Another in a continuing trend of news articles
and automaker statements that at times call PHEVs
EVs, at times call both "plug-in vehicles." It
appears the postal service's vehicles will be
all-electric, to be manufactured starting later
this year, with a PHEV diesel option. These cars
will use batteries from the Johnson Controls-Saft
joint venture (one of two groups competing for GM's business as well).
Electric Cars Gather Speed Experiment in France
Shows Promise, But Cost Remains Considerable
February 26, 2007; Page A8
Write to David Gauthier-Villars at David.Gauthier-Villars@...
PARIS -- In late 2005, France's state-run postal
service began a trial of eight experimental
electric-powered mail-delivery vans in an effort
to meet a government requirement to reduce pollution.
Not only did the vans work well and prove cheaper
to operate than gasoline-powered ones, but the
mailmen who drove them reported higher job
satisfaction. Now, La Poste is working on a
five-year plan to replace the bulk of its
48,000-vehicle fleet with electric cars.
"The car works great, with almost no
maintenance," says Patrick Widloecher, La Poste's
director for environmental affairs. "We're ready to order more."
* The Car: France's postal service is pleased
with its electric cars and hopes to order more.
* The Benefits: Some auto makers believe electric
cars will find appeal because of high oil prices and environmental concerns.
* The Price Tag: Others believe the technology
will be too costly and are looking at alternatives.
The companies behind the car hope their battery
technology will be powerful and long-lasting
enough to overcome the issues that have plagued
past attempts at electric cars. The cars La Poste
used were developed by Société de Véhicules
Électriques, controlled by aerospace tycoon Serge
Dassault, and were outfitted with a specially
designed lithium-ion battery developed by a joint
venture of Milwaukee car-parts maker Johnson
Controls Inc. and French battery company Saft Groupe.
The auto industry is keen on electric cars
because of their potential to lower pollution and
so-called greenhouse-gas emissions that
contribute to climate change. They also would
help reduce industrialized countries' reliance on
fossil-fuel imports at a time of world-wide concern over oil supplies.
La Poste's experience with Mr. Dassault's SVE is
part of a recent pickup in momentum for electric
cars. Last month, General Motors Corp. unveiled a
prototype for an electric Chevrolet Volt.
Although GM remains vague about a possible
mass-market rollout, it has selected industrial
partners to develop batteries. French car maker
Renault SA, which tried and failed to roll out an
electric van five years ago, says it wants to add
such a vehicle to its lineup in 2010 as part of a
wider partnership with affiliate Nissan Motor Co. of Japan.
Still, many obstacles remain before a mass-market
electric car may be available. The main stumbling
block is the prohibitive price of lithium-ion
batteries. "Manufacturers have solved most
technical problems, but they need to work further
on reducing the cost," says Ahmad Pesaran, head
of energy-storage studies at the National
Renewable Energy Laboratory, an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Other car makers remain skeptical, saying
electric cars will remain confined to niche
markets, such as mail delivery, where the lengthy
process of battery recharging can be done at
night. France's PSA Peugeot Citroën SA, which
made 10,000 electric vehicles in the 1990s, says
it prefers to focus on hybrid solutions that
combine both electric power and a gasoline
engine, much like Toyota Motor Corp.'s fuel-efficient Prius.
SVE has yet to settle on a price for its electric
car, and it isn't clear how much La Poste will
have to pay to increase its fleet. But the car
will be significantly more expensive than a
traditional gasoline-powered vehicle because of
the high cost of the lithium-ion battery, which
La Poste says would account for about 60% of the
unit price. The mail company says it will save on
operating expenses because charging the electric
car with electricity costs about one-sixth what
it would spend to fill up the tank with gasoline.
SVE plans to make only a few cars at first. The
French company expects to begin volume production
toward year end with the assembly of 1,000
vehicles and, from 2009, gradually ramp up
production to about 20,000 a year. That would be
a fraction of the two million vehicles sold in
France every year, though still more than all the
other electric cars ever produced.
To widen the potential market for its electric
vehicles, SVE has developed a version of its van
equipped with a small diesel engine. The engine
can help recharge the battery on the go or
provide additional torque on highways, removing
the range cap that hampers purely electric
vehicles. Such cars are often called "plug-in
hybrids" because they can be recharged on a plug or with gasoline.
A substantial shift to electric cars would cause
only a small rise in power consumption, according
to utility Electricité de France. "Even if 10% of
all vehicles sold in France were powered by
electricity, by 2020, they would account for less
than 2% of overall power demand," says Robert
Durdilly, EDF director for new-business development.
In France, which relies on nuclear and
hydroelectric power for most of its electricity
generation, electric cars would help achieve a
drastic cut in greenhouse-gas emissions. In the
U.S., where about half of electricity is produced
from coal and where gasoline remains relatively
cheap, electric vehicles might be a harder sell.
Electric cars have failed to deliver on their
promise in the past. Eleven years ago, La Poste
purchased 700 vehicles from Peugeot, which it
hoped would become the backbone of an
electric-powered fleet of mail-delivery vans. But
the batteries weren't powerful enough. In courier
mode -- with close to a half ton of mail on board
and hundreds of stops a day -- the range of the cars drops to about 19 miles.
The Johnson Controls-Saft venture says it has
taken care of safety problems associated with the
lithium-ion technology, notably fire hazards that
have plagued smaller lithium-ion batteries used
in laptop computers. Still, JCS Chief Operating
Officer Franck Cecchi says a key area for
research is temperature control because
lithium-ion batteries may overheat when they are
turned on, and excess temperature can harm their
lifespan dramatically. "We've succeeded in making
batteries that can last for 10 years, but we're
working to either increase the lifespan or reduce the cost," Mr. Cecchi says.
SVE Chief Financial Officer Sébastien
Rembauville-Nicolle says he has no doubt about
the performance of the Johnson Controls-Saft
batteries. Because all the van prototypes
undergoing tests are registered in SVE's name, he
says, "the mailmen's speeding tickets end up in my mailbox."
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Felix Kramer fkramer@...
Founder California Cars Initiative
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