flashy announcements at Geneva this week. Ferrari showed its first ever hybrid concept vehicle, and Vincent Bolloré, the French financier known for being a key investor in advertising group Havas, says his efforts with Italian car designer Pininfarina will result in tens of thousands of electric vehicles being produced each year by 2013.

Even big oil is talking about EVs – at least, Shell’s Peter Voser believes EVs will represent 40 per cent of the world’s fleet by 2050 – not such a near-term forecast as those more bullish about electric vehicles (Ghosn, for one), would have. And Shell is moving heavily into natural gas, so it can afford to make predictions that demand for liquid transport hydrocarbons will decline in the long-term.

Many commenters on bullish stories about electric vehicles point out that their batteries usually require lithium, for which there is a finite supply – and reserves are mostly concentrated in China. There are some quite strong arguments, however, that lithium supply won’t be a problem at least for the next few years.

More challenging, in the short term at least, is the infrastructure required to support electric vehicles. Nissan has agreed to work with Better Place, the company that is developing a battery-leasing business model so drivers don’t have to charge up their cars; but no other major auto makers have signed up. And as this article describes, collaboration efforts between the car makers and infrastructure providers have been fairly lacklustre in the past.

Related links:

Carmakers race to secure electric lead (FT)
What’s still killing the electric car (Forbes)