When CES 2017 opens in Las Vegas next month, it may feature the introduction of a fully electric version of the new Chrysler Pacifica minivan. The plug-in hybrid version is already in production and should be in dealer showrooms soon. Car makers usually reveal their latest models at the Detroit auto show that takes place later in January, but as cars become more like rolling computers with high tech features such as autonomous driving systems and electric drivetrains, many manufacturers have decided to focus on CES rather than the more traditional auto show circuit.
There are no details about the electric Pacifica that will be at CES available at this time. All the questions potential buyers might have such as battery size, range, charging time, and price will have to wait until next year to be answered. There is also no guarantee that the electric minivan will ever actually see production, particularly as the incoming Trump administration seems determined to gut the EPA. Fuel economy standards may be lowered significantly as a result and could even disappear altogether.
The shifting political landscape may delay or even eliminate investment in cars like the electric Pacifica, which is sold almost exclusively in North America. The mood among top car company executives is decidedly hostile toward alternative fuel vehicles because they typically have lower profit margins than traditional vehicles. In some cases, they may actually lose money. There are reports that Chevrolet will take a loss on each Chevy Bolt it sells, although that claim may fall into the “figures lie and liars figure” category.
Ford CEO Mark Fields was in a particularly grumpy mood last week as he declared that people aren’t interested in cars with batteries, even while 10% of Ford Fusion sales today are plug-in hybrids. BMW executives are also downbeat about the market for electric cars. Unlike the US, where the climate deniers are now in full control of the ship of state, companies that want to sell cars in Europe still have to meet aggressive emissions standards and can’t do that without at least some help from hybrid and plug-in hybrid powertrains.
“A key theme for 2017 will be the increased availability of battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles,” Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Michael Dean said. “This provides a dilemma for automakers as they sacrifice traditional cash-cow internal combustion engine sales for expensive and lower margin electric cars, necessary to meet onerous new emissions legislation.” Emphasis on “onerous.”
The wild card in the game is autonomous driving technology. Although many Gas2 readers claim they couldn’t care less about cars that drive themselves, everyone in the automobile business seems convinced they are the wave of the future and the people will clamor for them when they become available. The truth is that self driving technology makes a lot more sense in electric cars than it does in conventional cars because it is easier to control an electric motor digitally than it is an internal combustion engine coupled to a transmission. In the end, autonomy may be what drives the market for electric cars forward, not government regulation.
Chrysler and Google are already partnering to develop self driving vehicles using the plug-in hybrid Pacifica as the starting platform. Chrysler will supply Google with 100 Pacifica Hybrids to be converted to autonomous mode.