The first generation of electric cars is arriving now, and the follow-up already is well under way.

The Renault SA-Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. alliance will be the leader of a small global market in 2017, according to predictions by U.S.-based consultant Strategy Analytics Inc., with Renault planning its second-generation EVs to launch in 2015-2020.

By then, the auto maker says, its business plan will not require government incentives of €5,000 ($6,500) per car because costs will have dropped.

Details and challenges of the next round of EVs and plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles were the subject of discussion at the recent CESA 2010 Congress in Paris sponsored by the French automotive engineering society SIA.

Among the revelations is that one of Renault's future electric cars could have an entirely different shape. A supplier that attended the auto maker's recent tech day says the car company asked to see ideas for putting a smaller electric motor at each wheel, which would open up the interior by freeing the engine bay.

Additionally, Remi Bastien, director of Renault's department of research, advanced engineering and materials, says the auto maker's first-generation Fluence EV sedan can travel 121 miles (195 km) on the New European Driving Cycle of repeated accelerations up to 75 mph (120 km/h).

It also has traveled 113 miles (182 km) in Israel on a single charge, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and back.

Next-generation batteries “will have a longer life and cost less,” Bastien says, noting only 30% of the battery cost is materials, so processing improvements have the potential to greatly reduce costs.

Other areas his engineers are working on include:

  • Making the electric powertrain cost the same or less than an IC engine.
  • On-board energy management and heating the cabin.
  • Optimizing the generation of cars coming in 2015-2020.
  • Connection to the infrastructure.

“The goal is a mass market for electric vehicles, not a niche,” Bastien says, adding the potential global volume for EVs in 2016 is 3 million units and 6 million in 2020.

Few industry observers are thinking in such quantities.

Strategy Analytics believes EVs will hold a mere half percent of the market in 2015, to about 300,000 units. Robert Bosch GmbH anticipates only 640,000 EVs worldwide in 2015. J.D. Power and Associates sees about 500,000 then.

French-supplier Valeo SA predicts a market of 1% battery-electric vehicles in 2020, 2% plug-in hybrids and 3% EVs with range extenders, such as the Chevrolet Volt.

Other auto makers are not as aggressive as Renault-Nissan about developing battery-powered EVs, but are all being forced to follow. “Everybody is afraid to be left out, so everyone is investing,” says Henrik Liebau, project manager for an EV testing device at ETAS GmbH.

If Renault is pulling Western industrial companies along, China is encouraging other nations to invest. The government is spending $15 billion on EV research and infrastructure, says Gilles Furet of the French electric company EDF.

“Volumes in the next three to five years are so small that you cannot talk about success,” Bosch's Roland Ehniss says. “(China is) using all the money now to build their own technology, not subsidize private users. They only do it to learn, learn, learn. We have to keep an eye on that and keep up the pace.”

The key to improving EV range is storing more energy in the battery, engineers say. While they are aiming to double today's efficiency of about 125 kWh/kg by mid-decade, scientists are working on new battery types, such as lithium-air and lithium-sulfur.

Joachim Fetzer of SB LiMotive, a joint venture between Samsung Group and Bosch, predicts his company will see 700 Wh/kg from lithium-air batteries in the 2021-2025 timeframe.

However, it takes 10-15 years from the first idea to mass production, ZF Friedrichshafen AG board-member Wolfgang Runge warns, recalling “15 years ago, there was no field of engineering where people lied more than for batteries. Up to 2020, it will be lithium-ion and nothing new.”

Electric motors are another key component, and again there is no clear solution yet.

Renault will use a 70-kW (9-hp) peak-power classic electric motor with rotor coil and an external exciter to change polarity in its Fluence ZE sedan, supplied by Continental AG. PSA Peugeot Citroen is using a 27-kW (36-hp) motor for its 2012 diesel hybrids, supplied by Bosch, which uses permanent magnets made from rare earths imported from China.

Recharging is another area where technology is developing unevenly.

Renault and Nissan have more than 50 partnerships with countries, cities, regions and others to work on infrastructure and incentives. But among the challenges that remain is an industry debate on recharging that divides Renault and Nissan.

Renault's first EVs will be charged at fast speeds with AC alternating current, while Nissan favors DC direct current. Both approaches require their own plug and socket, charging station and power electronics.

France expects to have 75,000 recharging points in public areas by 2015, of which 15,000 will be for fast-charging. However, 95% of recharging will be done at home or work at 3 kW, says EDF's Furet, and fast charging will account for only 5%. No smart grid is necessary to start, he argues.

Germany's Siemens AG, which builds electric power plants, disagrees. “We think cars should be connected to the grid at high power,” says Gernot Spiegelberg, head of Electromobility.

He foresees a future where clean energy from wind and solar power can be stored in the batteries of thousands of parked EVs, providing more electricity than is needed to be drawn out when demand hits peaks, and that require 20-kW (27-hp) connections, not 3 kW.

PSA, meanwhile, sees stop/start and mild hybrids in the mainstream market in the next decade, with hybrids and plug-ins being all-around solutions and EVs and plug-ins serving specific business cases.

Bosch sees full hybrids and plug-ins as having the best cost-benefit in terms of carbon-dioxide emissions reduction, while Valeo projects today's internal-combustion engines still will command 45% of the market in 2020.

“I remember in 1995 there were many companies predicting fuel-cell use,” says Etienne Bourdon, director-technology at French bus maker Gruau Microbus. “There were predictions that in 2005 20% of cars would be driven with fuel cells. I missed those cars on the street somehow.”

In spite of the challenges and questions about market timing, everyone in the industry knows electrification is coming, says Ian Riches of Strategy Analytics.

“The conventional car faces increased environmental legislation, which adds costs, and fuel costs will continue to rise,” he summarizes. “The electric car is on the downhill slope. Costs can only go down.”