RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Detroit Auto Show opens to the public tomorrow, and there's a lot of buzz surrounding electricity. You name it, it's been electrified: an electric bicycle, electric moped, even a battery-powered racing car. Of course, there are plenty of electric cars.
NPR's Sonari Glinton reports on how long it will take for all this electricity to come to you.
SONARI GLINTON: Here it is, the big news out of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit:
Unidentified Man: And the 2011 North American Car of the Year is the Chevrolet Volt.
(Soundbite of cheering)
GLINTON: The Chevy Volt, the electric car with a back-up gas engine, is clearly the star of the Detroit Auto Show. But it's certainly not the only electric car or hybrid in the game.
Ms. JESSICA CALDWELL (Analyst, Edmunds.com): Tesla, Nissan Leaf, Smart E, Mini E, Mercedes SLS E.
GLINTON: That's Jessica Caldwell. She's an analyst with Edmunds.com; it's an automotive website. She could keep listing the cars for a while. But here's the question: Are there enough electric cars in production so that if you wanted a to buy one, you could get one right now?
Ms. CALDWELL: You can't really get one. If you get one, it's going to be secondhand because there's such a high demand for those vehicles right now.
GLINTON: To give you an idea, December is one of the most important months for auto sales. And in December, General Motors sold 329 Chevy Volts; there were about 10 Nissan Leafs sold. Now, both those cars just started production, and neither of those companies are planning to keep the production at that level.
Tony DiSalle is head of marketing for the Chevy Volt.
Mr. TONY DISALLE (Marketing Director, Chevy Volt): Today, a lot of our customers are early-tech adopters - typically, the first on the block to have an iPhone or an iPad.
GLINTON: Or an electric car.
Mr. DISALLE: That's going to migrate through time. And so the most important thing is for consumers - mass-market consumers - to understand the benefits of the Volt.
GLINTON: So in the coming years, what exactly is a mass market?
Mr. DISALLE: We've announced 10,000 units for sale during the 2011 calendar year.
GLINTON: And next year?
Mr. DISALLE: We'll sell 45,000 units - or build 45,000 units for sale here in the United States.
GLINTON: To give you an idea of how many cars that is, Porsche sold 25,000 cars in the U.S. These are not tremendous numbers.
Mr. BOB LUTZ: (Retired Vice Chairman, General Motors): Look, the electrification of America's fleet is not going to occur overnight.
GLINTON: That is Bob Lutz. He just retired as vice chairman of General Motors. Lutz takes credit, often, for the Chevy Volt. He says electrification will be a gradual process.
Mr. LUTZ: And if you take yourself out to the year 2025, and you look at what percentage of the total vehicle market is going to be electric, it'll probably be 10 to 15 percent. But will it suddenly flip and like, within two years you go into a showroom and half the cars are electric? The answer is no. That's going to take a long time.
GLINTON: Remember Jessica Caldwell, the analyst we heard at the top of the story? She says the plain, old combustion engine that's been around for over a hundred years keeps getting more and more fuel-efficient, and small cars are getting safer and more luxurious. Caldwell says while the industry and electric cars catch up, there are plenty of options for those who want to increase the number of miles they get per gallon - even if they're not as exciting.
Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Electric cars are all the rage at the North American International Auto Show. The star of the Detroit show is the Chevy Volt, and there are plenty of others on display. Still, experts say electric cars will account for only a small sliver of sales for the foreseeable future.
When the North American International Auto Show opens in Detroit on Friday, there's going to be electricity in the air.
That's because electrification is one of this year's hottest trends. The floor is also packed with an assortment of electric things including a bicycle, a moped and even a battery-powered racing car.
But the star of the show is the Chevy Volt, the electric car with a backup gas engine. It won the top prize -- the 2011 North American Car of the Year.
But it's certainly not the only electric car or hybrid in the game or on display at the show. Ford unveiled an electric version of the Focus compact. There's also an assortment of vehicles on display from Tesla Motors. Then, there are the Nissan Leaf, the Smart Car Electric Drive, Mini Cooper's Mini E and the Mercedes SLS E.
Jessica Caldwell, director of pricing and industry analysis at Edmunds.com, says it's not possible to buy an electric car just yet.
"You couldn't get one," she says. "If you get one, it's probably going to be secondhand because there's such high demand for those vehicles."
December is one of the most important months for auto sales. During the month, GM sold just 329 Chevy Volts and Nissan sold about 10 Leafs.
Both cars just went into production, and both companies say they're planning to increase production levels.
GM has high hopes that the Volt will be adopted by a mainstream audience.
"Today a lot of our customers are early tech adopters -- typically the first on the block to have an iPhone or an iPad," says Tony DiSalle, the head of marketing for the Chevy Volt. He thinks those numbers will improve over time.
"The most important thing is to get consumers -- mass-market consumers -- to understand the benefits of the Volt," DiSalle says.
GM expects to sell about 10,000 Volts this year. In 2012, the company will ramp up production to about 45,000 cars. But even that figure is small compared with the more than 2.2 million cars and trucks that GM's four brands sold in 2010. In the near term, the company says its electric fleet will account for a small sliver of sales.
One of the barriers to the adoption of the electric car is a phrase that keeps coming up at the auto show -- range anxiety. Many of the cars on display can only travel under electric power for short ranges. Analysts say that until the big car companies can conquer consumer fears of running out of charge, electric vehicles will remain on the fringes.
"Look, the electrification of the American fleet is not going to happen overnight," says Bob Lutz, who retired as vice chairman of GM in May.
Before he left GM, he was responsible for pushing the Volt to production. He says electrification will be a gradual process, predicting that it will take until 2025 for electric vehicles to account for 10 percent to 15 percent of the overall market.
"Will it suddenly flip and within like two years you go into the showrooms and half the cars are electric?" Lutz says. "The answer is no."
More Efficient Combustion Engines
But Caldwell of Edmunds.com says the real star of the Detroit auto show remains the old combustible engine. She says almost every manufacturer is putting out cars that are getting more and more fuel efficient.
Caldwell says there are plenty of fuel-efficient options for consumers -- even if they aren't as exciting as electric cars.