A number of issues must be resolved before electric vehicles can become volume players in the global automotive arena, an engineer from powertrain-specialist FEV Inc. says.

While much attention has been focused on developing a recharging infrastructure and driving down the cost of batteries, there are other areas that largely have gone overlooked, says Joachim Wolschendorf, vice president-vehicle system and drivetrain engineering.

“One of the challenges is the (industry’s) development process and development infrastructure, because now it is really focused on internal-combustion engines,” he says in a recent address at the 2010 SAE World Congress.

“Some of this infrastructure has to be changed,” Wolschendorf says, noting there currently are few electric-motor and battery-test rigs. “We have to deal with a completely different set of facilities, equipment and processes.”

The testing equipment won’t come cheap, he warns. It will be an added expenditure for auto makers, suppliers and other development partners as they ramp-up production of EVs.

But Wolschendorf says some costs will be mitigated by government grants for the development of electrified powertrains. In addition to providing funds to OEMs and suppliers, governments around the world are offering incentives for consumers to purchase EVs, as well.

Such collaboration is unprecedented, Wolschendorf says. “In all major markets of the globe, governments are in agreement and are creating in some cases huge incentives for electric mobility. I think that’s a unique situation.”

With development funds flowing, the next step is to increase the number of EV test fleets, both to gauge consumer acceptance of the new technology and to provide engineers with real-world performance data.

Wolschendorf points to a program launched in Israel by Renault SA and Better Place as an example of the type of projects needed. FEV helped develop the electric powertrain for the test fleet of 11 Renault Lagunas EVs.

“In the last two years, we’ve developed more than two dozen electric vehicles that are running today as demonstration vehicles, which gives us an opportunity for experience and data to compare with conventional, as well as future, vehicles,” Wolschendorf says.

“The question is do the end customers really know what to expect from an electric vehicle? They know it sounds cool and is good for the environment, but are they willing to change some behaviors, like charging each night? We really don’t know.”

Adding to the challenges facing engineers is trying to “unlearn” long-established practices, Wolschendorf says.

One aspect that must be addressed is how to make EVs louder, rather than quieter. With conventional vehicles, many noises heard inside the cabin are masked by the sound from the internal-combustion engine. That isn’t the case with EVs, which only produce about 50 decibels.

“If you consider 50 dBA is essentially whispering noise, suddenly you are dealing with completely new development challenges,” he says. “And as for exterior noise, there are issues (where) engineers (now) have to make a 180-degree turn. Rather than reduce noise, they have to increase noise so pedestrians are not jeopardized.”

Wolschendorf also says the penetration rate of EVs will be slower than many have predicted.

“If we look five years ahead, in 2015, the market penetration will be marginal, less than 1%,” he says. “But in 2020, we already see perhaps 5% market penetration, assuming one of the major costs, batteries, can be contained.”

bpope@wardsauto.com