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Who's Reviving the Electric Car?
Joel Makower, 2 Jul 06

Who killed the electric car? Who cares? It's history!

What's far more interesting is who's working to bring electric cars to life. Despite the hype and buzz created by the recent debut of a passionate documentary film examining the life and premature death of General Motors' all-electric EV-1 vehicle in the late 1990s, there's a far more newsworthy story: Several notable efforts are taking place to bring all-electric or plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles to market. And for all appearances, these stand to be far more substantive -- and more sustainable -- than GM's initial entry ever was.

Over the past few months, I've been tracking several threads of this story. Here's a snapshot of what's going on.

At least two car makers are viewing electric cars as a high-end niche market -- something the Hollywood or well-heeled Silicon Valley set will want to embrace simply for the cool factor. After all, now that "everyone" has a Prius, what's the Next Green Thing?

The Tesla, for starters. Tesla Motors, a Silicon Valley start-up, has been keeping its sports car under tight wraps for months, showing it only to a privileged few. (I assumed that my role on the clean-tech advisory council of VantagePoint Venture Partners, the venture capital firm that is the lead institutional investor in Tesla, would get me in the door to have an early look. It didn't.) Tesla's first vehicle, an electric sports car set to be unveiled later this month, runs on the same lithium-ion batteries found in cameras and cell phones -- 7,000 of them per vehicle, the inventors told me. They claim that the Tesla Roadster, built on the chassis of a Lotus Elise, will go from 0 to 60 mph in just four seconds, travel 250 miles before needing to be recharged (by plugging in to a regular AC outlet), and retail for about $80,000. They intend that Tesla's second-generation car, due out in 18-24 months, will be somewhat more popularly priced at around $50,000.

The Tesla rolls in the same league as the Wrightspeed, another Silicon Valley entrant. (Founder Ian Wright formerly worked at Tesla.) Wrightspeed's X1 model is a high-performance all-electric $120,000 roadster that beat out a $440,000 Porsche on a test track. (I did manage to snag a ride on the X1. Wright took me for a spin in downtown Palo Alto late one night, showing off his car's prowess by going from 0 to 80 to 0 in a single city block. It was the closest I can approximate to being shot out of a cannon -- albeit a noiseless cannon, but for the wind racing by.) The X1, which is not yet in production, boasts a quarter ton of rechargeable batteries.

Clearly, neither Wrightspeed nor Tesla are looking to sell to the hoi polloi, though each company claims to be making technological advances in electric vehicles that will eventually filter down to more mass-market models -- probably manufactured by others.

There's also the Tango, a novel EV offered by Seattle-based Commuter Cars Corp. The Tango seats two people -- one behind the other, like on a motorcycle -- and the super-slim, battery-driven vehicle that results is designed to slip in and out of traffic and parking spaces in ways conventional cars can't. Tango's most affordable model is priced at $18,700, but don't hold your breath: According to the company's Web site: "This car has not been designed yet as it will require a team of engineers, tens of millions of dollars, and at least 18 months to meet all of the safety requirements."

And then there's the Th!nk. This nifty little EV, developed by a Norwegian design team, was sold as the CityBee in Europe and the Citi in the U.S., before being purchased by Ford in 1999. Ford leased just over 1,000 of them throughout Europe and the U.S., comprising the world's largest EV fleet. But in 2004, much to the chagrin of environmentalists and others, Ford sold Th!nk to a European firm, which went bankrupt early this year. The company's remnants were purchased in March by a group of Norwegian investors that is looking to introduce the vehicle back into the U.S. market.

Even before such vehicles hit the roads, a new generation of plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles is likely to take EVs out of the realm of hobbyists and techies and into the mainstream. As CalCars, a California nonprofit that's been rabidly promoting PHEVs of late, explains:

Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) are like regular hybrids but with larger batteries and the ability to re-charge from a standard outlet (mostly at night). They're the best of both worlds: local travel is electric, yet the vehicle has unlimited gasoline range.

CalCars is among several groups that have modified Toyota Priuses and other hybrids to run on electricity-only while traveling in town, resulting in overall fuel economy exceeding 100 miles per gallon of gas in most cases.

