The great electric car race of 2010

This year, more automakers will roll out electric cars to American roadways.

By , / Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

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    Nissan, Chevrolet, and many other automakers are racing it get their electric cars to market.
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For Jason Hendler and more than 50,000 others who put their names on an Internet "want list" in hopes of one day owning the Chevrolet Volt plug-in car, the wait is almost over.

After more than two years of online debating, wailing, and waiting with each other, Mr. Hendler and his fellow Volt-ophiles could actually have the long-promised hybrid electric-drive vehicle sitting in their driveways this fall – at least in theory.

It may be a long shot to actually get one, he acknowledges, at least this year. Only 7,000 to 10,000 Volts are supposed to be made available this fall. Just a few thousand more competing electric-drive cars will be available for sale this year – such as the Nissan Leaf, BYD e6, and Fisker Karma.

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Yet for Hendler and the nation, 2010 is when the rubber hits the road and the electrified next generation of vehicles gets a reality check. Real buyers will be kicking real tires, forking over a slice of their life savings, and gliding off dealer lots in glorious all-electric silence.

"These are not tiny electric 'punishment' cars," Hendler says in an interview. "They're tangible, real cars that people would really want to buy. Until now electric vehicles have been more like a golf cart. Now they have range and highway speed and performance we've never seen before."

Expert watchers of the plug-in phenomenon concur.

"By the end of this year we will see the first few models on honest-to-goodness American driveways and roadways," says Bradley Berman, editor of Hybridcars.com. "This is the last year that it's a lot more talk than actual product in the marketplace."

By November, and perhaps as soon as September, the Chevy Volt – an electric passenger car that goes 40 miles on a charge before a range-extending gas engine kicks in – will appear in dealer showrooms. It may also cost less than the $40,000 many had expected, General Motors officials hinted at the Detroit Auto Show earlier this month. But it will be available only in California and Michigan and maybe a few other locations.

The Nissan Leaf, an electric-drive all-battery-powered vehicle, will go up to 100 miles before needing overnight recharging. About 5,000 to 10,000 Leafs will be available by December, Nissan says.

The Leaf will debut in Washington State, Oregon, California, Arizona, and Tennessee, where it is being manufactured, according to Plug In America, an advocacy group that tracks vehicle development.

Leaf waiting lists have sprouted at a few dealers. Although the price has not been announced, it is expected to be well under $30,000 – perhaps in the $27,000 range, one dealer suggests. A final price is expected this spring.

"We've got about 30 names on our list already," says Jim Bone, sales manager at Nissan of Santa Rosa, Calif., one of the first dealers to offer a wait list. "In June we'll ask for a deposit, probably about $1,000."

With several competitors waiting in the wings, plug-ins were the focus of this year's Detroit Auto Show. Twenty vehicles lined the convention's "Electric Avenue," where promoters hyped watts instead of gallons.

The $87,000 Fisker Karma, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), is a 150-mile-per-hour sports car. It already has a backlog of hundreds of orders; production is expected to begin this spring or summer. Forecasts suggest sales of up to 15,000 next year.

German automaker Daimler has said it hopes to sell its Smart ED, an all-electric battery-powered vehicle later in the year. So does BYD Auto, a Chinese entrant that plans to begin selling its four-door passenger e6 all-electric vehicle, reports Plug In America. Coda Automotive intends to join the crowd selling a Chinese-made passenger car initially in California.

"It will really be 2011 before the rest of the country starts seeing these and many other types of electric-drive vehicles," concedes Paul Scott, vice president of Plug In America in California. "But this is a major first step."

Conspicuous by its absence in this year's plug-in race is Toyota, whose Prius hybrid leads the green-driving trend – at least until the Chevy Volt arrives. The giant Japanese carmaker promises to sell an "affordable" plug-in Prius in 2011 that can travel about 14 miles on a charge before a gas motor kicks in. It will sell for less than $33,700, a Toyota official said last month.

Despite Toyota's absence, Mr. Scott says this year will be the first chance to see what it's really like: plugging a car in at night and gliding off to work in the morning using little or no gasoline for weeks or months. It's a reality shift that's already sending chills up the spines of greenies and neocons alike – the prospect of saving the environment and cutting oil imports, too.

With the US importing 4 million barrels of oil a day – about 1.5 billion a year – from "dangerous or unstable" nations in 2008, the liberal Center for American Progress calls oil dependence "a dangerous habit."

It's an expensive one, too. About $150 billion flows annually to 10 nations on the State Department's "warning list," including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria, the center says in a recent report.

But even if plug-in and all-electric vehicles can get the equivalent of hundreds of miles per gallon, fans concede that it may be a decade or more before enough new plug-in vehicles are sold to make a significant difference in curbing oil imports or carbon emissions, according to CalCars, a plug-in advocacy group. That's why the group favors retrofitting existing cars with electric-drive engines.

Battery and fuel costs will determine if plug-ins shoot ahead or stall out. Today these two factors give plug-ins a relatively high "Total Cost of Ownership" (TCO) compared with a conventional vehicle. The advanced lithium-ion battery packs are still costly, and until they fall significantly or the cost of gasoline jumps – the TCO for plug-ins will not compare favorably with conventional cars.

A dour National Research Council report recently poured cold water over the notion that plug-in vehicles will make much difference on oil use or the environment before 2030 at the earliest.

Some, however, contend the report was biased against plug-ins by its panel of authors, some former oil industry executives.

Yet others have reached similar conclusions. Even if battery-manufacturing costs fall 60 percent from around $700 per kilowatt hour (kWh) today to around $440 by 2020, plug-ins might only grow to become 3 to 5 percent of the US fleet – about 13 million of the nation's 250 million cars, according to a recent Boston Consulting Group study. But some say that, too, is overly pessimistic.

"We've talked to a number of people close to this issue, and they can't believe where these report numbers on the costs of batteries are coming from," says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "It seems to be people who don't know talking to people who don't know." The target of $250 per kWh will be attained "not in this, but in the next generation of batteries."

Some cash comfort will no doubt come from the $7,500 federal tax rebate that will apply to the vehicles with the most battery power – like the Volt and the Leaf.

A visual way to compare vehicle gas use, cost, and emissions is a TCO calculator offered by the Rocky Mountain Institute's "Project Get Ready." It lets you see how a Volt would compare with a Prius, for example. (Check out tinyurl.com/CSMcalc for the online calculator.)

But the price of plug-ins will not doom the movement, says Mr. Berman of Hybridcars.com.

"People buy cars for all kinds of reasons unrelated to their payback," he says. "Nobody questions the payback period on screaming-fast sports cars – or on oversize SUVs with towing capacity. For some reason when it comes to efficiency, the bean counters crawl out of the woodwork."

Nonetheless, if gasoline inches back toward $4 a gallon or higher, pump prices could accelerate electric-car adoption. But few dare to guess where gas prices will wiggle to next.

"If gas hits $4 [a gallon] again, demand will shoot through the roof for these vehicles," says Scott with Plug In America. "We saw it before and people were leaving their guzzlers in droves. They didn't have the option then – but now they will – to leave oil alone entirely."

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