Electric cars should not be Saab’s immediate future (or anyone else’s)

News reports state that there’s a new bidder in the hunt for Saab Automobile’s bankrupt estate. Apparently it’s a consortium of Chinese and Japanese investors who are looking to build electric cars. Is it just me, or has this got disaster written all over it?

I retain some hope that Saab can be sold to a buyer who wants to make Saabs. Personally speaking, if that company is to be chosen from Mahindra, Youngman, or this Sino-Japanese consortium, then my vote goes to Mahindra. They are a genuine international industrial company who I think have a realistic feel for what’s actually involved in the car industry and can see a role for Saab in their portfolio. Unfortunately, though, realism hasn’t played a prominent role in the fate of Saab for some time.

Reports coming through (covered on SU today) seem to indicate that the Swedish government are neck-deep in talks regarding this electric car proposition. This isn’t overly surprising as the government in Sweden seems fixated on outcomes that either confirm or deliver political messages. Electric cars present a nice, happy, ‘green’ picture that’s very Swedish, even if it’s not overly realistic.

The electrification of the automobile is well and truly underway and it’s more a matter of when, rather than if, we’ll be driving vehicles powered by something other then liquefied Brontosaurus. That particular when, however, is a long way away and the charge (pardon the pun) is not likely to be led from a higher-cost nation like Sweden. Just ask the companies behind Think! vehicles what sort of prospects exist for a company focused just on fully electric vehicles. Or Tesla. Or Fisker. All of them are struggling and none of them are likely to have ever got off the ground without massive government grants or subsidies.

The only companies having any sort of real success with electrification are those existing car companies with a solid range of regular vehicles to support their spear-head efforts in the hybrid/electric arena. They want to (and will) enjoy first-mover advantages but won’t bankrupt themselves to do so.

A few examples:

Toyota have built a massive cash reserve and invest solidly in hybrid platforms, but even they haven’t seen massive sales of hybrid vehicles. That is quite likely going to change with the addition of their hybrid system to more vehicle lines, and the addition of the cheaper Prius C to their range, but Toyota have been the industry leaders in this field and could only do so because of the success of their other vehicles.

The Chevrolet Volt, regardless of what you think of its styling and politics, is an admirable technical achievement. Unfortunately for GM, it’s also been a sales flop. People don’t like the “high” price they have to pay for the car in the US market and as a result, GM have recently had to halt production of the Volt lest they vastly oversupply the market. Demand just isn’t there.

Why?

We’ve been told by advertisers over and over again that the electrification of the automobile is a wonderful thing. We’ll be surrounded by beautiful gardens and all creatures great and small – from badgers to butterflies – will thank us in return. We’ve all seen the celebrities in their Toyota Priuses doing their bit for the environment (and many have objected to their holier-than-thou presence). I think most of us even agree that the electrification of the automobile is a good thing for the environment, especially if more clean power sources can be developed.

The problem is that people don’t, won’t and in many cases, can’t buy these vehicles based on good feelings alone. The vast majority of people will select from a pool of vehicles that is based on price first. Factors like styling, safety, convenience, utility and reliability will also govern. I’m not sure where ‘green’ fits in for most people, but I’d suggest the most prominent thought attached to efficiency is “how much will it cost to run?” rather than “how many fruit bats will I save/kill with this car?”

Simply put – Whilst we all like the nice, shiny image that hybrids/electrics project, the fact is that the market doesn’t have products available that are both utilitarian enough or cheap enough to convince people to switch from more traditionally powered vehicles. Companies building solely electric vehicles are struggling and their customers are few and far between.

For the Swedish government, negotiating with a buyer like this will present a nice, shiny outcome that stimulates industry to some degree and presents a wonderful image. I fear that the reality will be a much duller, however.

I don’t know exactly what this new consortium has in mind, but the high cost of electric vehicles dictates that their future success will depend on development and manufacturing in lower cost countries. I’m 100% confident that the Swedes have the know-how to build great electric cars, but I’m not confident that the cost could be kept to a level that would make those vehicles a success in the marketplace.

