Charging Ahead with Electric Cars The EV Revolution Is Coming — But Not Fast Enough

electric cars © Ryan McVay/Getty Images' width=The narrow and sometimes cobbled streets of Brooklyn made a good testing ground for the electric version of the Smart car. It wasn’t long ago that auto engineers were so nervous about their temperamental electric vehicles (EVs) that they went along for the ride, but now they mostly just toss you the keys.

The conventional Smart car has been on the market since 2008, and it’s won raves for the way it looks and the fact that it takes up only half a parking space. Not everyone loves the performance from the one-liter, three-cylinder engine, however. That’s why the battery Smart made quite a contrast: It’s quiet where the gas car is noisy, and accelerates smoothly where the latter was balky. And most importantly, it doesn’t have a tailpipe.

Of course, there are trade-offs: The battery Smart, on the road in the U.S. in a pilot program of 250 cars—but headed for mass production in 2012—has a range of just 83 miles. And then there’s the plug-in thing: A charge from 20% to 80% capacity, which some people will experience in real-world conditions, takes 3.5 hours, and a full 100% charge from zero is less than eight hours. Derek Kaufman, Smart USA’s vice president of business development, says, “It was natural for us to move to electric drive. Some people assume that because of the car’s looks it was already electric. We intend to come in with low volume, and grow from there.”

Battery cars will be complemented by so-called plug-in hybrids, which are like today’s Prius on steroids—they add a much bigger battery pack and the ability to go up to 50 miles on batteries alone. The packs charge from the wall, and if you have a fairly short commute you may never need to use the onboard gas engine. Plug-in hybrids will be here by 2012.

There are very few battery or plug-in hybrid cars on the road right now—Tesla Motors has sold around 1,300 of its sexy and very fast $109,000 Roadsters, but that’s about it. But the hybrid storm is coming. By early 2011 there will be a flood of new models on the market, including the Chevrolet Volt (a unique hybrid whose gas engine acts as a generator for powerful electric motors), the Fisker Karma (a similar high-performance hybrid), the Coda (a small battery sedan), the Nissan Leaf (perhaps the first global EV on the market), the Wheego Whip LiFe (another small electric, with a Chinese chassis but an American soul), the electric Ford Focus and the Think City (a plug-in import from Norway, but with Ford roots).

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Tesla has sold around 1,300 of its sexy, fast 9,000 Roadsters.

The EV revolution is global. The Japanese, assisted by co-ownership of Asian battery makers, are true leaders in the market. Toyota is fielding a small electric car with 100-mile range, and also a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell car by 2015. Honda is committed to electrifying most of its fleet with batteries and hybrid drivetrains. Nissan, in addition to bringing out the Leaf battery car at the end of the year, is pioneering EV charging by signing up cities around the world as partners. The company is creating the infrastructure for its cars to succeed in the marketplace. And China is emerging as an EV contender.

Not all these cars will be great, and not all will be successes, but they’re sure to change the way we drive. The electrification of the automobile is underway, and there’s no stopping it now. When Nissan broke ground on its new 1.2-million-square-foot battery plant in Tennessee, chairman Carlos Ghosn proclaimed, “Our vision is to lead by marketing affordable electric vehicles on a global scale. We have a big-picture view of our clean-energy future.”

Turning the Corner

The auto industry is at the most important turning point in its more than 100-year history. The internal-combustion engine might be with us for another 30 years, but 2010 marks the start of its inevitable decline. If the industry reverses course—as it appears certain to do—then each year will see further inroads from electric vehicles, and charging your car will seem as natural as stopping for gas does now.

The last time we had choices to make was 1900, when an equal number of electric, gasoline and steam cars were on the road and no clear technology winner was apparent. In 1907, inventor Charles Franklin Kettering—the head of research for General Motors—invented the self-starter for gas-powered cars, eliminating the dangerous crank, and the die was cast. By 1911, EV sales were down to 6,000 annually, just 1% of the market.

In the years since, electric drive has mostly been in hibernation. In the late “60s and again in the wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, some brave souls tried to jump-start electric revolutions, but two factors—weak technology and the return of cheap oil—defeated them. The EVs of that period had nearly the same lead-acid batteries as the cars on the road in 1913, and that wasn’t good enough. And without good, competitive cars, the network of charging stations needed to support the EVs, and serve as an alternative to the nation’s 160,000 gas stations, would never be built.

For decades, effective EVs were stalled by a simple conundrum: Without charging stations, there was no market for electric cars; and without cars on the market, nobody was going to build that network of stations. Now, as start-up companies vie to set up those networks—aided by high-tech “smart grid” connectivity—a new industry is underway.

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Think’s product-development facility in Oslo, Norway.

“The new DNA of the automobile is electric,” says Larry Burns, for years General Motors’ fuel-cell and electric car guru, and now a Columbia University professor. “And when the EV marries up with the mobility Internet, we will really have a way to transform the road. Among other things, we”ll see vehicles that don’t crash, that drive themselves.”

The new cars have high-energy-density lithium-ion battery packs, a huge advance over the old standby, lead-acid. Most of the cars have 100-mile range, and the likelihood of 220-volt charging (think of the circuit that runs electric dryers) means they’ll recharge overnight in five or six hours. Plug your car in and it will interact with the local utility to optimize late-night charging, when the rates are lower and the grid less stressed. Your cell phone will tell you when the car is fully charged. Drive to work, and you”ll be able to plug in there, too, and you”ll even be able to get a quick top-off if you stop for coffee at the local Starbucks.

