Auto Outlook: Fast-chargers may boost plug-in electrics, LA Auto Show

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer  |  Nov. 24, 2013 at 5:30 AM
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Range anxiety and the extra cost of battery technology remain among the biggest obstacles to wider adoption of plug-in electric vehicles in the United States.

A recent survey by two Indiana University researchers found 95 percent of 2,000 respondents did not know about federal and state subsidies, rebates and other incentives available for consumers who choose to purchase an all-electric vehicle.

Three-quarters of those asked indicated they were not up on how much fuel an electric vehicle would save and knew little or nothing about the difference in the maintenance costs for an electric compared to a traditional gasoline-powered vehicle.

Add to that worries about running low on power while out and about and you have two big reasons why Americans are expected to purchase just 50,000 battery-powered vehicles this year, compared to around 15 million gasoline-powered vehicles.

"Midrange electric vehicles are on a leash," Norman Hajjar, managing director of PlugInsights, the analysis arm of plug-in vehicle service and software provider Recargo, told the Chicago Tribune. "Those vehicles are confined to commuter car status."

The PlugInsights study of 3,700 electric vehicle drivers in 21 states concluded that mass adoption of fast chargers for plug-in electrics would ease driver concerns and energize the industry. The study indicates drivers want a plug-in electric that sells for around $25,000 and can go 186 miles between charges.

Right now only the Tesla Model S goes that distance on a single charge. The luxury sedan starts at $69,000 and can cost more than $120,000.

The plug-in Chevrolet Volt has a range of as much as 380 miles, but that's because it has a gasoline-powered engine onboard that powers the electric motor when the battery is low.

"Until fast chargers can bridge the gap between distant points, the appeal of these vehicles to a broader audience will be limited," said Hajjar, who owns a Tesla.

A Level 3, or Direct Current Fast-charger, can give a battery pack an 80 percent charge in 20 minutes to 30 minutes, compared to 4 hours for a Level 2 charger, the kind commonly found in parking structures and at shopping malls.

Most plug-in electric cars qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit and additional credits in many states. Other incentives include subsidies for home charging units and permits to use carpool lanes in states like California.

"If consumers believe they have higher purchase prices, higher fuel and maintenance costs and lower driving ranges than they actually do, they're not going to shop for them when it comes time to buy a new car," IU report co-author Sanya Carley said. The study was published in the December issue of the journal Energy Policy.

Tesla makes software, warranty changes

Electric car maker Tesla Motors Inc. made changes to its software and warranty on the same day the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched a formal investigation of two fires that destroyed Model S sedans.

The investigation involves more than 13,100 Model S sedans sold in the United States since the luxury sedan debuted in 2012.

"The agency has opened a formal investigation to determine if a safety defect exists in certain Tesla Model S vehicles. The agency's investigation was prompted by recent incidents in Washington state and Tennessee that resulted in battery fires due to undercarriage strikes with roadway debris," NHTSA said in a statement.

A third Model S caught fire in Mexico Nov. 7 after hitting a wall at high speed. No one was injured in the three mishaps.

Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said in his blog on the company's website that Tesla had asked NHTSA to begin a full investigation, but NHTSA head David Strickland told a House panel the decision to open an investigation was made independently.

In his posting, Musk said a software update to the cars' air suspension systems had been rolled out electronically to give the sedan more ground clearance at highway speed to cut the risk of damage to the battery pack from road debris.

A Tesla has about six inches of ground clearance between the armored undercarriage and the pavement at highway speed.

A later update in January will allow the driver to select the car's ride-height. Musk also said Tesla would cover fire damage under the vehicle warranty, even if an accident was the driver's fault.

"Unless a Model S owner actively tries to destroy the car they are covered," he wrote. "Our goal here is to eliminate any concern about the cost of such an event and ensure that over time the Model S has the lowest insurance cost of any car at our price point. ...

"To be clear, this is about reducing the chances of underbody impact damage, not improving safety," Musk wrote in his post. "The theoretical probability of a fire injury is already vanishingly small and the actual number to date is zero."

Musk said the plug-in electric Tesla is much safer than nearly all gasoline-powered vehicles.

"Since the Model S went into production mid last year, there have been over 400 deaths and 1,200 serious injuries in the United States alone due to gasoline car fires, compared to zero deaths and zero injuries due to Tesla fires anywhere in the world."

LA Auto Show: Corvette Stingray, Mazda3 honored

GM's 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray and the 2014 Mazda3 compact were awarded the 2013 Innovation Vehicle of the Year at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

Automakers are introducing 23 new vehicles at the show which opened to the public Friday. Among the highlights are the 2015 Chevrolet Colorado, a small pickup challenging the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier; the Jaguar F-Type Coupe, a roadster with a hardtop; the premium compact crossover Lincoln MKC and the Porsche Macan, a $51,000 luxury crossover.

Ford had the world debut of its Edge concept vehicle illustrating just how important the so-called "cute-ute" -- small crossover utility market -- segment has become to automakers.

Porsche's Macan resembles a small Porsche Cayenne and is powered by a 3-liter, 340-horsepower twin-turbocharged V-6 engine mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission.

Ford's Edge crossover concept fills a gap between the seven-passenger Explorer SUV and the popular Escape.

Not to be outdone, Jaguar showed off a hardtop model of its curvy F-Type roadster, including the supercharged V-8 R Coupe packing 550-horsepower and 405 pound-feet of torque. The F-Type R can go from zero to 60 mph in four seconds, with a top speed of 186 mph.

Mercedes-Benz unveiled the S65 AMG, a hand-assembled, twin-turbocharged V-12 luxury sedan with 621-horsepower and 738 pound-feet of torque and BMW debuted its 4 Series folding hardtop convertible, its all-wheel drive i8 plug-in gasoline-electric hybrid sports car and the Concept X4 Coupe crossover.

Ford is scheduled to unveil its sixth generation Mustang in Los Angeles, New York and Dearborn, Mich., Dec. 5. The original Mustang pony car debuted nearly 50 years ago at the 1964 New York World's Fair.

Traffic deaths increased 3.3 percent in 2012

Traffic deaths are up and more than half of those killed in passenger vehicles last year were not wearing seatbelts, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a report released last week.

The bad news is highway deaths increased to 33,561 in 2012, the first increase since 2005, after fatalities fell to a 63-year low in 2011. NHTSA said traffic deaths rose by 3.3 percent even though motorists drove about the same number of miles in both years.

"Highway deaths claim more than 30,000 lives each year, and while we've made substantial progress over the past 50 years, it's clear that we have much more work to do," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.

The 2012 Fatality Analysis Reporting System study also found the number of people injured in traffic accidents rose 6.5 percent from 2011. Pedestrian deaths were up 6.4 percent, the third consecutive year they have increased.

Deaths of bicyclists rose 6.5 percent -- the highest in six years -- and fatalities involving motorcycle riders were up 7.1 percent from 2011.

The FARS study indicated deaths of motorcycle riders were 10 times higher in states with no mandatory helmet law than in states that require wearing a helmet.

Fatal accidents involving drunken drivers rose 4.6 percent from 2011 to 10,322 but deaths from crashes related to distracted driving fell from 3.360 in 2011 to 3.328 in 2012.

"As we look to the future, we must focus our efforts to tackle persistent and emerging issues that threaten the safety of motorists, cyclists and pedestrians across the nation," Foxx said in a statement.

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