I think we’ll look back in 30 years and find that the electrification of the automobile will come from the established players, with a kick in the pants from some well-heeled innovators along the way (who will mostly fall by the wayside, unfortunately).

Saab were developing an electric vehicle right up to the end of 2011. I even got to go for a ride in it and I enjoyed it. I never thought Saab’s near-term future was as a manufacturer of electric vehicles, however. This is technology that Saab would have developed and sold as a halo vehicle, with meagre (if any) profitability included. The hope would have been to gain a foothold in the sector, enjoy trickle-down benefits for regular hybrid vehicles and enjoy a reputation boost along the way.

The Swedish government took a political stand when Saab were first earmarked for sale back in 2009, saying that they weren’t going to put taxpayer money into a company if it couldn’t survive on their own. They stuck with that decision all they way, right up to the time when Saab declared bankruptcy. As an aside, I can’t help but wonder if it’s dawned on anyone in Sweden that Saab are only costing the taxpayers real, substantial money now that Saab has folded and all those people have to be supported, re-trained, etc. It would have been far cheaper for the Swedish people to help create conditions for Saab’s survival (as so many other governments have done in the last few years), even if it was less politically palatable.

I believe in Saab’s capacity as a carmaker with a good, solid owner behind them. I believe Saab can start with the 9-3 replacement that was already under development and build a solid range of vehicles from that base. I believe they can innovate and add electrification to a solid base of consumer vehicles and do it well.

I don’t know what stance the Swedish government will take in this instance, but I don’t believe in pipe-dreams, which is what I think this electrical venture could turn out to be.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see the details.

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29 Comments

  1. There’s one guy in our town driving around in a Volt.
    It’s *ahem* unique looking. But I can’t believe he’s getting a lot of bang for the $40+k he dropped on the thing.

    I don’t know though, a small part of me thinks that maybe, just maybe, if a strong backer could hold a reborn, electric only Saab steady through what would be a really rough few years, Saab could actually be a true pioneer for the next generation of electric cars. The name still has the vague credibility and aura of an automotive pioneer.

    Who knows, maybe they could break this thing wide-open.

    1. It’s a nice thought, Lonnie. One that I like myself. But how? What could Saab bring to the table in a cost-effective manner that others aren’t doing already?

      I’m up for it if there’s a solution, but looking at the market and the reality of the infrastructure surrounding electric vehicles, I just don’t see it.

      1. I agree Steven, it’s a long shot.
        It would be a long road and probably have to be mostly accomplished on a domestic level in Sweden and in the smaller countries of Europe, where the power grid is substantially modern and not spread out—which takes the good ole’ USA out of the picture for a while.

        So there goes Saab’s biggest market.

        Besides, if the USA ever goes full tilt on some sort of alternative to petroleum, and the infrastructure to support it, it would most likely be a move towards natural gas. (Heck, The Netherlands did it years ago with Autogas, because the economies of scale worked there and Groningen sits on a giant gas bubble.) We don’t ever do anything all the way anymore—we’re too mushy and risk-averse now. There will be no electric car revolution in the USA short of a major breakthrough in small-scale room temperature fusion.

        In other words, never.

        Reading more of the responses below, I think a heavily subsidized domestic, or limited European distribution is the only hope an electric Saab would ever have.

        And it’s a small one.

  2. Swade’s on the money here. I work for the world’s largest battery manufacturer, and even we are not too bullish on the future of electric cars. The truth is that electric cars simply don’t make a lot of sense — the physics don’t work for many.

    Electric cars will still need a battery or fuel cell technology breakthrough to become mainstream, and until that happens it will be tough to make a buck with them.

  3. Well, I guess my issue is that too many people seem to be thinking that some vehicular panacea exists. Truth is (as I see it, at least), that there’s a place for full electrics, hybrids, small diesels and even gasoline cars in the future. The challenge is helping buyers to understand what’s best for their needs.

    Look at Iceland, for example. They are 100% reliant on imports for their petrol and diesel, yet produce 100% of their electricity from geothermal. On the face of it, they’re an ideal (albeit small) market for electrics. If you’re only talking about Reykjavik, that’s true, but the rest of the country is sparsely populated and winter temperatures are cold enough to make batteries unreliable. For them, a mix of full electrics and, possibly, plug in hybrids, plus a few diesels, makes sense.