PHEVs offer an additional benefit that could help greatly boost their appeal: Their ability to store electricity to be used when needed -- whether on the road (to power computers or other appliances) or at home (as an emergency generator during power outages). Explains

Someday, the larger battery packs used in plug-in hybrids could juggle power back and forth from the car to your household current. If adopted on a widespread basis, a fleet of plug-in (a.k.a. "gridable") hybrids could offer what are called "regulatory services" (keeping voltages steady, etc.) to a modernized electric power grid. It is estimated that what's called "V2G" could benefit individual car owners by as much as $2,000 to $3,000 per year for the use of their energy storage capacity -- offsetting their purchase and operating costs.

It's perhaps symbolically fitting that General Motors -- the villain in the currently running movie -- may be first major car company to boast a production model PHEV. Bloomberg recently reported that GM will unveil at the Detroit Auto Show next January a PHEV that gets more than 60 miles a gallon -- and GM hasn't exactly denied the story. (My inside sources tell me that the Bloomberg reporter "got it mostly right.") And what's good for GM -- well, you know the rest.

Looking a bit further down the road is the Automotive X Prize, a multimillion-dollar prize to be awarded to the team "that makes and sells the most units of a vehicle that exceeds 100 MPG equivalent," according to the organizers. The competition -- whose details will be announced later this year -- is technology neutral, though it is likely that electric-vehicle technology will loom large in the winning entry.

And so it goes -- a far less hopeless state of affairs than many activists (or filmmakers) would like us to think. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, electric vehicles -- only recently assumed to have been "killed" -- appear to be stirring to life.

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About the tango: I was under the impression that the tango was being sold aleady - after all, George Clooney already has one.

Posted by: Andrew on 2 Jul 06

"PHEV that gets more than 60 miles a gallon"

It seems a bit silly to talk about MPG for a plug in hybrid. After all if you are doing all your driving in short enough trips to use only the battery you are getting an infinite number of miles per gallon, but as soon as you take a long trip & the battery charge gets low enough that the combustion engine has to run the 'fuel economy goes to some finite value.

Two separate figures would be needed. km/kwh for short trips & km/L for when the combustion engine is running.

Posted by: Jim Baerg on 2 Jul 06

Silly from a pure energy-efficiency perspective, undoubtedly. Silly from a national security - geopolitical perspective? Not entirely, since electricity can be produced domestically much easier than gasoline. Silly from a public health perspective? Not at all. Removing all that combustion from crowded New York City streets and Los Angeles boulevards will yield significant health benefits to the denizens of those cities, even if the vehicle is no more energy efficient than the internal combustion vehicle it replaces, so long as the electricity is generated by a cleaner technology than internal combustion, or is generated away from dense populations of people.

Posted by: BrooklynJon on 2 Jul 06

All forms of transport emit a quantity of CO2 whether they be electric car, hybrid, biodiesel, train, plane or bicycle. I believe the measurement of efficiency that concerns us should be grammes CO2/km, (in Europe car manufacturers are obliged to display this information on publicity information), or better still, grammes CO2/km/person. The second question is where the CO2 and other pollutants are emitted.

Posted by: Nick Davies on 3 Jul 06

Nick Davies, you're correct, electric cars merely shift the place where the car's energy comes from.
If the electric cars are charged with electricity coming from coal plants (very likely in the US), then this would obviously be a disaster.

Electric cars are probably extremely bad for the environment. The first requirement is to have a green electricity infrastructure in place. And that's not the case in most countries (and especially not in the US).

Moreover, batteries are not very efficient, they're extremely polluting and their production requires vast amounts of energy.

If you take the total life-cycle of an electric car, it's probably less environmentally friendly than a combustion engine car, using biofuels.

I think these are the main reasons why European car manufacturers have said many times that hybrids are not interesting, and that all electric vehicles would be a disaster for the environment.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 3 Jul 06

It seems like viable electric cars are always just around the corner, kind of like hydrogen. A 100 or even 50 thousand dollar electric car is not viable. I don't think there is much hope for a culture that needs to produce cars that go from 0 to 60 second in 4 seconds. On what LA street would that be feasible?

