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The Chevy Volt is outselling the Nissan LEAF -- but not by much.  (Source: Autoblog (LEAF), GM (Volt))
EV hopes are weighed down by miserable sales

There certainly seems to be some members of the American public who are enthusiastic about alternative powertrain vehicles.  In February, hybrid auto sales soared 39 percent to reach approximately 23.3k units.  Leading the pack was the veteran Toyota Prius.

But amid that optimistic figure was a bit of not-so-happy news for a couple major automakers.  General Motors only managed to sell 281 Chevy Volts in February, down from 321 in January.  And worse yet, the Nissan LEAF only sold 67 units in the month of February.

To date the Volt has outsold the LEAF, 928 units to 173.  Neither number looks very promising, at face value at least.  

For GM, the issue may lie partially on the supply side.  Dealers are trying to gouge on prices of the scarce Volts, but ultimately these tactics may backfire.  We saw several eBay auctions (which aren't free, mind you) end with no buyers.  In each case, dealers were trying to charge several thousand dollars over the MSRP -- and customers weren't buying.

If GM can pump up its supply, like it's promising, the price may drop to the MSRP and sales may pick up.

With Nissan, the problem and potential solution is likely different.  Arguably Nissan's sales are the bigger disappointment, as the company was promising to beat GM in production volume and sales. However, it is currently failing on those fronts, by all appearances.  One major issue may be limited distribution.  In the U.S., the LEAF only launched in a handful of markets such as California and New York.

Still it's a bit of a mystery how the far-cheaper LEAF has fared so much worse than the Volt.  One possibility is that drivers are scared of not having a backup gas engine (which the Volt has).  At the very least, expanding sales to most of the rest of the country should help the LEAF catch up -- if only a bit.

To add insult to injury, Britain has temporarily banned LEAF vehicles from being sold.  The LEAF contains a noisy backup warning sound to warn pedestrians -- a necessity, given the vehicle's relatively quiet motors.  But apparently that warning violates British noise laws, which prohibits loud noises between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Where recent U.S. laws and federal guidelines require these noises, Nissan is having to race to remove them in Britain.  Rather than making the noises timing dependent, Nissan is attempting a cruder fix -- removing them entirely.  States the company, "The audible system on the LEAF did not allow for [a timing dependent fix], so the beeping sound is being removed entirely before the cars can be driven on roads in [Britain]."

As a result there's a "slight delay" in British sales while the vehicle's firmware is modified in the factory in order to convince Britain to lift the sales ban.

One company that is likely smiling at the sales numbers is Ford.  A late-comer to the EV game, Ford will release a plug-in hybrid EV (PHEV) next year, and a battery-electric vehicle the year after that.  It's clear that even though Ford is coming in a year behind GM and Nissan, that there's plenty of room for improvement in the nascent field.

Another company that is likely pretty satisfied about the news is Tesla Motor Company.  Tesla's Roadster sales pace looks pretty impressive given the higher sticker, when compared to the LEAF.  Dramatic price difference aside, one key difference may be looks.  In an era where the likes of Lady Gaga and Rihanna reign atop pop charts, perhaps the LEAF's bulbous form is a bit too ungainly for a superficial public to bite on.  The sexy curves of a Roadster 2.5 EV or a Fisker Karma might be a little bit more pleasant EV pill to swallow, assuming you can afford it.


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RE: not
By Marlonsm on 3/7/2011 5:50:20 PM , Rating: 1
I'm also not surprised. I wouldn't buy an all-electric car myself yet, even if I had the money. They just aren't ready for everyday use for most people, slow charging in limited stations being the biggest problem.

But that's a start, and hopefully those few sales will start adding up to a number big enough so that a good infrastructure is created.
And with a larger production, tech will improve and get cheaper.

One example of how a good infrastructure can be created given enough time is Brazil.
In late 70s the government started promoting ethanol (from sugar cane) as an alternate fuel. A decade later, most new cars were already running on ethanol. Today almost all cars sold here are flex fuel, can run both on gas and on ethanol or a mixture of both. And usually ethanol is much cheaper than gas.

