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Electric cars charge ahead

At least nine major car companies promise plug-in vehicles by 2013.

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While the battery debate rages, just knowing that plug-ins are coming has activists celebrating – as they did last month in Santa Monica with a parade of 70 or 80 plug-in vehicles, mostly all-electric vehicles.

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“We accomplished our first goal: We got car makers’ attention and got them to commit to building them,” says Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars, the California Cars Initiative, which was the first to add batteries to a Prius and convert it to a plug-in. That put public pressure on automakers by showing it was doable. Now the group has turned to the next phase.

“We’re focused now on ensuring successful commercialization of these vehicles,” Mr. Kramer says.

Part of that involves creating a smooth landing zone for plug-ins, says Laura Schewel, manager of “Project Get Ready,” a program run by the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo. Ms. Schewel is working with Indianapolis; Portland, Ore.; Raleigh, N.C.; and other cities to prepare new plug-in infrastructure – like putting charging stations in shopping malls.

Even though plug-in hybrids won’t technically need chargers, offering free-electricity to customers could be a strong incentive to stop and shop, Schewel and others say. Such infrastructure also would be key for several all-electric cars planned by Nissan and others.

“Workplace charging is really attractive,” Schewell says. “We are in economic hard times now. But lots of folks believe being part of a green economy is the way to get out of these hard times.”

Still, the cost of new plug-ins remains the big issue. Without financial incentives, Americans are unlikely to buy a $40,000 vehicle in numbers big enough to make much difference to US energy security or climate concerns.

In that light, federal tax breaks for plug-ins are a critical factor. Government economic stimulus provisions for plug-in vehicles turned out to be far larger than many expected – about $14.4 billion for plug-ins – most toward helping car companies retool and develop better batteries, says Jay Friedland, legislative director for Plug-in America, which held the parade.

Under the stimulus, each buyer would get up to $7,500 in tax credits depending on the size of the plug-in vehicle’s battery. California, Oregon, Texas, and other states are coming forward with their own incentives, Mr. Friedland says.

California will offer a $5,000 incentive, he says. Together with the federal offer, the price of a Volt could drop to about $28,000.

Federal incentives will also apply to the first 200,000 vehicles produced by any manufacturer – far broader than the incentive for conventional hybrids that helped hybrids grow to about 2.5 percent of the US vehicle fleet today.

The stimulus incentives could fund sales of 1.6 million vehicles – far more than the million-vehicle goal by 2015 set by President Obama, Friedland says.

Waiting until late 2010 will be hard, though. Some say the reason SUVs and other gas guzzlers are piling up on dealer lots is a “buyers strike.” Car dealers just don’t seem to have what buyers want.

At current gas prices, Kusig’s commuting costs driving a plug-in vehicle are only a little better than a standard hybrid. But if gas prices bounce to $3 a gallon again, a new factory model with bigger batteries that go 100 miles or more on a gallon of gas will be big winners – and Kusig will be lining up to buy.

“I converted my Honda Insight to a plug-in,” he says. “But it’s getting old with 140,000 miles on it. I want a new car – but it has to get better mileage than the 60-70 m.p.g. [average] I get now.”