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Electric cars are charging into the marketplace

With the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf available by year's end, shoppers will for the first time be faced with choices that include whether they want a gas-powered car.

November 17, 2010|By Jerry Hirsch and Tiffany Hsu, Los Angeles Times
  • Nissan Motor Co. aims to deliver 20,000 battery-powered Leaf vehicles to U.S. drivers in the first year. The car travels as far as 100 miles on a full charge of its lithium-ion batteries.
Nissan Motor Co. aims to deliver 20,000 battery-powered Leaf vehicles… (Mark Elias / Bloomberg )

Stalled for nearly a century, electric cars are about to move into the fast lane when the first of a new generation of vehicles reaches dealer showrooms next month.

Every major automaker plans some sort of electric or plug-in hybrid offering over the next several years, a wave of competing technologies reminiscent of the beginning of the automobile age.

General Motors Co. this month will start shipping its Chevrolet Volt, which uses a gas engine to generate electricity when the batteries run out. It will be available for sale in December. By year's end, Nissan Motor Co. will launch its Leaf, which is powered only by batteries. Ford will come out with an all-electric version of its Focus compact car next year.

Many of the new generation electric vehicles will be on display at the Los Angeles Auto Show, which opens to the public Friday at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Other alternative-fuel vehicles, such as Honda's hydrogen-powered FCX Clarity, also will be showcased.

"Electric vehicles are finally real and not an R&D project," said Mark Sogomian, a partner at Ernst & Young.

This influx of new-technology cars comes after a century of reliance on gasoline combustion engine vehicles.

More than a century ago, cars ran on all kinds of fuels and strange mechanisms: wind-up cars on giant springs, Peugeots burning something similar to moth balls, and vehicles on steam, electricity and a variety of petroleum products.

Fossil fuels eventually won that race because gasoline was stuffed with energy and was convenient to transport and store.

Still, everyone from garage tinkerers to automakers has toyed with electric cars in recent decades, particularly during times of high gas prices. But they never caught on because battery technology limited the range of the cars and oil prices always receded, making electric cars comparatively too expensive.

Now, improvements in battery technology, pollution concerns and fears of soaring gas prices have given new impetus to alternative-fuel vehicles.

In the coming months, consumers will have to start doing more than just deciding whether they want a sedan or a sport-utility vehicle.

They will have to consider for the first time how they want their new car powered, and that will create new questions: What's less expensive per mile — gasoline or electricity? How far can I go on a charge? How much more will it cost me to purchase a green car?

"The rules are changing and in a way everything is up in the air again just like it was more than 100 years ago," said Leslie Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum.

The eco-friendly profile is enough to persuade Barbara Odza, a graphic designer from West Los Angeles, to make the switch from gasoline to electric. She is buying a black Nissan Leaf for about $20,000 after federal and state tax incentives, and expects to get the car in January.

The cost of the charger and its home installation, along with a portable quick-charger unit for faster powering, could add $3,700 to the price tag. But out-of-pocket costs could actually be more like $1,000 after various government credits and other incentive programs, she estimates.

"I've been waiting for a long time for someone to develop an electric vehicle that an average person can use every day as a commuter car," Odza said. "It's the right direction to go for the environment and the economy."

Driving the Leaf will take more effort than the Volvo C30 she is giving up. When you "get off the freeway there's gasoline available all over the place. You don't have to be as meticulous with the planning as you do with the electric vehicle, where the infrastructure doesn't yet exist."

Rodney Sardena of Cerritos has all sorts of questions and is balking at making the change.

Why pay a premium for an electric vehicle when his 2000 Chevy S-10 truck runs just fine? Will long charging times be an inconvenience? What will replacement batteries cost? Will there be enough public charging stations, and will there be lines?

The massage therapist likes the concept of electric vehicles, but plans to wait a few years while the market sorts itself out and the charging infrastructure develops.

"If you're someone who's used to gassing up at the last moment, who forgets about things like daylight savings, how are you going to remember to keep track of the charging?" he asks. "I'm looking for a car that's good for the environment but also practical and something that makes sense."

Electric car proponents know the issues that give Sardena pause.

Setting up the charging infrastructure for electric car owners is going to take time, said Ed Kjaer, director of electric transportation at Southern California Edison.

"Literally every single customer is going to be different," Kjaer said.

Electrical contractors are partnering with local utilities to install home charging systems, which will need building and safety permits. Older homes might require electrical panel upgrades.

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