Back in the 1990s all of the electric vehicles except one were powered by DC brushless drives. Today, all the hybrids are powered by DC brushless drives, with no exceptions. The only notable uses of induction drives have been the General Motors EV-1; the AC Propulsion vehicles, including the tzero; and the Tesla Roadster.
Both DC brushless and induction drives use motors having similar stators. Both drives use 3-phase modulating inverters. The only differences are the rotors and the inverter controls. And with digital controllers, the only control differences are with control code. (DC brushless drives require an absolute position sensor, while induction drives require only a speed sensor; these differences are relatively small.)
One of the main differences is that much less rotor heat is generated with the DC brushless drive. Rotor cooling is easier and peak point efficiency is generally higher for this drive. The DC brushless drive can also operate at unity power factor, whereas the best power factor for the induction drive is about 85 percent. This means that the peak point energy efficiency for a DC brushless drive will typically be a few percentage points higher than for an induction drive.
In an ideal brushless drive, the strength of the magnetic field produced by the permanent magnets would be adjustable. When maximum torque is required, especially at low speeds, the magnetic field strength (B) should be maximum – so that inverter and motor currents are maintained at their lowest possible values. This minimizes the I² R (current² resistance) losses and thereby optimizes efficiency. Likewise, when torque levels are low, the B field should be reduced such that eddy and hysteresis losses due to B are also reduced. Ideally, B should be adjusted such that the sum of the eddy, hysteresis, and I² losses is minimized. Unfortunately, there is no easy way of changing B with permanent magnets.
In contrast, induction machines have no magnets and B fields are “adjustable,” since B is proportionate to V/f (voltage to frequency). This means that at light loads the inverter can reduce voltage such that magnetic losses are reduced and efficiency is maximized. Thus, the induction machine when operated with a smart inverter has an advantage over a DC brushless machine – magnetic and conduction losses can be traded such that efficiency is optimized. This advantage becomes increasingly important as performance is increased. With DC brushless, as machine size grows, the magnetic losses increase proportionately and part load efficiency drops. With induction, as machine size grows, losses do not necessarily grow. Thus, induction drives may be the favored approach where high-performance is desired; peak efficiency will be a little less than with DC brushless, but average efficiency may actually be better.
Permanent magnets are expensive – something like $50 per kilogram. Permanent magnet (PM) rotors are also difficult to handle due to very large forces that come into play when anything ferromagnetic gets close to them. This means that induction motors will likely retain a cost advantage over PM machines. Also, due to the field weakening capabilities of induction machines, inverter ratings and costs appear to be lower, especially for high performance drives. Since spinning induction machines produce little or no voltage when de-excited, they are easier to protect.
I almost forgot: Induction machines are more difficult to control. The control laws are more complex and difficult to understand. Achieving stability over the entire torque-speed range and over temperature is more difficult with induction than with DC brushless. This means added development costs, but likely little or no recurring costs.