More electric cars coming

General Motors and Audi among those which reveal new models at the Las Vegas consumer electronics show

LAS VEGAS • Although sales of electric and hybrid vehicles have struggled, carmakers are charging ahead to bring new battery- powered vehicles to market.

Several car companies have focused on electric vehicles at the International CES consumer trade show here, including General Motors, which on Wednesday introduced the production version of its Chevrolet Bolt.

GM's chief executive, Ms Mary Barra, said the Bolt was a big step forward in the electrification of vehicles because of its price and ability to travel 322km on a fully charged battery.

"This is truly the first EV that cracks the code because of long range at an affordable price," she said in a keynote speech at the show.

The Bolt, which will go on sale this year, will carry a sticker price of US$30,000 (S$43,000), including government incentives that total about US$7,500. But even with its extended range and mass-market price, the Bolt may still face a difficult battle to lure consumers who are taking advantage of US$2-a-gallon petrol to buy larger vehicles.

While sales of pickups and sport utility vehicles soared last year, all-electric models and gas-electric hybrids languished in showrooms. For example, sales in the United States of the all-electric Nissan Leaf fell 43 per cent last year compared with 2014, and the leading hybrid model, the Toyota Prius, dropped about 11 per cent. Overall, electric and hybrid vehicles accounted for about 2 per cent of the US market.

Still, luxury carmakers such as BMW introduced a new electric car last year and Tesla is expanding its line-up to include an all-electric SUV, the Model X. GM has had mixed success with its Volt plug-in hybrid, which marries battery power with a small gasoline engine that significantly extends its driving range.

But Ms Barra said on Wednesday that GM is "committed to electrification" despite the lagging sales of current electric cars and hybrids. Others at GM said the new Bolt could change consumers' perception of purely electric cars as strictly for commuting and other short trips.

But industry analysts are unsure whether electric cars will catch on with consumers anytime soon.

"It will be interesting to see how the market embraces the Bolt in this era of cheap gas," said Mr Karl Brauer, an analyst with auto research firm Kelley Blue Book. "But from a value and function standpoint, it sets a new benchmark."

The Bolt is a roomy, four-door compact car that seats five people and includes features such as a rear camera that streams a wide-angle view directly to the rear-view mirror used by the driver.

Ms Barra said that it also has fast-charging capability and can achieve an 80 per cent charge within an hour.

She added that the Bolt could prove ideal for ride-sharing in urban areas. This week, GM invested US$500 million in the ride-sharing service Lyft as part of its strategy to adapt to different trends in automotive transportation.

"The way people get around is changing forever and we get that," said Ms Barra, who emphasised that GM expected to be a leader in new forms of personal mobility.

Other carmakers are also showcasing electric models at International CES, including Volkswagen, which on Tuesday unveiled a concept version of an electric microbus.

On Wednesday, VW's luxury brand, Audi, provided more details on a previously shown electric SUV called the e-Tron. The battery- powered e-Tron is expected to go into production by 2018 and is a cornerstone of Audi's plans to move aggressively into electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

"We expect that at least 25 per cent of our business in America will have a plug within 10 years," said Mr Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America. The e-Tron is also becoming something of a laboratory for Audi as it ramps up its development of connected vehicles and autonomous cars.

"Electrification, connectivity and autonomous driving are the trends," said Mr Ricky Hudi, a senior executive at Audi in Germany.

Audi has already developed prototypes of driverless cars, but the technology required was so large it took up nearly the entire trunk space. But Mr Hudi said the technology was advancing so rapidly that Audi's current prototypes use much smaller, high-speed processors.

"The brain of piloted driving has become smaller than a tablet computer," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2016, with the headline 'More electric cars coming'. Print Edition | Subscribe