    Norway, on the other hand, has plenty of oil and gas. Their problem is thir electrical grid. It’s inefficient and the delivered cost is high. For them, electrics and plug in hybrids are a terrible choice.

    Then, look at New Zealand. They have a decent electrical grid, powered by a mix of geothermal and domestic natural gas. They don’t have indigenous oil, so petrol and diesel rely on imported feedstocks. For them, a mix of electrics and CNG might make the most sense.

    What I’m saying is that anytime we paint an idea with the “that’s dumb” brush, we’re rely saying we can’t fathom that there’s not one easy answer to our challenges.

    That said, I’m inclined to believe that ad hoc efforts from new companies like Fisker, Tesla and, perhaps, a reborn Saab, aren’t likely to provide the marketing needed to explain this future to consumers and governments.

  4. Even though it’s an expensive proposition ($100,000+) I do believe the principle behind the Fisker Karma is currently the best hybrid solution. Use the petrol engine as a generator for the electric motor while also incorporating regenerative braking. This method greatly extends the driving range.

    1. Clearly, a plug-in hybrid is the first step (also the Volt/Ampera is such a hybrid), but looking at the numbers from Wikipedia, I tend to believe that the Karma’s all-electric range, when _I_ would drive it, would be around 10-15 km. That would mean that I had to use the combustion engine on a daily basis.

  5. Saab’s immediate future – should it have one – should be Biopower and Biopower Hybrid vehicles. Ethanol compatibility is a no-brainer, and should be standard on all petrol engines. The extra cost required to make a modern car ethanol compatible is moot on a premium vehicle (about US$100). Saabs have long featured sophisticated engine management systems; adding a ‘fuel sniffer’ and an an extra map/algorithm to cope with E85 and E100 is hardly rocket science. Having a single specification for all markets regarding the availability of Ethanol-blend fuels would simplify inventory as well as act as a powerful marketing point for the marquee. One of clean, green, sustainable and future-thinking – exactly what Saab should be. Ethanol’s natural compatibility with turbocharging is a perfect fit for Saab too, and would allow the company to spruik impressive power figures from small, efficient engines.

    Biodiesel is more complicated, particularly given how sensitive CRI diesel engines are to fuel quality, but compatibility with whatever reliable standards for biodiesel-blend fuels that exist would be a wise and forward-thinking step.

    Likewise, the option of a plugin Hybrid powertrain should be available on every model designation. The 9-3 Convertible Biopower Hybrid was, in my opinion, the car Saab should have been making the past few years. For most markets, plugin hybrid electric power is the most logical and realistic option for the next decade or more. Great for urban commuters, but with the range that people still want and expect from their car. Saab’s pseudo-AWD electric drive system could also give the market segment a genuinely premium and sporty driving experience that you certainly don’t get from a Prius.

    As far as electric-only vehicles go, Saab’s best short-term option would be a 9-1 variant, specified to suit those markets that provide attractive incentives to such vehicles to lower the drive-away price. Leasing the battery units, rather than outright ownership, seems to be an increasingly common method of reducing the entry price for electric vehicles. Perhaps offering different battery size options – with corresponding ranges – could further improve the pricing situation. Dedicated urban users would realistically only need ~100km @ 60kph av. per day ranges and thus could specify a smaller and cheaper battery unit. Those needing extended ranges could specify a correspondingly larger and more expensive battery.

    As Swade rightly pointed out though, such a model would only be a ‘halo’ or ‘look how environmentally progressive we are’ type venture and one unlikely to make significant profit in the short term. Certainly for the newly relaunched Saab, first priority would be making sales of regular vehicles and in particular, the new 9-4, 9-3 and 9-1.

    Eventually we’ll see battery electric technology advance to the point where it becomes a mainstream market, but I imagine it will require a revolution in battery technology – away from lithium – before it happens.

