Everything about this place seems clean: the straight-line architecture of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry; the brightly outfitted cyclists gliding quietly past in their wide, well-marked bike lane; the gentle, lapping sounds of Willamette River, its murky waters conveniently just out of view.
As if to complete the picture, John R.A. Benson, a self-described garage tinkerer, bends over a free charging station in the museum’s parking lot and connects his orange 1970 Porsche 914, which he converted to electric in 1997. The 120-volt outlet delivers power generated from renewable resources. After he unplugs his car, he steps in, turns the key, steps on the accelerator, and drives off silently into the morning fog.
Is this the future of the automobile? Maybe. With the electricity costing about a penny a mile, and with the total absence of tailpipe emissions, electric cars are slowly gaining among consumers.
Last November, Oregon became the first state to develop standards for a statewide infrastructure of electric-car plug-in stations in terms of performance, safety, and voltage. The stations should be ready for purchase by interested parties, such as cities and private companies, by the end of the year. Nissan, in turn, announced at the Los Angeles Auto Show that Oregon would be the site for the carmaker’s early introduction of its highway-ready electric cars around the same time.
But the question today is identical to the one posed in the late ’90s, when GM tested its EV1 on enthusiastic drivers in California: Will this latest bid for the electric car energize the nation or fizzle out beyond state borders?
Dozens of electric car startups are popping up, boasting futuristic names like the Obvio 828e, Aptera’s Typ-1e, and Myers Motors’ NmG (No More Gas). Even the big names are weighing in, from
Toyota’s plug-in hybrid Prius and Mitsubishi’s MiEV Sport Air to Mercedes Benz’s BlueZERO and GM’s much-touted Volt, whose revolutionary propulsion system will use a super-light lithium-ion battery with a gas-fueled engine to recharge the battery – not propel the car – when the car goes beyond its 40-mile range.
But the electric vehicle, which first appeared in the mid-1800s and outnumbered gas cars until Ford became a household name, faces an uphill battle for mainstream adoption, even if gas prices return to nearly $5 a gallon. The issue is not the motor, it’s the battery.
Like most electric vehicles today, Benson’s Porsche hauls around heavy, lead-acid batteries – 16 of them – that take hours to charge and only get him a 40-mile range. (The Volt’s lithium batteries are lighter but far more expensive.) This limited range is no problem for Benson, who commutes to work 20 miles each way, charging up at work or at home. But range is a major consideration for anyone who wants to drive farther without having to own two cars.
A statewide charging-station infrastructure should help ease the minds of Oregonians who ponder buying electric, says Tim Kutscha, chair of the Oregon Electric Vehicle Association. But realistically, most people will charge up in their driveways overnight. Because charging can take several hours, it will likely be a while before people take road trips in electric vehicles.
Good for errands, but not road trips
Mr. Kutscha, who converted two of his own cars (a Porsche and a Honda Civic), points out that for about 90 percent of people’s daily driving needs, a short range does the job, costs less, and leaves a much smaller carbon footprint.
Kerlin Richter, who bought a three-wheeled Zap car in Salem, Ore., in 2008, charges up in her driveway and says she hasn’t noticed any change in her electric bill. The editor and publisher of Hip Mama magazine, Ms. Richter works from home and uses her electric car to drive to church, the grocery store, the library, and to run errands with her husband and 4-year-old son. Their Honda Civic suffices for road trips. Richter’s husband, who commutes near downtown, can plug in at the science museum, walk four blocks to work, and return to a fully charged car at the end of the workday.
Richter estimates they spent less than $20 to drive their electric car 2,000 miles last year. Still, she says, the car is a glorified golf cart, drafty and not terribly comfortable. Driving it takes planning and the occasional charging up at a friend’s house before returning home. “If there were more charging stations at all these workplaces, or on the street somewhere near your house, and it just became part of the culture, it would be really great,” she says. “But for it to become that, more people have to have electric cars, and the people who do it first have less comfort.”
It’s the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum: The infrastructure has to exist for the demand to rise, but the demand has to be sufficient to justify building the infrastructure. Art James, innovative partnerships project director at the Oregon Department of Transportation, pushed for the infrastructure now because of the promise of highway-ready EVs in the coming years, and also because of what he calls Oregon’s “environmental stewardship.”
