Chrysler electric car
Announced in 2008 and promised for 2010, but never delivered...
The Chrysler electric car was announced with great fanfare in late 2008. Not just one but in fact three different vehicles were part of Chrysler's plan, and they were promised for delivery in 2010, as long as the US government came through with loan guarantees to help the ailing automaker and its two Detroit competitors, GM and Ford. Chrysler pledged at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2009 to have 500,000 electric cars on the road by 2013.
You really can't trust the Big Three to follow through on a promise to build an electric car - their track record is pretty abysmal. It's been a hundred years since the first electric car was built. They were popular for a few years but lost out to the internal combustion engine because the bulky lead acid battery technology couldn't compete with the much higher energy density and rapid refuelling offered by gasoline. When the 1970's brought the oil crisis and burgeoning environmental movement, automakers felt the need to build more fuel efficient cars to fend off competition from more efficient foreign imports, as well as to produce prototypes for electric cars to bolster their image as green car builders. But the efficient domestic cars soon lost ground to gas-guzzling SUVs as oil prices fell again, and most of the electric cars never got beyond the drawing board, or the pomp and fanfare of an auto show, or a small number of movie stars driving them around - on lease - until the automakers decided to scrap that design just before their next announcement of an electric car.
In fact there's a great documentary movie on the GM EV1, a concept electric car leased by GM between 1996 and 1999, of which fewer than 1,200 were made. Who Killed the Electric Car tells the story of this car, its proponents and fans, and GM's controversial decision to recall the leased units and destroy them, in spite of vehement protests from the happy drivers who had leased them.
It's enough to make you believe in conspiracy theories.
So you won't be surprised to learn that the ambitious Chrysler electric car program announced in 2008 with great fanfare and publicity, was quietly disbanded in November 2009.
Instead Chrysler placed its bets on the Fiat 500 EV, an all-electric version of the Fiat 500 that I first saw 40 years ago when I moved to Rome as a kid. The Fiat 500 is similar in size to a Smart Car, much smaller than the family fan or Jeep Chrysler had lined up as two of the three Chrysler electric car offerings they were planning. And I can only hope that the new Fiat 500 EV will be a bit more solid than the Fiat 500s that were tearing around the streets of Rome back in 1970.
In case you didn't know it, Fiat is a part owner of Chrysler; it now holds over half of the company's stock, while the United Auto Workers owns most of the balance. The gas version of the Fiat 500 has already reached North American markets, and I've seen a number of them buzzing about Toronto streets (to be fair, they look a lot more solid than the Cinquecentos I remember from my childhood). Is this Chrysler electric car version of the Fiat 500 just a way to boost publicity for its gas counterpart?
But will the Fiat 500 EV ever see the light of day? Browsing the Fiat website you'd never even know it even existed. It was announced in January 2010 at the Detroit Auto Show, but has never, as far as I can tell, progressed to the manufacturing stage. The only Fiat 500 EVs on the road now are retrofits - because the 500 is such a small car, it is ideal for conversion to electric, since its low weight gives it a longer range on one battery charge. An electric conversion Fiat 500 was actually found in Muammar Qaddafi's personal compound in August 2011 when rebel forces stormed the compound. (Qadaffi apparently had several other electric cars as well.)
First, US automakers have a terrible record of keeping promises on electric cars. But this really isn't a Chrysler electric car we're talking about, it's a Fiat electric car, and Fiat as a European automaker has a much stronger incentive to bring electric cars to market -I hate to be cynical but it's hard not to see Chrysler's on-again, off-again interest in electric cars as a ploy to get government grants and bail-outs, consumer complacency, or relief from stricter fuel economy standards from Congress. Congress or the DOE or EPA threaten to raise fuel economy stanards, and the Big Three announce plans for electric cars, hybrids, super-efficient gas cars. Then people think the problem has been solved. All the car makers have done is announce stuff. They haven't actually done anything.
Yet another Chrysler electric car went into development in 2008. The US DOE chose Chrysler to get up to $48 million to build 140 hybrid Dodge Ram pickups for a three-year test. Hold on - did you read that right? $48 million to build 140 hybrid pickup trucks. Let's do the math: that works out to $342,857 per pickup. The trucks were supposed to be up to 65% more fuel-efficient than their gas-only predecessors. That means a Dodge Ram, instead of being about three times less efficient than a Toyota Prius, would only be two times less efficient. Focusing on making pick-up trucks more efficient might sound like a good idea - after all, some people do need pick-up trucks for their work - but how many people who drive pick-up trucks really need one? I would guess that most pick-up truck owners would save more money overall by supplementing their pick-up truck with a Smart Car for passenger-only trips, instead of upgrading to a hybrid pickup truck.
The first of these 140 hybrid electric Dodge Rams were dispatched to a number of US cities for municipal government department use, starting in May 2011. But again this is mainly for evaluation and data gathering purposes. Meanwhile, Toyota had already sold 3 million hybrid cars by March 2011 (although I grant that most of those were not plug-in hybrids like the Dodge Ram, but Toyota is hoping to sell its first 40,000 plug-in electric hybrid Priuses in 2012).
I would love to see a Chrysler electric car that actually does what we need an electric car to do - provide reasonable capacity, reasonable speeds (up to 100 km/h or 65MPH), reasonable range (100 km or 65 miles per charge), reasonable price ($20,000 or less) and enough production that people can actually buy the things. But I'm not holding my breath. The more you look at electric car plans from the Big Three, the harder it is to take them seriously. Please, Chrysler, prove me wrong!