The Osborne Legacy, GM's 200 mile electric car, and electric car adoption
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In 1981 the first luggable computer, the Osborne 1, went on sale to become very popular. All was well for Osborne Computer Company until Adam Osborne, in 1983, announced details of the next generation Osborne computers. The resulting sales falloff and eventual demise of OCC created the myth of the Osborne Effect, which is when a company announces a future product and the customers stop buying the current product. What does this have to do with automotive news? Consider thursday's news that GM's CEO Dan Akerson is again talking about the electric car with a 200 mile driving range that GM could be building in the next two-to-four years.
It's plausible that news of someone like GM's CEO claiming an electric car with a 200 mile driving range is just around the corner, would make potential electric car buyers go "hmm.. maybe I'll wait a couple years."
This effect may already be happening for the Nissan Leaf. Sales of the Leaf are much lower than in 2011, and there are a pair of attributes of the 2013 model which may be affecting current Leaf sales. One is that the 2013 Leaf will have an option to buy a 6.6 kilowatt on-board charger, which would give the Leaf a better effective driving range. The second is that Nissan is building a new factory in Smyrna TN, that's slated to increase Nissan Leaf production volume to over 100,000 units a year. The scuttlebutt is that by building the Leaf in the U.S., the domestic MSRP would be lower than currently.
In the case of GM, Akerson first talked of a 140+ mile driving range electric car in March, shortly after Envia Systems demonstrated the company's technology at an ARPA-E conference. That company is targeting a dramatic jump in lithium ion energy density, with a dramatic drop in cost, and if the final result turns out as projected it would be a game changer in the electric car industry.
In March, Akerson did not explicitly name Envia Systems. This week an AP report repeated statements made by Akerson to a GM employees meeting, which the AP reporter somehow was allowed to hear, where he explicitly named Envia Systems and a potential 200 mile driving range electric car in two-to-four years.
Will tomorrows electric cars be better than todays? Almost certainly. Should someone who is teetering on the edge of buying an electric car wait? Depends. How badly do you want the electric car today? How certain are you that GM would actually build a 200 mile driving electric car any time soon?
The first point is just like the quandary potential iPhone buyers are in right now. It's widely expected the next generation iPhone will be revealed in a couple months, and some may be waiting for the iPhone 5 to be revealed before buying anything. What's the optimal strategy for buying technological gadgets? We know this weeks wonder-gadget will be next years has-been, and the optimal buying strategy depends on the needs and preferences of the individual.
There is much doubt whether Envia or GM can pull off what Akerson is promising. First, Envia is not a battery manufacturer, but a battery technology research company. Envia instead will license its technology stack to a manufacturer, such as LG Chem, who will then attempt to manufacture battery cells using that technology. That's followed by a relatively long process of testing the resulting cells, testing the manufacturing process, getting sample cells into automaker hands, where battery packs are tested in cars, and so on. Envia's technology claims may not pan out. According to an article about Envia in Charged EV's magazine, it is only the cathode that is ready, with the rest of the components still in development. That article quotes Envia's management as saying complete cells will not be ready until 2015, and cars with those cells won't be on the road until 2018. That's a lot longer than the two-to-four year time-frame Akerson mentioned.
Some say the demand for perfection is the enemy of the good. Today's electric cars could be good enough for today, just as some people will buy an iPhone 4S today even though the iPhone 5 is just a couple months away.
Image source: Wikimedia