Back in 2010 when Nissan launched the LEAF hatchback, it promised the family-friendly plug-in would manage 100 miles per charge. Despite the EPA later giving it an official rating of just 73 miles per charge, those who purchased the Nissan LEAF were –generally speaking — able to use their LEAF for the majority of daily trips without needing to recharge during the day.
At the time, the de facto argument from Nissan and other automakers — as well as many electric car advocates — was that an electric car with a range of between 70 and 100 miles was capable of traveling 95 percent of all trips carried out by most families. Backed up by scientific study, the data seemed to agree: with 95 percent of all U.S. trips by car under 30 miles in length, 98 percent of all trips being under 50 miles in length and 99 percent being under 70 miles in length, the case for a longer-range electric car seemed to be a weak. If (effectively) no one would use that range, it was pointless to produce cars that could do it.
That data has not changed significantly in the past few years. People haven’t suddenly changed the length of trips they make, whether the car is electric or not. But thanks to incremental improvements in both battery cell energy density and a dramatic drop in price per kilowatt-hour for lithium-ion battery packs, cars like the 30-kilowatt-hour 2016 Nissan LEAF are pushing the range of mass-market affordable electric cars beyond the 100-mile mark for the first time.
Later this year, when Chevrolet launches its 2017 Bolt EV with a 60 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack and 200+ miles of range, it will shift the acceptable range of an entry-level electric car from 100 miles per charge to 200 miles per charge. Following the Chevy Bolt next year, or early in 2018, Nissan is expected to launch a longer-range next-generation LEAF with a range of between 150 and 200 miles per charge. And, assuming it hits its optimistic production target of late 2017, Tesla’s mass-market, $35,000 Model 3 electric car — complete with 215 miles or more of real-world range — will make any similarly-priced electric car that doesn’t offer at least 200 miles of range per charge something of a Spruce Goose.
Consequently, the majority of automakers with electric cars are looking to expand the range of their cars in the next two years. BMW and Volkswagen have both said they are working on improved battery packs for their respective i3 and e-Golf electric cars, first to just over 100 miles per charge and then to well over 100 miles in the next two years or so as next-generation versions of both cars hit the market.
Ford too, is looking to increase the range of its Focus Electric hatchback for the 2016 model year, from the current 84 miles of EPA-approved range to just over 100 miles per charge. But unlike its rivals, Ford says it has no interest right now in increasing the range of the Focus Electric to 200 miles per charge in order to compete against the Chevy Bolt, next-generation Nissan LEAF or Tesla Model 3.
Instead, its executives suggest that 100 miles of range is still the sweet point for electric cars — and to use a larger, longer-range battery pack only results in higher construction costs that get passed onto consumers.
As Automotive News (subscription required) details, Ford’s position on electric car range was made clear last week at the SAE World Congress in Detroit, where Kevin Layden, Ford’s director of electrification programs and engineering told the industry publication that Ford had no immediate interest in making a 200-mile electric car.
Advocating that a smaller, lighter lithium-ion battery pack with smaller range would result in a lighter, more agile car with perhaps more load bay space, Layden seemed to imply that cost savings from using a smaller pack could give Ford a competitive edge in terms of pricing.
Speaking at a panel later at the same event, Layden reiterated Ford’s views, suggesting the longer-range Focus EV could get a price drop too.
“I think right now with the launch of the Focus Electric at 100 miles, it is going to satisfy a big chunk of the population,” said Layden. “It’s going to be really affordable and a step up from where we are now.”
Ford’s tactic — similar in some ways to the 110-mile expected range of the upcoming 2017 Hyundai ONIQ EV — certainly bucks the trend of making ever longer-range electric cars. If Ford can really bring the price of the Focus EV down to a more affordable range (it’s currently a rather uncompetitive $29,010 before incentives) then Layden’s argument could prove a smart move on Ford’s part.
But for a 100-mile Focus EV to truly cross-shop against a mass-market, 200+ mile range affordable Chevy Bolt, second-generation Nissan LEAF or Tesla Model 3, Ford would need to bring down the price of its electric car to the kind of level that its gasoline Focus sells at. For those who are wondering, that’s around the $17,225 point for an entry-level model. That’s something we think would be possible after incentives. We’re not sure it’s something Ford could do without incentives.
Throughout its history, Ford has always been a brand catering to mass-market, mainstream buyers. It has focused more on bringing tried-and-tested technology to market at the right price than it has at leading the market. Instead of pushing the boundaries, it has focused on making a technology more appealing for mass-market buyers. Its EcoBoost engine technology is the latest example of this: rather than invest in hybrid engine technology, it invested in making the internal combustion engine more efficient, as that (at least in the short term) gave it the most consumer impact for the smallest cost.
A mass-market, affordable 100-mile electric car is something that is very much needed alongside more expensive, longer-range models, especially if electric cars are to transition away from being something only the affluent middle class can afford. A $17,000 electric car with 100 miles of real-world range could not only revolutionise the way we think about electric cars, but could also increase the number of people who could afford an electric car by several orders of magnitude.
In order for that to happen however, there’s a whole lot more education that would need to be done of both dealerships and car buyers. As advocates and electric automakers have discovered thus far, statistics may prove 100 miles of range sufficient, but we humans are rarely content with adequate.
If we were, the hype around Tesla’s Model 3 simply wouldn’t exist.
Will more customers switch to electric if Ford brings a 100-mile electric car to market that competes with its own gasoline vehicles? Or is 200-mile electric vehicles the new norm?
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