THE world's car makers are becoming increasingly divided on the merits of plug-in electric vehicles, with Hyundai this week joining Honda and Toyota in backing hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles as the ultimate solution to the world's dwindling oil resources.
And leading industry researcher JD Power has poured cold water on electric cars, claiming in a recent report that buyers are unlikely to warm to the technology in the next decade due to concerns about cost, recharging times and driving range.
Hyundai's president and chief executive, Steve S. Yang, says electric vehicles have too many disadvantages to be a viable form of future transport for the masses.
"Our ultimate goal is to build fuel-cell vehicles - and make them available from 2015," Yang says. "Of course, we need EVs and we need hybrids but these are an intermediate step for FC vehicles. The point of [Hyundai] building the EVs is to get proven technology for fuel cell [vehicles].
"Sales of EVs is totally dependent on government policies and subsidies. The GM Volt, for example, costs $41,000 [in the US]. Even including the government subsidy of $7000, it costs $34,000, which is a price that's similar to the luxury cars.
"The other problem with the EVs is the short distance of travel and you need about seven hours for recharge."
Yang's sentiments are backed by Toyota and Honda, which both see electric cars as a stop-gap measure.
Honda says fuel-cell vehicles are superior to EVs because they can achieve the range of a normal petrol vehicle and can refuel in two to three minutes, compared with up to eight hours for an EV.
Toyota is equally bullish about fuel-cells, claiming it can have an affordable fuel-cell vehicle on US roads by 2015.
The trio is at odds with rivals such as Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi, which have invested heavily in EVs. Various Chinese brands are also focusing on EVs.
The Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric car is already on the road globally, including Australia, as part of a trial, while Nissan's Leaf is due to start reaching showrooms around the world before the end of the year.
EV supporters claim plug-in technology is superior to the fuel-cell because the infrastructure - in the form of normal domestic power points - already exists. They also say advancements in battery and charging technology will address current concerns, while arguing that fuel-cell vehicles require a huge investment in hydrogen refuelling stations.
Hyundai, the world's fifth-largest car brand, admits there are many challenges with fuel-cell vehicles, including a lack of infrastructure and the high cost of batteries. However, it claims it is "a little bit more forward than the other manufacturers" and says the price of hydrogen vehicles will be less of an issue by the end of the decade.
"By 2020, we think we can reduce the price gap between fuel-cell cars and gasoline [petrol] cars," Yang says.
Hyundai has built fuel-cell vehicles for several years, based on its Tucson compact soft-roader. The company says it will build another 100 fuel-cell hydrogen vehicles next year based on the latest-generation model, known as ix35 in Australia.
Yang says people would have to change the way they use cars for electric vehicles to become more popular, whereas hydrogen cars retain the functionality of current petrol/diesel vehicles.
JD Power predicts the vast majority of cars in showrooms will still be conventionally powered by 2020. It says only 7 per cent of vehicles will be hybrids or EVs.
It says a consumer migration to EVs will only happen if there is a significant increase in the price of petroleum-based fuels, a major breakthrough in technology that would lower costs and increase range, or a co-ordinated government effort to encourage use.
It says none of those scenarios is likely in the next decade.
"While many consumers around the world say they are interested in HEVs [hybrid EVs] and BEVs [battery EVs] for the expected fuel savings and positive environmental impact they provide, their interest declines significantly when they learn of the price premium that comes with purchasing these vehicles," the head of automotive research at JD Power, John Humphrey, says.
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