Energy

Renault Bets on Electric Vehicles

The French carmaker doubts that hybrids can reduce emissions sufficiently.

Might the most fuel-efficient vehicles in mass production–powerful hybrids, such as Toyota’s Prius, that can run on either gasoline or electricity–already be destined for the science museum? That’s the argument that French carmaker Renault is making at the Mondial de l’Automobile, the giant auto show running in Paris this week. Renault says that it is engineering a pair of battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs), to be produced starting in 2011, that it claims will be cheaper to build, cost markedly less to power, and produce far less carbon dioxide.

Hybrid killer: The Renault Z.E. concept car, showing at this week’s Mondial de l’Automobile, in Paris, relies on lithium-ion batteries alone to deliver 160 to 200 kilometers of driving. “Z.E.” refers to zero emissions of conventional air pollutants, as well as to next to zero emissions of carbon dioxide when the car is charged from renewable-energy sources.

Renault’s vision for electric cars is small vehicles principally designed for commuting. At the Paris show, Renault unveiled a concept car showing the design of a compact EV commuter car: an EV version of its Kangoo utility van, with startling acid-green windows to minimize air conditioning and a lithium-ion battery that carries the van 160 to 200 kilometers on an average charge. That range “really covers the usage by our customers, who are using their cars only for commuting and maybe short trips during the weekend,” says Renault EV project director Serge Yoccoz. As a result, he predicts that such EVs could capture from 10 to 15 percent of the European car market as early as 2015. (Hybrids currently command just 2 percent of auto sales worldwide.)

Renault won’t be the first to test the commuter market with battery EVs. Mitsubishi Motors announced in Paris last week that it will begin testing its i-MiEV minicar in Europe next month with a view to commercial sales by 2010. Daimler, meanwhile, said that a battery version of its popular Smart Fortwo, in testing in London since last year, will be sold starting at the end of 2009.

Renault says that EVs are a necessity because hybrids cannot deliver the level of gasoline use and emissions reductions that governments and customers are demanding of automakers. The EV is the breakthrough required because, according to Renault, driving the EV Kangoo displayed in Paris generates zero carbon dioxide when charged with renewable energy, and no more than 60 grams per kilometer when charged on today’s coal-heavy power grids; when charging in France, carbon-dioxide emissions would be somewhere in between because nuclear power provides 80 percent of France’s electricity. Any of those scenarios compares well with the more than 130 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer coming out the tailpipe of Renault’s diesel-fueled Kangoos, which are relatively efficient vehicles for their class.

Lithium batteries for Renault’s first round of products, at least, will come from a joint venture of Japan’s Nissan, with which Renault is partnering on EV technology development, and NEC. Newer lithium technologies have eclipsed the performance of the joint venture’s manganese-based lithium-ion chemistry, but Yoccoz says that the Nissan-NEC process is one of the cheapest.

Renault bets that ultimately, the relative simplicity of battery EVs should make them cheaper than plug-in hybrids such as General Motors’ Chevy Volt, a vehicle that GM plans to launch in 2010 that will couple a commuter-range battery that can be charged overnight with a gasoline engine-generator to sustain the vehicle on longer trips. “Putting two engines in a car is … more complicated, and it’s more expensive,” says Yoccoz. “Even including infrastructure costs, the electric vehicle is still a better proposition from an economical point of view.”

But the downside to Renault’s plan is, of course, vehicle range. “We’re not talking about holidays,” acknowledges Yoccoz. Frank Weber, GM’s global vehicle line executive for the Chevy Volt–one of the few full hybrids on display in Paris–calls that a trap: “You don’t want to be in exactly this corner where you say, ‘Here’s this purpose-built little car.’”

Weber predicts that while most drivers don’t go very far on a typical day, they will still expect more from a car. He says that EV commuter cars with limited range will remain a niche market, and therefore will never reach the scale needed to bring down costs–especially important when it comes to still-pricey lithium-ion batteries. “Electric vehicles are not a good choice,” says Weber.

Yoccoz says that’s precisely why automakers that are talking up EVs, such as Renault, Mitsubishi, and Mercedes, are also working to catalyze the installation of charging stations. Renault is working with Project Better Place, based in Palo Alto, CA, to install charging stations in Denmark and Israel, where the company will market its first EVs, starting with the Kangoo and an EV version of an as yet unreleased sedan called the Fluence, targeted at the Israeli market. Daimler, meanwhile, established a partnership with German utility RWE last month to install 500 EV charging points in Berlin, where the carmaker will deploy more than 100 of its EV Smart Fortwos. And this week, Paris said that it would make 4,000 EVs available on its streets in 2010 through an automobile version of Velib, its popular bike-rental program.

Helping to accelerate the development of that charging infrastructure and pushing governments to reward development of ultraclean vehicles is what Yoccoz calls his second and third jobs. “With our usual products, the main job is to find the customers, define what their needs are, and then find a product for their needs,” he says. “What we have to do on top of that for the electric vehicle is really redefine a business model.”

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