RE: not
By vol7ron on 3/7/2011 8:15:31 PM , Rating: 3
Instead of slow charging stations, I would like to see drive-thru battery replacements.

Instead of having to charge your battery, the station would charge a battery for you. Basically, electric cars should facilitate a mechanism to easily pull out the battery. Then, you simply put that in some console at the electric station, which would lock, then it would unlock the other side of the console, which would contain a fully charged battery.

This could all be managed by an independent company, which would run annual quality checks on the batteries to make sure they are falling in some level of quality control to hold a particular charge.

To me, the idea of easily exchanging batteries is more practical, then sitting at a fueling station to slowly charge it; especially when a lot of these vehicles will be used in cities, where owners don't have garages or the means to plug in their cars.

-- What do you guys think?

RE: not
By Marlonsm on 3/7/2011 8:36:00 PM , Rating: 2
I also like this idea, but it's not without problems.
It would either force manufacturers to adopt a standard battery, slowing down innovations (not good at this point) or force people to own more than one battery so one can be recharged at the station while the other is being used.

RE: not
By vol7ron on 3/7/2011 11:39:49 PM , Rating: 2
Maybe it would just standardize the battery casing, not the battery per se; a standardized battery chasis might lead to a little economy to scale and cheaper battery. This could allow for a variety of capacities/types and internal technologies, that could all be interchanged.

Also, perhaps this could be a subscription service, rather than something that's mandatory. First, starting in the big cities (as mentioned) and then branching out to the 'burbs.

Still, the point would be that the station would do all the charging, and they should have a few hundred available. It should also create jobs as there would need to be some way to scan and set aside certain batteries that are out of service, though this task could be made easy with stickers, scanners, or color coding.

Really, though, batteries are environmentally unfriendly. People that think they are greener than "gas guzzlers" don't understand all that's involved from creation to disposal. Not to say that the historic application is any better, just, it's generally not a good idea to replace a noticeable problem that everyone can see public eye, with a solution that seems better because people don't see it, but it still exists in the background. All that's done is creating false-comfort.

RE: not
By tamalero on 3/8/2011 1:35:59 PM , Rating: 2
I suppose a similar approach as how some manufacturers of batteries are making only AA base alcaline, the rest are just AA batteries with cassing on top.

RE: not
By JediJeb on 3/8/2011 1:54:04 PM , Rating: 2
I guess one problem would be that the stations would need to be spaced out at less than the range of the batteries. If the max range was 100 miles then every 80 miles or so there would have to be a station to do the exchange, which would allow for long trips, otherwise if you are simply driving 20 miles a day it would be more convenient to just charge at home. For apartment dwellers without a garage there could be special combination parking meters/charge stations placed around for those where you swipe a card that will send in a final bill once you unplug, which is the same as filling with gasoline.

RE: not
By Proton on 3/7/2011 10:31:44 PM , Rating: 3
During the energy crisis of the 70's, I read about the idea of exchanging batteries as you mention. So that idea is very old, and obviously the problems of ending up with bad batteries and not being able to get you potentialy brand new ones back after an exchange, probably has made this technique still not possible to this day.

RE: not
By Spuke on 3/7/2011 11:31:05 PM , Rating: 3
probably has made this technique still not possible to this day
It's possible but how many people would willingly give up their brand new battery for an "old" one with an unknown amount of cycles.

RE: not
By vol7ron on 3/7/2011 11:57:30 PM , Rating: 1
I won't comment too much on this, but this would go into quality tests and some amount of regulation. The batteries would need to be service tested once/twice a year for quality.

Instead of giving up your own battery, you could buy into this service and they could give you one to start with. You could always lug around your extra as a back-up in case you break down sometime, or something happens to the one you're issued - sort of like carrying around a spare tire.

