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The great electric car race of 2010

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

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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.

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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 for the online calculator.)

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

"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."