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Electric vehicles are charging up the automotive industry

A dozen all-electric or plug-in hybrids are expected to hit the market in the next three years. They promise to combine blinding fuel efficiency, radical new technology and futuristic styling.

October 25, 2009|Ken Bensinger

Next time you're filling up the cavernous fuel tank of the gas-gulping family jalopy, imagine getting 230 miles per gallon.

Better yet, how about never buying another gallon of gas?

After years of hope and hype, electron-powered driving finally appears to be on the verge of reality.

In the next three years, at least a dozen pure electric or plug-in hybrid cars are slated to hit the market in the U.S. Electricity-driven vehicles from giants such as General Motors Co. and Nissan Motor Co., as well as start-ups like Fisker Automotive Inc. in Irvine, will provide consumers with a wide variety of choices. These new vehicles promise to combine blinding fuel efficiency, radical new technology and futuristic styling that makes the hybrid Toyota Prius look downright staid.

Battery makers and automakers alike are tooling up factories to produce big volumes of electric vehicles. Meanwhile, power utilities and regulators are scrambling to figure out just how big the market will be.

"This is happening and it's happening soon," said Mark Duvall, director of electric transportation at the Electric Power Research Institute, an independent, nonprofit research group. "By the end of 2011, consumers will have more choices in vehicles they can plug in than they currently do for hybrids."

The electric vehicles will be arriving at a good time. With gasoline prices creeping up once again and federal regulations calling for huge fuel economy gains in the next half-decade, there's increasing demand for cars that burn less fuel, make less noise and push automotive technology forward.

In August, President Obama set a national goal of getting 1 million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015. It took about twice as long to get a million hybrids rolling on U.S. streets and highways.

But any new technology that involves high-voltage, exotic battery chemistries and 3,500-pound objects hurtling forward at high speed is bound to hit some potholes. Early adopters, experts say, will have to contend with charging infrastructure challenges and some pretty long waiting lists.

And did we mention price? Even the least expensive electric or plug-in car will cost more than $25,000, and most will come in closer to twice that.

"There will be some real challenges at first," said Roland Hwang, vehicle policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "These are going to cost more than conventional cars. The infrastructure is not going to take care of itself. These issues will determine whether this is a trickle or a massive flood."

For those willing to take the leap, however, there is plenty to be excited about.

Restarting electrics

Electric cars are hardly new. In fact, a century ago, around the time of the dawn of the automobile, there were as many electric as gasoline-powered cars.

But technological limitations eventually killed those early EVs, and electric cars didn't truly raise their heads again until the late 1990s. That's when a smattering of electrics, including the much-lamented GM EV1, were made available in California as part of a government-mandated test program.

Wildly popular among a select group of enthusiasts, they were officially declared unfeasible and unprofitable by automakers. Today, only a few hundred are still on the road, among them a Toyota RAV4 EV driven by Paul Scott, co-founder of electric vehicle activist group Plug In America.

Nobody was happier than Scott when Tesla Motors Inc., a San Carlos, Calif., automaker, last year began selling its all-electric Roadster, a rocket of a two-seater that noiselessly goes from zero to 60 mph in less than four seconds. True, the Roadster costs $109,000. And it has a waiting list longer than Sunset Boulevard. But to people like Scott, its arrival signaled the coming of a new electric era.

"This time electric cars are here to stay," said Scott, who envisions charging cars using solar power, making them essentially cost-free to operate.

Tesla and other nimble start-ups have helped jump-start the industry. Now big automakers are getting their electric programs in gear. That's no minor development considering the titanic capital costs involved in developing high-volume-production vehicles.

For Ford Motor Co., better batteries were key. Previous technologies were just too heavy and inefficient, said Nancy Gioia, the automaker's director of global electrification. "They weren't ready for mass production," she said.

But in the last couple of years, huge improvements and new battery chemistries "opened the opportunity" for ambitious product plans, she said. Gioia predicts that as many as a quarter of new vehicles sold by 2020 will be electrics, plug-in hybrids or traditional hybrids.

Challenges ahead

Yet even the fiercest electric advocates admit that battery reliability still has room for improvement.

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