Maybe there's some trickle down effect here, but I'm not holding my breath.

In any event, regardless of what technology we pursue, I agree that we need to frame our parameters in terms of grams of co2 per mile. Otherwise, we're just engaging in smoke and mirror s and silly b.s. about how we can have cars that get 500 miles per gallon. That's only relevant if all you care about is security. In any event, dreams of energy independence are just that --- dreams.

As far as environmental impact, the State of California has done some analysis indicating that electrics are better than conventional gasoline and diesel. The energy losses through the grid are counterbalanced by the superior efficiency of the electric motor versus the internal combustion engine. However, it appears that hybrids have an overall energy efficiency that is better than the electric vehicle. Also, I do not know whether California considered the embodied energy of the batteries. It would appear that the battery continues to be a show stopper, although there is continued progress in that area.

There is no "answer" per se for a country that relies so heavily on the auto. There are the best of the alternatives, however, and that may turn out to be the PHEV. This combines the advantages of the hybrid technology with a much smaller battery than one would need with an electric. The PHEV would also be a good way to optimize the variability associated with wind and even solar power.

I think we should also consider to what extent batteries are recyclable. The greater the recyclability, the less embodied energy per unit of time.

Posted by: tom on 3 Jul 06

Two bits struck me:

After all, now that "everyone" has a Prius, what's the Next Green Thing?

Looking a bit further down the road is the Automotive X Prize, a multimillion-dollar prize to be awarded to the team "that makes and sells the most units of a vehicle that exceeds 100 MPG equivalent," according to the organizers.

Does anyone have any idea about the relevance of construction costs (i.e. environmental costs) to all this? There seems to be the danger of a Pyrrhic victory in here. If "eco-cars" are sold on their cool factor, leveraging the current function of new cars as status symbols, of course each new slight advance in the technology will spur the next cycle of car replacement (who wants to be seen dead in last year's hybrid?).

The urge for constant renewal is thus bolstered by the feeling that every time you replace your car you're getting more and more eco-friendly. But - what about construction? Are we gaining in performance costs but losing in construction costs, and just treading water?

I wouldn't know where to start in weighing this up with anything approaching realistic figures - anyone?

Posted by: Gyrus on 3 Jul 06

Lorenzo, the studies I've seen generally contradict your points. It would help if you could provide citations.

Here are articles (with references) that find electric cars reduce most pollutants even in areas that generate electricity from coal, that CO2 emissions are reduced substantially, and that electric vehicles are more efficient than standard internal combustion on a "wells-to-wheels" basis:

CalCars FAQ
CalCars and Global Warming
EV World: Why Well-to-Wheel Matters
Debunking the Myth of EVs and Smokestacks (1996)
Lifecycle Environmental Impacts of Alternative-Fuel Vehicles

Even the most negative studies (like the one discussed here) find that CO2 emissions from coal-powered EVs are no worse than conventional cars. Add to that the benefits of zero emissions at the tailpipe. Even though internal combustion cars are cleaner than 30 years ago, households next to major streets and highways still have high pollution levels and experience significantly higher disease and death rates as a result. Zero emission cars can save lives just on that basis alone.

Tom is right that hybrids are more efficient than EVs, or at least that's what studies like this one have found. But so much depends on fuel mix, transmission infrastruture, etc. When vehicles are charged by smaller, distributed power plants, line losses are cut dramatically and vehicle efficiency is improved.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on 3 Jul 06

What most people have been missing here is the load on the electric grid this will have when more and more people charge their cars. We have an electric grid that requires a major overhaul in order to handle the new load as people shift their energy transportation needs away from liquid hydorcarbons to coal/gas/nuclear/hydro/wind/solar. Maybe if the car makers sold the vehicles with PV arrays and a charger station, it might help instead of stress the current system.

Posted by: Xavier on 3 Jul 06

Lorenzo, I believe that electric cars are the eventual solution because they are an efficient use of energy and because they are independent of the means of production of that energy.