None of this will happen immediately, and it won’t be seamless. One of the biggest hurdles will be recharging cars owned by people who live in city apartments and work in office towers (see sidebar “Plugging In” ). Battery cars will also, at least initially, be more expensive than their gasoline counterparts. We’ve had 100 years of constant improvement with internal-combustion, and nearly the same period of neglect with batteries. Today’s packs are a quantum leap over earlier technology, but they’re still expensive—from $15,000 to $20,000. That means early cars will either be expensive, subsidized or both. Most people will qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit, and those in California get a $5,000 cash rebate. Not only are there subsidies in many states for owning EVs, there are also compensations such as unrestricted access to HOV lanes (Florida, California, New Jersey, Utah) and

free downtown parking (Sacramento, California and Salt Lake City, plus many more). Take the $7,500 federal tax credit for buying an EV and $2,000 for installing a home charger, then claim state incentives. These include: Georgia (20% tax credit toward an EV’s purchase price or $5,000, whichever is less), Illinois (a credit worth 80% of the purchase price, or $4,000, whichever is less), Kansas ($2,400 tax credit), Louisiana (20% credit) and New Jersey ($4,000 tax rebate, plus no state sales tax).

People think EVs will be drab economy vehicles, but there will be quite a variety available for sale, from sturdy sedans to sleek sports cars (see sidebar “Electric Cars for Everyone”). What’s more, electric motors offer a lot of power from a standing start, and some high-performance versions take full advantage.

The Sluggish Revolution

Many Americans are salivating at the prospect of switching to 100% zero-emission transportation. A March survey from Accenture shows that 65% of those queried would buy a hybrid or electric car for their next vehicle. But the revolution is not in a hurry. Few automakers are planning to blanket the U.S. with battery cars before 2012 at the earliest. Carmakers have moved beyond tiny pilot programs, but are still only offering limited availability in the first few years.

The Electrification Coalition, which counts Nissan and FedEx as members, believes that by 2040, 75% of the miles traveled by so-called “light-duty” vehicles (cars, SUVs and small trucks) could be electric. Other projections are more pessimistic. The Boston Consulting Group, for instance, sees only “limited” penetration by 2020 unless there is “a major breakthrough in battery technologies.”

The pessimists have a point. People, at least in the short term, are unlikely to pay extra for cars with limited range and an unfamiliar refueling procedure. That’s why governments, with one eye on the Gulf oil spill and another on global warming, have to get together and a) buy a lot of EVs themselves, and b) ramp up subsidies to consumers. The Obama administration has provided billions in funding for battery and EV factories, but hasn’t yet introduced any direct subsidies to match those offered by California ($5,000) and China (up to $8,800).

“The government has to help,” says Charles Gassenheimer, CEO of Indiana-based battery supplier Ener1 (and chairperson of the Think board). “The Japanese government has invested $100 billion over the last 20 years to build not just batteries but also the supply chain. That’s why they’re the leader. It’s absolutely crucial that we start putting money into this now.”

Several books—including Bill McKibben’s Eaarth (Macmillan), Hans Tammemagi’s Air (Oxford University Press) and James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren (Bloomsbury USA)—make the case that we’re already on a global warming precipice, looking down at an abyss of huge planetary change. All three authors conclude that we have to stop burning fossil fuels. That means no more coal for power plants and no more gas in the fuel tanks. And we need to do it now if we’re going to avoid the very worst effects of climate change. We’re well past the point where we can forestall it completely. McKibben thinks we’re already well on our way to creating “a tough new planet,” which is why he spells it “Eaarth.”

The last UN Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen in December 2009, known as COP 15, was anticipated with much fanfare but ended in dismal failure. And nobody expects much progress to come out of the succeeding get-together in Mexico City this November. The utility smokestacks are still pumping, the lights are still on and the shiny new cars are driving onto the lots. By 2020, world oil demand could go from 85 million barrels a day to an incredible 100 million. The Chinese, who once rode mostly bicycles, could have 500 million cars on the road by 2030, the Department of Energy predicts. Clearly, this center can’t hold.

It’s heartening that there are so many green cars in the pipeline. But the pace remains maddeningly slow—far slower than we need to stop global warming in its tracks (if that were even possible). Frankly, there are no solutions on the horizon that get us out of fossil fuels without making some lifestyle changes. And EVs are part of that change—we won’t be able to take 300-mile range for granted anymore.

The great thing about EVs is that they (and the batteries they depend on) will continuously improve, and so will the electricity grid. Naysayers like to argue that EVs will simply transfer the pollution “from the tailpipe to the smokestack.” Not so. The truth is that even today, charging an EV from a 100% coal-fired grid is up to 30% cleaner in terms of global warming emissions than running an average gasoline car. But the grid is almost never 100% coal, even in the Midwest, and new rules will continually reduce the emissions from that stack, says the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). If plants are fired by natural gas (and an increasingly large number are) then the result is 40-50% better. A nuclear grid is 90-95% better. And if the electricity is from wind or solar, it’s 100% better. “We really project the grid to get less carbon-intense over time,” says Mark Duvall, director of electric transportation at EPRI.

EVs may be a long time coming, and the first one you own may not be everything you want it to be. But these battery vehicles are the inevitable next step in our more than 100 years of cohabiting with automobiles.