Arthur Krieger, a retired police officer in Los Angeles, drives a Prius powered by a relatively small nickel metal hydride battery to assist the gasoline engine. The battery needed replacement after nine years on the road. That's when Krieger got a nasty surprise: A new one would cost more than $4,800.
"That cost will wipe out the entire cost savings of having a hybrid in the first place," Krieger said.
The price would be even higher on an all-electric vehicle using the latest chemistry: lithium ion.
Already widely used in cellphones, watches and laptops, those batteries have storage, charging and weight characteristics that make them superior to previous technologies -- with premium prices to match. A replacement battery for a Tesla Roadster costs $30,000, and it can move the car only 200 or so miles before it needs to be recharged. That's a 3 1/2 -hour process on a high-powered charger, 30 hours on regular household current.
Then there is the matter of exactly where to re-juice all those electrics.
Some experts believe that public charging stations will be the best solution, either those put up by state and local governments or, perhaps, private for-profit companies. At present there is almost no such infrastructure. Building a nationwide network would cost tens of billions of dollars.
That means most electric owners will be charging at home initially. Plug-in hybrids, which primarily run on batteries but also have gasoline-powered engines to supplement range and power, can get by on standard household current. They're ready to roll in five or six hours.
All-electric cars, however, can take well over a day to charge unless owners invest thousands of dollars in home electrical upgrades.
That's because a fully electric vehicle calls for a 240-volt, 40-amp circuit, far above the limits of the socket in a typical garage, said Ed Kjaer, director of electric transportation at Southern California Edison.
Another issue, he added, is that "not everyone has access to a garage or other place to plug into," including apartment dwellers or people in urban areas that depend on street parking.
"Plug-in cars are not for everybody at this point," said Kjaer, who expects that infrastructure such as public charging stations will eventually help level the playing field.
A rewarding experience
For those willing (and able) to take the plunge, however, the rewards of owning electrified cars could include the financial kind.
Thanks to a provision in last year's $700-billion Wall Street bailout legislation, buyers of electric or plug-in hybrid cars can qualify for a tax credit of as much as $7,500.
Routine maintenance could be a bargain too. Since these vehicles use simple electric motors rather than complex gasoline or diesel engines, as well as pared-down or in some cases nonexistent transmissions, they are far easier to service than conventional vehicles. There's no oil to change, no radiator to flush.
There are other perks as well. In California, electric vehicles still qualify for special stickers that permit their drivers to travel solo in the state's carpool lanes. The stickers expire in 2011, but lawmakers are considering extending the privilege until 2016. It's unclear whether plug-in hybrids will qualify.
With all the excitement brewing over electric vehicles, it's easy to forget that 98% of the cars sold in America still have traditional drivetrains.
Simply put, the gasoline engine isn't going to disappear overnight. Even the most vociferous boosters of plug-in vehicles admit that the greater range and lower cost of internal combustion-powered cars and trucks mean they'll dominate vehicle sales for at least another decade or two. And for some applications, like hauling a trailer over the Rockies, they may never go away.
But for people like Chelsea Sexton, who drove an EV1 and now advises Silicon Valley firm VantagePoint Venture Partners on electric transportation, the next few years offer a tantalizing glimpse of a future with a lot less internal combustion.
"I really relate to the pure electric experience," said Sexton, who has test-driven the Chevy Volt, due out late next year, and liked it. "If I had a magic wand, we'd have four different configurations of electric cars and plug-ins to choose from tomorrow."
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Drivetrain: Plug-in hybrid
When available: Summer 2010
Range: 50 miles on battery, 300 miles total
The juice: Vying to be the first plug-in hybrid on the market, this luxury sedan will have a top speed of 125 mph. A solar roof will help power the air conditioning and electronics and charge the battery.
When available: Late 2010
Price: between $25,000 and to $33,000
Range: 100 miles
The juice: Although Nissan will start mainly with fleet sales, a few Leafs (Leaves?) will be available to regular drivers before a larger rollout in 2012. Nissan hopes to eventually build this relatively low-cost entrant in Tennessee.