There have been more than a few false dawns, but it's worth pausing to consider recent developments in ultracapacitor technology. For example, there is a small company called Eestor which has licenced it's technology to Feel Good Cars, (I know, I know), and even if this particular company does not make the breakthrough we need in battery technology, I predict that it will happen within the next 3 years. (If anyone can give me odds on that, please let me know). (

Of course that does not solve the energy production problem...

Posted by: Nick Davies on 3 Jul 06

I spent the morning with Graham Hill of Feel Good Cars. Their ZENN car (Zero Emission No Noise) is cute, well-built, and smartly outfitted. Slated to come to market the end of the summer, with a top speed of 35 mph and a range of about 30 miles per charge this first model from Feel Good Cars won't challenge the hybrids, but priced at $10,000 for a basic model and $15,000 tricked out with sun roof and power windows, it might just be a way for regular folks to step into electric for a 2nd around town vehicle.

Posted by: LJ Yanney on 3 Jul 06

Correction: the ZENN car (I know, I know) has a range of 35 miles and a speed of 25 mph, limited to FMVSS 500 standards.

Posted by: LJ Yanney on 3 Jul 06

It would be great to have a technological fix. That's the amurrican way. don't ask me to change my behavior, change the world.

On the other hand, if you should ever really want to solve the problem...

Just two things. No governmental intervention required.

1. Everybody drives no faster than 50 mph.

2. Ridesharing becomes the norm, not the exception.

#1 reduces fuel consumption below level. We need less next year then we needed last year.
#2 cuts us back to where we no longer need Saudi Arabia. Any one who has ever stood on a street corner knows that this country is awash in empty seats moving. Just move from one to two passengers per car, and the traffic congestion is gone. Move from 2 to 3, and the parking problems disappear. Plus, you get to know your neighbor. Chances are, he/she isn't nearly as scary as the evening news would have you believe.

Do this, and the government will catch up to us, the insurance companies too, the little incidental problems, like security and liability, will be solved. Damn few compromises here, and lots of benefits. Its up to us. We can meet the enemy and he is ???

Jay Conner

Posted by: Jay Conner on 3 Jul 06

Aside from those companies you mentioned, GEM (a Russian company) is also producing electric cars. In fact, electric cars would be used in the G8 Summit. So there really is still hope for these electricity-powered cars.

Posted by: Jay Stevens on 4 Jul 06

Electric cars are not only practical but, in quantity, inexpensive.

The serial hybrid itself, like a diesel electric locomotive, uses the motor for all traction power. The Internal Combustion ("IC") engine/generator is just to generate electric for the battery or to run the serial hybrid directly.

The serial hybrid is already here, just take a RAV4-EV (range: up to 120 miles, seats 5) and add a small, 40 hp engine-generator.

Pure electrics, like the GM EV1, can be produced in quantity, I am told, for no more than $8,000 with lead acid batteries. Of course, the better NiMH batteries are owned by Chevron's COBASYS unit, and are not allowed for EVs, according to several requests to buy them from COBASYS. For some reason, Chevron is only selling the NiMH for hybrids that have a battery too small to plug in; that's why the plug-in Prius had to use Lithium. NiMH is just not available until Chevron's patents expire in 2014.

Posted by: doug korthof on 5 Jul 06

The well-to-wheels fuel efficiency of electric vehicles is over ten times that of any petroleum-fueled hybrids. The cost of petro-fuels includes huge amounts of electricity used in refining oil, the emissions caused by protecting, shipping and trucking petroleum feedstocks and fuels, and the respiratory disease rates due to oil's long emissions tail plus burning it in our vehicles. Electric vehicles (EVs) can eliminate over 40% of US air pollution with only moderate new electrical-generation capacity. Thousands have already installed solar cell arrays on their home roofs; dozens of Toyota RAV4 EV drivers thus have truly zero-emission vehicles.
Energy independence, driving for 3 cents per mile, healthier lungs: EVs.

Posted by: Hugh E Webber on 6 Jul 06



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