Why the Car of the Future Will Be Powered by … Gasoline

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The consensus among auto insiders is that hybrid cars that run on battery and gas have a much brighter future than vehicles powered by electricity alone. And hotter still in the decade or so ahead? Cars that just use plain old gas.

The advisory company KPMG surveyed 200 car industry executives from around the world, including 22 in North America, and compiled the findings in the latest edition of an annual report revealing where auto insiders think the industry is going.

The results show that few anticipate a major impact in the near future from purely battery-powered plug-in vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf and Honda Fit EV. “Just one in 10 of all survey participants think that battery electrified vehicles will be the next big thing,” the report states. On the other hand, 85% of those surveyed said that downsizing and innovating the traditional gas-powered internal combustion engine offers automakers the best chance of boosting fuel efficiency and lowering vehicle emissions.

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What’s more, “in the 12 months since the last KPMG automotive survey, the optimism over electric cars has dampened considerably among automakers,” the report states. When asked about which electric vehicle technology would attract the most customer attention over the next 5 to 15 years, 16% pointed to battery-powered plug-ins in the 2012 study, compared to 11% this year.

At the same time, enthusiasm for plug-in hybrids such as the Chevy Volt—powered by electricity and, whenever the need arises, gasoline—is on the rise. In last year’s survey, 21% indicated that this breed of vehicle would draw the most attention from drivers in the near future. For the 2013 survey, the figure jumped to 36%.

It’s no mystery why many are falling out of love with the near-term promise of cars that run solely on electricity. The hefty sticky price of gas-electric hybrids have hurt sales, yet cars powered strictly by battery have faced a steeper uphill battle to attract buyers not only because of high initial prices but their limited driving range as well. In a nutshell, this is why Nissan Leaf sales have shrunk this year, while the Volt, with its 500+-mile driving range, has fared better.

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Things have gotten to the point that automotive writers who dreamed for decades about the possibility of electric cars are now admitting that the “honeymoon is over.” That’s how Drew Winter from Wards Auto put it. Sitting behind the wheel of the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf for the first time were “among my most memorable in more than 30 years of automotive journalism,” Winter wrote. And yet, in terms of purely battery-powered cars:

Their shortcomings are impossible to ignore. The electric-only ranges are too short and the charging routine is annoying.

I tried to tell myself we should not judge vehicles by the size of their battery or “fuel tank.”

But if we evaluated a gasoline car with a tank that held only two gallons, took 3 to 20 hours to refill, and had an unreliable fuel gauge, it would be savaged.

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Nissan recently announced it would soon be selling a cheaper version of the Leaf, made in the U.S. no less. It’s supposed to have a longer driving range as well, which the Leaf desperately needs. The current model has a 73-mile range. For the Leaf to transcend it status as a niche product and attract consumers in the mainstream, that figure will need to be doubled, or perhaps tripled, while the sticker price must shrink or at least stay flat. It would help the cause if gas prices rose too.