(December 2008)

It may be the closest thing there is to a holy grail in the cleantech sector: a fully electric car with the speed, range and price point of the fossil-fuel kind. Rising consumer demand means there are more contenders, with a wider range of options and prices, but the contest to build a mass-market electric car is still wide open.

While auto industry leaders such as Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Co. have long offered conventional hybrids that use gas motors for recharging, neither is yet leading the way with a plug-in electric vehicle. And supposedly leading contenders such as Detroit-based General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Motors LLC are suddenly struggling to avoid insolvency. Waiting in the wings are a handful of newcomers that are reporting technical advances and strong sales.

Some of the start-ups that are challenging the goliaths of the industry include Toronto-based ZENN Motor Co. and Santa Rosa, Calif.-based ZAP. The automotive suppliers industry, including a handful of Canadian companies, is also a growing influence in the new landscape.

“The automobile industry is going to move toward electric vehicles as a means of sustainable transportation,” asserts Massimo Fiore, clean technology and alternative energy analyst for Montreal-based Versant Partners Inc. “Toyota and Honda have a step up because their hybrids have done well. But the industry is so young that anyone could easily become No. 1 quickly.”

The demand for cleaner cars is real. A recent study by California-based J.D. Power & Associates found that 62% of American consumers who plan to buy a car in the next two years are considering a hybrid-electric vehicle. But there are significant barriers. One is the lithium-ion batteries the next generation of electric cars will use. While they are superior to the heavy, bulky nickel-hydride batteries that have limited the appeal of electric cars to date, lithium-ion batteries can burst into flame if punctured or overheated, and lithium is expensive and in short supply.

The other deterrent is performance. “Consumers can’t get the speed they want or the range they want, and that is holding back mass adoption of electric vehicles,” says Fiore. “To get the performance, you need to have a power source that has enough energy and power in a certain amount of space and weight, and we’re not there yet.”

Until recently, hydrogen-fuelled cars were the most promising route to zero emissions. And there have been successes. Last June, Honda announced that it would lease 200 new hydrogen-fuelled cars in the southern California area, one of the few regions in which there are hydrogen fuelling stations. More than 70,000 applications were received to lease the sedan-sized FCX Clarity. But the growing popularity of hybrids — which use both a gasoline engine and an electric motor — and the development of lighter, longer-lasting lithium-ion batteries, are shifting attention to the potential of electric cars that use the grid to recharge their batteries.

In September, both GM and Chrysler announced that they would begin selling plug-in electric vehicles backed up by small gasoline engines by 2010. Plug-in technology is viewed as a bridge between existing hybrid electric-gas vehicles and the pure electric vehicles of the future.

GM is pinning many of its hopes on the Chevrolet Volt. If the model becomes popular with consumers, the battered company may restore its reputation. The Volt will run for at least 64 kilometres on a fully charged lithium-ion battery and reach speeds of 160 kilometres per hour. The battery can be recharged using the on-board gas engine or a standard electrical outlet. GM says that because most commuters travel less than that distance to get to work and back, on-the-road recharging typically won’t be needed.

Chrysler is planning to launch three vehicles. The Town & Country minivan and the Jeep Wrangler SUV will have electric motors that can also travel 64 km on a single charge, while a small gasoline engine will act as a generator to keep the battery charged. A sports car, as yet unnamed, will be fully electric. Meanwhile, Toyota and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. are also planning electric cars — Toyota is developing a plug-in model — with availability estimated for 2010.

But upstarts such as ZENN and its partner, privately-owned, Texas-based battery manufacturer EEStor Inc., are attracting growing interest. Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, a Waltham, Mass.-based venture-capital firm that has hit home runs with investments in companies such as California-based Google Inc., and Amazon.com Inc., has taken a stake in EEStor. ZENN has penetrated the low-speed vehicle market with its current electric car, a two-seater that tops out at 40 km/h and travels as far as 80 km before it has to be plugged in overnight.

@page_break@But ZENN may be on the cusp of a giant leap forward through an exclusive licensing agreement with EEStor, which is developing an “ultracapacitor,” an electrical component similar to those found in computers but that stores much more energy, which is expected to allow electric vehicles to rival conventional cars in terms of performance, range and charging times, with the added benefit of zero emissions. ZENN is planning to launch the cityZENN — an emission-free car that could hit speeds as high as 125 km/h, recharges in minutes and can travel 800 km on about $10 of electricity — by the end of 2009. However, EEStor has yet to produce a prototype for the car’s power source.

Another smaller player is ZAP, whose monthly sales of electric cars almost doubled to US$737,000 in August, up from US$392,000 a year ago. The company makes Xebra cars and trucks that are affordable, 100% electric vehicles that reach speeds of up to 65 km/h. The firm is taking orders for the ZAP Alias, a high-performance car with a top speed of more than 160 km/h and a range of at least 240 km per charge that the company plans to sell for US$32,500 starting in 2009.

Other companies likely to benefit from the green shift include Detroit-based but TSX-listed Azure Dynamics Inc., which makes control systems for hybrid electric and electric vehicle powertrains, Mississauga, Ont.-based Electrovaya Inc., which manufactures a patented lithium-ion battery, and Watertown, Mass.-based A123 Systems Inc.,whose lithium-ion battery technology is being tested by GM as a potential power source for the Volt. A123’s battery could finally make lithium-ion technology a practical option for mass production. The battery uses electrode material that makes them fire-resistant, even in an accident.