2016 Cars: Alternative Models Are Standard

Plug-ins are going mainstream as more companies make ecofriendly models priority.

December 1, 2015

Tucked away in a nondescript building in a faceless Los Angeles suburb, 400 engineers have quietly been toiling away on a project known as Faraday Future. Owned by a Chinese tech billionaire, the startup company hints it will launch a revolutionary new battery-electric vehicle as early as 2017. It’s going to have a lot of companions.

When the Nissan Leaf battery-electric vehicle and Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid made their debuts in 2009, they had the market all to themselves. These days, it’s hard to find a single major automaker that isn’t offering at least one plug-based vehicle, and the numbers are growing at a nearly exponential rate.

Volkswagen and its luxury arm, Audi, now plan to offer an “electrified” version of every model in their collective line-up, whether a conventional hybrid, plug-in, or pure battery-electric vehicle. That includes an all-electric SUV scheduled to reach showrooms by 2017. Mercedes-Benz plans to have at least 10 plug-in models in its line-up by 2018. And BMW is looking to make a radical shift, going to a plug-in powertrain for its next-generation M3 performance sedan.

These plans underscore the fact that battery-based vehicles aren’t the boring, sluggish products of the past. Electric motors actually can deliver incredible, tire-spinning torque the moment they start turning — which is why three of the world’s fastest supercars, the LaFerrari, the Porsche 918 Spider, and the McLaren P1, all are plug-in hybrids.

Tesla, which recently introduced the first relatively high-volume electric SUV, the Model X, is adding a new option: the so-called “Ludicrous Mode.” That will launch its Model S sedan from 0 to 60 in a neck-snapping three seconds.

Tesla has built up a loyal following, in part by offering the sort of long-distance battery packs that can overcome dreaded range anxiety. But there it will also be facing more competition. General Motors is getting ready to launch its new Chevrolet Bolt — not to be confused with the Volt — a pure battery-electric model expected to deliver about 200 miles per charge. Better yet, it’s expected to come in at around $30,000 after federal and state tax incentives.

The good news is that the latest lithium-ion batteries are getting more powerful, even as they become more compact and less expensive.

When the first-generation Chevy Volt was being planned a decade ago, it cost almost $1,000 per kilowatt/hour for a lithium battery. The new Bolt will use 60 kWh of batteries, so it would have cost $60,000 just for its energy pack. But GM product chief Mark Reuss says the price has fallen to just $145 a kWh, reducing that price tag to $8,700 and making the Bolt competitive with a comparable gasoline model.

Battery cars, meanwhile, aren’t the only option for green-minded motorists. Hyundai launched a hydrogen-powered version of its Tucson SUV last year, and Toyota is just rolling out its fuel cell–powered Mirai. Honda will go hydrogen in 2016 with the Clarity.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen with oxygen to produce a flow of current that can power an electric motor, which is why some folks call the technology a “refillable battery.” The Toyota Mirai, for example, can get 300 miles of range and will refill in less than five minutes.

The problem is finding a place to fill up. Right now, there are barely a dozen hydrogen stations in the country, most in Southern California, where Hyundai, Toyota, and Honda will limit sales. But California lawmakers have set up funding for a statewide refueling network, and several other states are considering a similar move.

Within the coming decade, you’ll likely have a wide range of efficient and affordable alternatives to the conventional gasoline engine. In fact, Toyota says it hopes to all but abandon conventional powertrain technology by then. And it likely won’t be alone.

Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of The Detroit Bureau. He has more than 30 years of experience covering the auto industry for a broad range of print, broadcast, and electronic media.