The more I think about the idea, the more I would be likely to buy a hybrid/electric. This is saying something, because I'm more for HP and torque and more opposed to the "green" electric movement at the moment, at least until it really becomes more green.

RE: not
By Schrag4 on 3/8/2011 9:24:18 AM , Rating: 2
Service stations would have to test the batteries that you bring to ensure that they're still good before they could swap them out. If they didn't, then a competing service station would simply have an employee drive an unmarked, station-owned car over with their bad batteries to swap out for good ones.

If this test takes a few seconds, then fine. If it takes 10 minutes, no thanks. Anyone have any idea how long it takes to test these batteries?

RE: not
By vol7ron on 3/9/2011 11:27:16 PM , Rating: 2
That's where the regulation comes into play. It'd be similar to how trash dumps work and how state inspections work on cars today.

The gas stations would just need to set aside the spare batteries that are out of service. There would be a weekly (or scheduled) pickup and the service station would get paid some percentage to do the work.

More than likely there would be only one company that handles the logistics of this type of service - that is the maintenance and actual ownership of the batteries. The consumer (day-to-day drivers) don't need to worry about any of this. They wouldn't see any delay, the gas/charging stations don't have stock in the batteries. They just charge the old batteries and make money on the swaps. The service station doesn't really need to stand by and check on things, a computer system could easily run quality checks w/o a person even being there. It's a win-win-win.

I don't mind being down-rated, but I do like to know reasons - maybe something I said was just retarded :)

RE: not
By vol7ron on 3/7/2011 11:51:24 PM , Rating: 2
I wasn't around in the 70's so I wouldn't know about this; but that goes to show that no one really owns an idea.

obviously the problems of ending up with bad batteries and not being able to get you potentialy brand new ones back after an exchange, probably has made this technique still not possible to this day

I also was thinking of that exact problem while I wrote it. That is why I was thinking of scanning measures and quality tests on returned batteries. Really, you (the company) don't need to run quality tests all the time, you only need to run it once or twice a year on a battery - there could be a whole set of regulation involved, which could also create some jobs, or some additional income for mechanics. Batteries could have stickers on them to show when they were last tested. Also, drivers wouldn't really own the battery. They would only be using the battery for one charge, which could last them several hundreds of miles depending on if they drive a hybrid, or pure electric.

The bigger problem is having enough "fully charged" batteries on-hand for hot swaps. I'm not sure how frequent drivers would need to exchange at the station - perhaps a station could get by with numbers in the tens, since people don't exchange all that the same time and charges last a while.

The bigger issue, though, would be to push manufactures to have an easy way to pull out and insert (possibly many) batteries. I suppose the positive and negative contacts could be internal and the batteries themselves could have handles with safelock latches, that make them easy to slide in and out.

RE: not
By Spuke on 3/8/2011 12:40:28 PM , Rating: 2
Self discharge on these batteries is relatively low and they don't need to be stored fully charged. You could just cycle then load test them before you gave them out. The negative part is that these are "big" batteries and cycling them would take quite a while unless you have a large amp load and a large amp charger.

RE: not
By SnakeBlitzken on 3/8/2011 9:22:43 AM , Rating: 2
How would you feel about driving up to an exchange station in a brand new vehicle and swapping out for an old, used up battery? It would be inevitable but a little hard to take the first time.

RE: not
By jamesjwb on 3/8/2011 8:58:05 AM , Rating: 2
I'm not sure it's true these days. In Brazil the price has slowly crept up on Ethanol, and while it's cheaper per litre, it burns quicker, so you run out faster. It may still be cheaper, but not by much anymore.

RE: not
By Marlonsm on 3/8/2011 8:48:19 PM , Rating: 2
Usually it's much cheaper to use Ethanol. Although it gets you about 70% to 80% of the range, some times it's just over half the price of gas.
Right now it's not worth it, at least not in my state, but as most cars are flex fuel, all we need to do is to use gas until the prices go down again.

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