    1. “Eventually we’ll see battery electric technology advance to the point where it becomes a mainstream market, but I imagine it will require a revolution in battery technology – away from lithium – before it happens.”

      Given the intensity of related research the past 30 years or so, and the miniscule improvements we’ve seen… I must say I have lost faith in this area. Isn’t the chemistry involved pretty well known and understood by now?

      So far, each “improvement” has carried with it its own set of trade-offs. (e.g. exploding packs of LiIon or the crystallization problems of NiMH)

      DavidGMills recently got me hooked (again) on Thorium. How about massively ramping up production of electricity, and then use some of that power to help irrigate e.g. the sahara dessert? Could that work? Eventually we could use that biomass to produce ethanol. Now… If only there were cars that could run on Ethanol (with a little drop of gasoline in the mix)…

      1. So the plan would be to generate electricity to pump water to the Sahara or another desert area. Then use labour and energy to grow, harvest and process the biomass. Then ship it all over the world

        The future is, as posted above, plug in EVs with onboard generation.

        1. It is my understanding that Sahara was less of a desert a few thousand years ago.

          Getting water into that area could mean more agriculture and perhaps some forrest. Getting people there to grow their own fuel would benefit the entire continent.

          Rather than stripmine big regions of land to get at the minerals necessary for producing batteries, we could instead harvest fuel from land that used to be a desert. The big oil pipes built proves that water can reach pretty far. What is needed is drilling for water (plenty of underground reservoirs on that continent) or desalination plants.

          In any case (silly batteries or expanded agriculture): more power generation is needed. Which means resorting to thorium.

          1. No issue with Thorium, wind, solar, gas, shale gas or frankly anything else use to generate electricity. It keeps the lights on. I do hate waste though as my kids could tell you.
            My issue is with how that energy is transferred. I suspect if biomass was grown in this way, the farmer would sell the raw material to a processor in the west (or east) who will make a tidy profit in adding value. The farmer will be at the mercy of the market.

            In your model we expend energy growing, harvesting and transporting the crop. Then we expend more energy processing that crop into fuel. Then we store it. Then it is shipped and hopefully then used to fuel cars.

            Would it not make sense to put the thorium reactor into the grid and then the energy straight into the car?

          2. Granted, the radioactive waste produced by thorium reactors is miniscule compared to traditional nuclear reactors (assuming they get the thing working), but it is still there. I am comfortable around nuclear reactors, but I am not quite sure I’d let one of my neighbours play with such technology. (bad enough they are let loose on ICEs and/or batteries)

            Energy is going to have to be transmitted one way or another. The beauty of ethanol is that your tank will be filled in a matter of minutes (around three, including the time it takes to swipe your credit card?), not hours (around four hours assuming a three phased charging station).

            Pouring vast amounts of energy into the desert is total madness, but: It lets more people farm the land. And by letting them grow fuel, you will open up a whole new market for them. Part of the problem today is that the price of food is too low for low-tech third world farmers to make any meaningful profit. I suspect turning the Sahara into a lush jungle might help cool down our planet a tad as well.

          3. Rune, I sincerely hope you are not suggesting that nuclear power is a fine idea as long as it is well away from you in Africa, but I don’t think that’s what you mean. I am all for local power generation but not each house setting up a reactor.

            I take your point about filling up but (you knew there would be a but 🙂 )think about the time to drive to fill up, then to actually fill up (it might be 3 mins but it sure feels a lot longer in winter), then queue to pay then to drive home. I know you will argue you fill up on the way but that rarely happens in real life.

            Now take charging a car, lets use my wife as an example. She hates filling up as do most of us. Presently she does 600 miles a month into and out of Belfast mostly – 16 mile round trip. Then the odd trip to her mothers, a 90 mile round trip plus other running about. At this usage she could charge up once a week. In reality she would plug the car in at home (taking seconds) every night just as she does with her mobile phone. Ok the car is charging over 3-4 hours (remember the battery has not drained) but she is at home having a glass of wine and watching True Blood with me. The car would not need to be recharged for visiting her mother but in reality as she lives 45 miles away its never a visit of less than 4 hours. The average driver here in the UK does 10000 miles per year. Even assuming the car is off the road for 4 weeks per year for hoildays and NEVER driven at weekends that works out at 48 miles per day.