“Oregon was the first state in the country to adopt land-use laws,” Mr. James notes. “We were the first state to have a bottle bill. We were the first state in the union to have a beach bill, where we protected all the beaches and made them all public. When you switch to an electric car, you immediately lose your tailpipe emissions, and any carbon impact from generation of electricity is significantly lower, and once we’re on completely renewable electric power, then you have zero emissions. That’s what’s driving this.”
James says that while the state is taking a leadership role now, and that cities and private businesses will have to buy the stations themselves, he expects that eventually there will be enough demand for the private sector to step in and profit from these charging stations.
Highest per-capita hybrid ownership
Portland General Electric, which stands to profit from all the additional electricity used if more EVs hit the road, has built 11 charging stations in the Portland area. Though it charges the station owners (such as the science museum) for the power, PGE buys green power on top of that to offset any additional usage.
“We expect Oregon to be one of the top markets for plug-in vehicles,” says PGE spokeswoman Elaina Medina. “Portland has the highest per-capita of hybrid ownership in the country, and one of the top renewable power programs in the country, so our customers are committed and we’re committed. It’s very exciting.”
For now, PGE’s plug-in stations are used infrequently – in part because there aren’t a lot of EV drivers yet, and most of them recharge at home. Lee Dawson, spokesman at OMSI, says he was so excited to see someone using the station recently that he and a co-worker ran outside to snap a photo.
But where are the customers?
Down the road from the museum’s charging station, the electric car’s future doesn’t look as bright.
Ecomotion, one of the country’s first exclusively electric vehicle showrooms, boasts plenty of three-wheeled Zap vehicles and not a single customer. The shop’s mechanic, who asked to remain anonymous, says they saturated their target market shortly after opening in 2007, and now they get little more than curiosity from people who walk through their doors – even though everyone seems to love the idea, including gas station owners who often let customers plug in their cars at an outdoor outlet for free.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s proposed $5,000 electric-vehicle tax credit, which should be voted on by June, will offset the cost of a new electric vehicle. And electric automakers like Nissan are coming to the right place if they’re looking for early adopters.
But if the combination of high gas prices, climate concerns, a statewide station infrastructure, and a tax credit doesn’t encourage a lot more drivers to go electric, what will?
“You don’t use this to drive to California,” Benson says of his own car and of any electric vehicle. “You use it for everyday driving. That’s what people need to realize. Once they get over that hurdle, then all of those other incentives look even more attractive.”
Who killed the electric car? Henry Ford.
At the turn of the 20th century, electric cars far outnumbered all other types of vehicles. Passengers didn’t have to put up with a gas car’s vibrations, smell, noise, and manual gear shifting, or provide the water and kerosene needed for a shorter-range steam car. Electric vehicles reached their production peak around 1912, and remained reasonably successful until the 1920s, as Henry
Ford’s revolutionary production line slashed the cost of the petrol-powered Model T.
Here’s a brief chronology of electric cars in America:
1830s: Robert Anderson of Scotland invents the first electric vehicle, which is a crudely built carriage. Sibrand Acker Stratingh of the Netherlands also designs a small electric car, which is then built by his assistant, Christopher Becker.
1842: American Thomas Davenport and Scotsmen Robert Davidson are the first to build electric road vehicles using nonrechargeable electric cells.
1865: Frenchmen Gaston Plante invents a better storage battery, which was further improved by Camille Faure in 1881.
1891: Americans A.L. Ryker and William Morrison jump-start the automobile industry with their electric tricycle and six-passenger electric wagon.
1897: The Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia builds an entire fleet of New York City taxis.
1902: The Woods Phaeton, which can go as fast as 14 m.p.h. and as far as 18 miles, costs $2,000 (nearly $55,000 today). Companies like Detroit Electric and Baker Motor Vehicle are producing the cars as luxury items, with makeup kits, cushions, and mirrors.
1912: An electric roadster sells for around $1,750, a gas-powered one for about $650. Electric car sales began to drop. Cheap oil from Texas, better roads (which beckon people to want to drive farther), and the invention of the electric starter accelerate the trend.
1916: Clinton Edgar Woods, of Phaeton fame (see 1902), invents a hybrid car that has both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor.
1932: Electric vehicles have all but disappeared. From now until the 21st century, most electric vehicles in production are golf carts, US Postal Service delivery jeeps, and the occasional concept car.
Today: Dozens of automakers – big and small – are working on electric vehicles that range in price from a few thousand dollars to Tesla Motors’ $109,000 Roadster.