By Jim Motavalli

Why should predictions be restricted to the end of the year? I make them all the time, and this is such an interesting crossroads for the auto industry that I’d like to offer some now for 2011, right here in the dog days of summer:

  1. Slow Start. Although Ford, Chevrolet, Tesla, Fisker, Coda, Nissan, Wheego, Think and many more are preparing new battery and plug-in hybrid cars for late this year and early next, a manufacturer that sells 10,000 of any of these cars should count itself lucky. EVs are a really new concept for people, and there will be a lot more tire-kicking than contract-signing.

  2. Zip Code Rules. As I reported earlier this week, sales will be concentrated in California. But it’s more than that – early EVs for 2011 will be expensive, so they’ll be heavily represented in certain affluent zip codes on both coasts. Praveen Mandal, president of charging company Coulomb, calls this “clustering.” That is one of many challenges that utilities have to face as they try to figure out how to build out the grid to accommodate EVs. Scott Simons of the Detroit-area DTE Energy told me that his company is working with automakers to try and identify those neighborhoods and beef up infrastructure there with bigger substations and more.

  3. Winners and Losers. The entry market strongly favors established players, and they’ll be the ones that will see the most action in 2011. Nissan, for example, has huge built-in advantages in promoting its Leaf battery car. These include a name recognition, a national dealer network and money to pay for TV advertising. Chevrolet has the same for the Volt “range extender,” and Ford for its electric version of the Focus. Newcomers like Think, Coda and Wheego will have credible cars, but they’ll really have to be clever about the guerrilla marketing and publicity to get their voices heard.

  4. Subsidies Matter. Many states are now offering tax incentives for EVs, but California rules with a $5,000 cash rebate (that could run out quickly). By offsetting steep purchase prices, these credits will really make a difference. A Nissan Leaf for $20,000 instead of $32,000? Yes, but only in California. EV sales could take off past 10,000 per carmaker if the feds pass pending legislation called the Electric Vehicle Deployment Act of 2010, which has bipartisan support. In the wake of President Obama’s appearance at the Smith Electric Vehicle plant in Missouri this week, the Electrification Coalition’s Robbie Diamond pointed out that Obama has said he would sign it, but “now is the time to move that legislation forward.” The bill would give EV buyers in select “deployment communities” incentives worth up to $10,000.

  5. “Range Anxiety” Will Fade. The fear that EVs will run out of juice halfway home will keep a lot of people from buying them in the first half of 2011, but such nail biting will evaporate in the third and fourth quarters. Few people really need more than 100 miles of range –- they just think they do. Good word of mouth from EV early adopters should clear that up.

  6. Cities Will Lag in Setting up Charging Networks. I went searching for a Manhattan-based EV plug-in, but found only one. The bigger the city, the longer this will take, especially in the early days of 2011. Although EVs are really more city than suburban cars, charging them will be a headache in New York, Chicago and other cities where space is at a premium and most people live in apartments. Los Angeles? The city is already set up for cars, and so gung-ho about EVs they’ll find a way to get ‘em plugged in.

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