Midnight Sun: Scandinavia Embraces Electric Cars

By · September 01, 2011

Volvo V60 Plug-In Hybrid

The Volvo V60 plug-in hybrid is headed for the market next year, and the company is hooking up with German giant Siemens on EV technology. (Volvo photo)

There should be an EV in every garage in Stockholm, but turmoil and reorganization at both Volvo and Saab (the former sold by Ford, the latter GM) have put Scandinavian EVs on a slower track than might have otherwise occurred.

Volvo showed an innovative hybrid concept car as early as 1993, but alas never put it into production. Volvo people told me privately that the company might have fielded a hybrid, but the plans were derailed by Ford’s own hybrid Escape in 2004. So Volvo, whose environmental commitment is bedrock to the company, went without an actual green car until an electric version of the C30 hatchback, which will be produced in small volumes starting this year, and a plug-in hybrid version of the V60 station wagon, which is expected to see wide distribution starting in 2012.

Volvo and Siemens: The European A Team

The C30 plans, which always seemed a bit vague, took more concrete form this week, with Volvo announcing a new partnership with German electronics giant Siemens to work together on electric motors (and the software to manage them), inverters and charging components.

According to the Financial Times, Volvo will deliver as many as 200 C30s to Siemens for “internal testing” by the end of next year, so whatever technology the company supplies will presumably not be on early-market C30s.

Siemens has long had a keen interest in the EV market, and supplying Volvo’s electric cars would seem to go well with its plans to become a power in charging. Siemens is supplying both BMW and Renault with charging stations to go with their EV entries.

U.S. plans for the C30 electric are unclear, but Bloomberg quotes Volvo’s head of U.S. operations, Doug Speck, as saying that the company is prioritizing hybrids and battery electrics over diesels here, which means that this is one European company that finally understands the American market.

Volvo was bought by Chinese automaker Geely last year for $1.5 billion, which means any electric cars developed in Europe could also have counterparts in the burgeoning Chinese market, where heavy plug-in subsidies ease the path for EVs. If they’re going to be sold in China, they’d probably have to be made there, too. Export of Chinese-made Volvos to the west would be more problematic (because of China’s auto safety record), but CEO Stefan Jacoby is reportedly toying with the idea.

Volvo's Pioneering ECC

Personally, I think Volvo should take another look at its now-ancient Environmental Concept Car (ECC), which debuted in 1993 and introduced the groundbreaking styling of the S80. The ECC was ahead of its time. Said Volvo’s Sylvia Voegele at the time, “As we studied what consumers want—wish versus reality—we discovered that there were some fabulous pros for the electric car, but there was also a long list of negatives….We felt that this hybrid solution gave us the best of both worlds. It could be a zero-emitting vehicle for inner city driving or for shorter trips. Plus it could be, with a far better extender range, the vehicle you could drive to Las Vegas if you wish.”

The ECC had 55-mile range on batteries, a 76-horsepower electric motor, and a total range of more than 400 miles through its gas turbine/generator. It was ULEV on emissions and a bit slow—23 seconds zero to 60 on battery power. Definitely some elements of the Volt, right? If they’d rushed it into production, Volvo would have been an EV pioneer. The V60 plug-in hybrid, which could be great, is a little late to the game.

Saab ePower

Saab's 9-3 ePower: It's on hold as the company sorts itself out. (Saab photo)

Saab Story

Saab’s story is a bit more problematic. Saab announced that it would field a small fleet of 70 ePower electrics based on the 9-3 SportCombi wagon, and the first of those have been built and successfully tested. The batteries are supplied by U.S.-based Boston Power, headed by the energetic (and Swedish-born) Christina Lampe-Onnerud, whose company also supplies laptop batteries to HP and other companies.

Performance from the 184-horsepower electric motor and 35.5 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack is said to be excellent, with an 8.5-second zero-to-62 mph time, and range well over 100 miles.

But as we all know, Saab is a basket case, hovering on the edge of bankruptcy. It’s barely been able to plug in its electric lights, let alone electric cars. This week, it appeared that Saab was on the verge of getting a $157 million loan from a major European bank, which would enable it to avoid being pushed into court by its many creditors. But the situation remains quite dire, and Saab’s future in the EV business is far from assured.

Here’s an idea: If Saab does succumb, out of the ashes could come a small Coda-sized company that makes only the ePower SportCombi. After all, they’ve already done the major engineering work, and it could keep the Saab flame alive for a new generation.

Think City

Norway's Think was rescued at the last minute--by a Russian timber magnate. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Also unsettled is the future of Norway’s Think, which has a long and colorful history, including repeated trips to bankruptcy court. Think, which has established a beachhead in Indiana that so far has failed to move many somewhat overpriced two-seater Thinks, has now been rescued once again by the Russian timber magnate who was long a power behind its American supplier Ener1 (which also sells to Volvo). Reorganization plans are coming, but Think is still a player.

A Big Play in Iceland

Tiny Iceland may become a player in EVs, too. It has many advantages, especially its huge geothermal reserves that produce electricity at close-to-free prices. Since gasoline is imported into Iceland at crazy prices, an all-electric transportation grid would make a lot of sense. Right now, the country has so much surplus electricity it diverts it into a messy aluminum smelting business.

Unfortunately, Iceland has been plunged into a financial crisis caused by runaway banks since 2008, and car sales of any kind have plunged there. Despite all of that, a brazen startup called Northern Lights Energy (NLE), headed by the flamboyant, Tesla Roadster-driving Gisli Gislason, is determined to put EVs on Iceland’s roads. It has ordered 1,000 EV conversions (Chevrolet Equinoxes and Mercedes ML350s) from U.S.-based AMP Electric Vehicles, and a similar number of Tesla Model S cars.

NLE also claims to have 50 major Icelandic companies signed up to provide charging and in-house EV fleets. The first two cars from AMP have been delivered to Reykjavik, and the Icelandic government is doing its part by removing all significant taxes on EV sales. Electric cars could actually be assembled in Iceland, possibly through existing companies that build ambulances and other specialized vehicles.

On the whole, hardly a smooth picture, but one ripe with possibilities. There definitely are challenges, but I’m looking for a large, world-leading EV role for Scandinavia here—the cars should be pouring out of factories in Sweden, Finland, Norway—maybe even Iceland—on their way to a wider world.

New to EVs? Start here

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