            Now I admire your faith in humanity that farming for fuel will help third world farmers but I work with farmers daily and the profit to be had is in adding value or having big farms. Neither of which will reduce poverty locally. Processing will occur in a a big plant with minimal staff more likely than not in europe or the US or China. Multinationals will buy the land and the farmers will be employed and again its not a labour intensive business.

          4. What I said is that I was not comfortable putting nuclear reactors inside the cars themselves. That doesn’t imply I would mind living in the same county as a nuclear reactor. (much rather that than a coal-powered plant)

            As for refueling, I actually do fill up on the way. I have to. I have a 360 km commute to my office. It strikes me as odd to not swing by a gas station while on the way to somewhere. I have rarely jumped in the car for the sole purpose of visiting a gas station. There is always one on the way. Exceptions includes going to the car wash which happens to be part of the gas station. But then the pump is still on the way to someplace else.

            Wasn’t it oxfam that reported the happy news that an increase in food prices helped third-world farmers?

            Their problems isn’t only in the scale of economics. As I understand it, the immediate threat is subsidized farming in the EU. There are almost no milk farmers left in the third-world because the EU is subsidizing milk farmers in Europe. The result is cheap condensed milk exported at low-low prices.

            But bottom line is still that EVs are nice secondary vehicles. If the price is right. And currently… Well. A factory specializing in the production of EVs just does not strike me as a well thought out business proposition.

            The ePower Saab as an addition to the existing Saab lineup: Brilliant.
            The ePower Saab as the sole product: Not brilliant.

        2. According to my calculations, the area of the Sahara will not be large enough to produce enough agro fuels. Assuming a middle European efficiency, (four litres of initial ethanol required for one litre to end up in a tank, about 2000-4000 lite per hectar, iirc), 80 % off Earth’s land mass will be required. Agro fuels are not a universal solution, if anything at all.

          1. So supply with fuel made from algae and various waste products from farming and forrestry. No biggie. As I keep telling you, there’s not going to be one single solution to replacing oil.

            Either way, it does not really matter, first you have to solve the problem of increased energy production.

            Once you have the thorium reactors up and humming, _then_ you can look into producing Hydrogen, charge batteries or figure out how to irrigate the Sahara.

            In the mean time, ICEs FTW.

      2. The good news here appears to be that at least theoretically, there are electrochemical reactions that could have a sufficient energy density (about tenfold of today’s batteries) for being mounted on cars. The question is if and how to implement those in a cheap and easy to manufacture product. And this is a huge challenge. E.g., how to produce millions of tons on nano wires (if that happens to turn out promising), or how to prevent moisture from reaching an electrode that works on ambient air. Etc.

        1. Rune, made calculations ? 😉

          You won’t convince me with “keeping telling me” without facts. “Waste” (for a biologist like myself, there is no such thing as biological waste) or algae are not convincing. If there is not enough space to systematically grow the plants required, there certainly is not enough “waste” as a byproduct of whatever. This approach will kill our planet. Incidently, the next resources to be depleted will then be fertilizers, as phosphate and potash will also run out.

          However, I fully concur with you that more electric energy is crucial. It will even be more energy effcient to use areas like the Sahara for solar cells, then to try and grow crop there. Just in case Thorium would not cut it, or hydrogen fusion will remain to be 50 yeears from practical use.

          Incidently, it is very interesting to recognise that there are many approaches from scientists/start-ups into agro fuels, or other energy sources, but what is dramatically missing from those scientists, or from anybody at all, is complete calculations that would show the feasibility of some kind of energy production on a global scale. Never forget: The task will be to replace about 5.1 billion cubic metres (737 l per person) of mineral oil per year, and 6 billion tons of coal.

  6. Swade it depends on what they are going to do. The Volt is a flop because GM thought they could build a better Prius and then sell it as an eco car.

    It should have been sold as the EV that never needs to be fuelled for about 80% of the population. Just think never having fill the car up again on a cold, wet, dark winters night.

