Page last updated at 22:17 GMT, Thursday, 2 October 2008 23:17 UK

Italian car designer unveils electric power

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Paris motor show

Pininfarina's electric car, the B0
Pininfarina has high hopes for its electric car - though it is still a concept vehicle.

Italian contract carmaker and engineering firm Pininfarina has unveiled an own-badged electric car.

For decades, the firm has built some of the most stunning cars known to man, without getting much credit for it beyond petrol-head circles.

"This car is real," declares Paolo Pininfarina, grandson of the company's founder, as the covers are whipped off the sleek vehicle at the Paris motor show.

Pininfarina's electric car, which has been built in partnership with battery producer Bollore, is set to hit the road by the end of next year and should go on sale in the US, Europe and Japan by the end of 2010.

"It's 90% similar to how it will be built", which in turn, he insisted, means it is "the only real electric city car at the motor show".

Dreams and visions

Such claims are debatable, of course, as the Pininfarina model lands firmly into a whirlpool of electric solutions on display.

And there is promise of more to come, with majors such as Daimler and BMW, Toyota and General Motors, making noises about a future where cars are plugged into the mains.

But none of them are here yet.

Carmakers have been competing to make more fuel-efficient cars

Trials are being carried out in Paris, Berlin and London, and executives are making declarations about an electrically powered future.

However, in truth, for the time being, electric cars are essentially about dreams and visions.

Indeed, even Pininfarina's show-model remains a concept car that is still awaiting final modifications before it is presented to a public hungry for plug-in motoring.

Future solution

None of this makes Paolo Pininfarina's electrifying launch any less poignant.

"The credit for this car goes to my brother," he says, urging a willing crowd of journalists and industry figures to applaud the late Andrea Pininfarina's achievements and vision.

Andrea, the company's former chief executive, died late this summer when the scooter he was driving to work was hit by a car.

He had spent the last months of his life hammering out a viable future for the venerable, yet troubled, family firm.

Pininfarina, along with other coach builders, was being deserted by some if its main customers, made up by the world's largest carmakers - in spite of its pretty much unrivalled reputation.

(For example, it was Pininfarina that designed Ferrari's new California convertible, on display at the Paris show).

"This project is fundamental for Pininfarina," says Paolo.

And Global Insight automotive analyst Rebecca Wright agrees.

It is not very likely that you will see any electric car with a range of more than 50 miles in the next five years
Franz-Joseph Paefgen
Chief executive, Bentley

"The trend of vehicle manufacturers taking more niche car production in-house has left coachbuilders and contract manufacturers with declining business and in desperate need of new sources of income," she observes.

Niche market

And there is every chance that electric motoring solutions will provide a lifeline for Pininfarina.

Its electric car will be kitted out with a lithium metal polymer batteries instead of the currently more in vogue lithium-ion batteries.

This, the company insists, will give it "a 200km range on a full eight-hour charge although it will also be able to run for 25km on a five-minute charge", observes Ms Wright.

"Despite competing against industry giants, the coachbuilders - which are tiny in comparison - believe that several factors work in their favour in the race to electric," she continues.

High volume carmakers still consider electric cars as niche and are loath to enter into large-scale production, Ms Wright explains.

Ferrari California
Pininfarina designed Ferrari's new California convertible, on display in Paris.

Plus, electric cars "must be designed completely differently from thermal engine cars, which is where the coachbuilders' expertise lies", she says.

No silver bullet

For the car industry as a whole, however, electric cars offer no silver bullet, according to Bentley's chief executive Franz-Joseph Paefgen.

Sure, solutions must be found to reduce oil dependency, cut emissions and improve efficiency, he acknowledges.

But to push electric cars beyond their rather worthy niche, batteries must be 500% better than they were during the 1990s - the last time electric sockets featured seriously in the electric automotive debate.

Instead, in spite of a string of advances, they still have not exceeded a delivery far beyond 50% more than they did a decade ago and as such are not really viable, he insists.

"We have this hype again," Dr Paefgen cries.

"It is not very likely that you will see any electric car with a range of more than 50 miles in the next five years.

It's not about technology. It's all about cost

Fritz Henderson
Chief operating officer and vice chairman
General Motors

"It is a dream for the happy few," he adds, insisting that much of the current electric wave is driven by marketing people cynically building corporate images on false premises.

Not so, insists Alex Molinaroli, president of Johnson Controls Power Solutions.

"I think the evolution is going to be pretty quick," he says.

Cost or technology

And so the electric motoring debate continues, with an abundance of yay and nay-sayers, so far achieving little more than confusing drivers who want solutions yet remain wary of cons.

Yet, amidst it all a consensus is emerging.

Cars run purely on battery power are unlikely to become mainstream for years to come, mainly because of their cost.

"It's not about technology," insists General Motors' chief operating officer and vice chairman, Fritz Henderson. "Its all about cost."

But petrol-electric hybrid versions that can be charged from the mains for most journeys are arriving quickly, and even Dr Paefgen is full of praise.

So expect niche electric cars to make inroads, and even more plug-in hybrid solutions to hit the road in the years ahead.

And if a plug-in hybrid emerges with a Bentley badge long before they become mainstream, do not be shocked.

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