Is world on the brink of an electric car revolution?
Carmakers have learned to be cautious about electric car sales as their predictions have proved wildly optimistic. Still, many believe a turning point could soon be reached
Carlos Ghosn, the fast-talking head of the Renault-Nissan alliance, is not keen to be drawn on targets for electric car sales. A 2011 prediction of 1.5 million Renault-Nissan electric vehicles by 2016 turned out to be wildly optimistic. The group just passed the 250,000 mark.
Ghosn was not alone. US President Barack Obama predicted one million electric cars in the US by 2015: in January the total was 280,000. Virgin boss Richard Branson, adept as ever at grabbing headlines, said this month that "no new road cars will be petrol driven" within 20 years, calling combustion engines "complicated and antiquated".
Unlike Branson, Ghosn does not want to stick his neck out. But as head of the companies that sell more than half the electric cars in the world, what Ghosn thinks about how fast the market will grow matters.
Transport contributes 23 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so the fundamental driver will be the ambition of the world in tackling climate change, Ghosn says. "When we know exactly where the EU, US, China will be heading in 2030, I can tell you exactly how much electric cars will be needed," he says, referring to a crunch UN summit in Paris in November.
The reasons for people being relatively slow to buy electric cars are simple, Ghosn says: "If there is a price penalty, they just don't buy. If there is range anxiety, they just don't buy."
He says Renault-Nissan are working on cutting the cost of the cars, which he says largely comes down to volume, with electric cars currently making up a tiny proportion of the 85 million new cars sold globally each year.
"This is a scale problem," Ghosn says. "The technology fundamentally has nothing expensive. If you come to the basic physics of an electric car, it is not supposed to be more expensive than a combustion engine." Government subsidies for cars are also key, he says, as is the building of a network of charging points.
Ghosn was in London for the finale of the first FIA Formula E all-electric race series, in which Renault took the team title and were pipped in the final laps for the drivers' championship by Nelson Piquet Jnr from the Next EV China Racing team. Ghosn says the races, on city centre circuits around the world including Beijing, have helped solve the image problem.
"Ten years ago people thought that electric cars would never make it, they thought electric cars were like a golf cart, something slow, bulky, not very attractive," he says. "Now they see the [Renault] Zoe, the [Nissan] Leaf, the Teslas, etc, and they think electric cars can be fun. They see Formula E and see the cars can be very powerful and go very fast. The idea that electric cars are normal cars, which is a big revolution from 10 years ago, has taken place."
Renault hopes that electric racing will deliver technology benefits to its road cars, and Patrice Ratti, head of Renault Sport and Technology, says they have already learned from Formula E how to use software to manage energy better. "In a few years, we will have three to four times the range [in road cars] and the anxiety will go away," he says. How long is a few years? "Maybe five to 10," he says.