    Just maybe this consortium will develop something that truly breaks new ground – if I had been told in 2000 that I would have one device that could work as a phone, camera, pc, satnav, jukebox, playstation, book etc. I would have said dream on.

  7. I’m all for electric cars. The 9-3 ePower is a good example of what an electric car should look like… Like a car and not a spaceship or the more common look of a Donald Duck car.
    If you Swedes want to see a real live ePower then go to Uppsala and the offices of Electroengine. They own a white one.

    No Saab would go belly up in no time if they only manufacture EV’s. What I could live with is One all Electric Halo car and all the others being Hybrids. Diesel and E85 Hybrids, maybe even a Gas Hybrid. A good selection of high Kw electric motors, large and small displacement turbo engines, FWD and electric AWD.
    A Hybrid Aero with a 2,0 litre I-4 producing 260+ hp and on tap an extra 80 Hp from electric motors on all four wheels. Plug in ofcourse. (Oh sounds a bit like the BioPower Hybrid Cabriolet from 2006 doesn’t it? 😉 )

    But yeah Mahindra or Youngman is the way for Saab to make a profit. Of the parties we know of that is.

    Cheers/Tom

  8. Walter Kern made an electric Sonnett , I drove it at a convention called ” Out of the Woods ” . what a great car and man. This was in 1992 mabey, I lose track of time . We must change, fossel fuel is going to be gone soon .His issue was the same as today weight , and heat loss . a gas power car etc. is a big heat loss too 1/3 loss to the cooling system , 1/3 out the tail pipe and you get to use 1/3 to drive the car , then you stop and get to do it all again . Some day and that day is soon we must find another way to fuel cars ( Trucks buses , planes etc.) . There is so much to say on this that I just cat type enough to explain how I feel , but it does have to change . I love auto’s and personal transportation and dont belive in giving that up , as a mechanic I see auto’s as an art , but we must change fuel , I belive in Hydrogen / Oxygen, 7 time the energy of hydrogen alone , but no matter what I belive in for fuel the time to change is here, in 50 years what will our fuel be is my question ,not if we can find more oil . Just my thought . But till SAAB is back I’ll build my own SAAB’s and work on better fuel milage and horsepower from a smaller unit . I dont have much time left I’m 60 now time for a lil less work and a bit more time for all the cars I want to build . I’ll not supress the ideas of the young they have a longer future than I . Thanks all

  9. Ok well I think we can agree that nuclear reactors in cars is not a good idea.
    Now you do a 360km journey to work that journey granted. The most recent statistics I have for the UK are an average of 10 miles to work with even rural dwellers taking 11 miles. Maybe your county is different but GM found the figures to be similar for the US.
    Most people fill up when they have to and usually its a last minute affair.

    Certainly we here in NI are doing quite well out of powdered milk exports, but that is a separate issue with third world farmers getting a slice of the bio fuel action.

    As for EVs being a secondary vehicle, maybe for you. For the rest of the world they will make their own minds up. We would likely be an EV and Range extender for my family (purely becuse I do so many miles). My mother in law and my mother probably pure EV. My sisters family, pure EV, my neighbours 90% EV based on how they use their cars.

    Just because an EV does not work for you does not mean its a bad idea. Would a factory making music players that only played digital music have made sense 10 years ago. The last HiFi I bought played CDs, Cassettes and Vinyl records. Guess what my next HiFi will play? That right I don’t have one. Play my music though my Ipod and home cinema.

  10. Considering all information I received in recent years, I think that the more promising first step into true electrical cars might really be fuel cells driven by pressurized hydrogen (700 bar). I had already written off this technology, but as it seems, Mercedes solved some of the problems associated with the durability of the cells (membran intoxication etc) and high pressure tanks.

    Efficiency is worse than with batteries (electrolyze water, compress hydrogen, transport, new infrastructure), but as there are no batteries at the moment, there pretty much does not seem to be an alternative.

  11. Yep, yep and …yep.
    And… Nup. SAAB are so very nearly extinct now that this is surely going to finish it off properly.
    But that is what SweGov wanted all along, didn’t they…

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