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Colliding with Reality

The problem with electric cars.

Oct 25, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 06 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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The age of the electric car is here. Everyone says so. There it is emblazoned on the cover of the latest Wired magazine: “The age of the electric car is here. CHARGE!” In the New York Times, Thomas Friedman laments that the Chinese are embracing the electric car while America (sigh) is again failing to keep pace with enlightened Chicom authoritarianism. Friedman calls electric cars their “moon shot” and frets that if we don’t get with the program, we might be reduced to importing millions of electric vehicles (EVs) from China. And then there are the ads. Sit down for a little Sunday football and you’re overwhelmed by commercials for the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt, primping and preening, intent on winning over even the SUV-driving troglodytes who watch the NFL.

Colliding with Reality


So make no mistake: The electric car is happening. Right now. 

Mind you, the electric car has been happening, in fits and starts, since before Henry Ford. Electric motors lost out to the internal combustion engine as the automobile was taking over America. They have raised intermittent challenges now and again. The last serious attempt at an electric car came from General Motors in 1990, when the company began work on a project that culminated in the EV1, a two-seater which could go 75 miles on a single charge. General Motors spent $1 billion on the car; 800 of them were eventually leased to customers. A couple years later they were all recalled and scrapped. This time, we are told, it will be different. It always is.

The latest EV boom originated with a Silicon Valley start-up called Tesla Motors. Under the direction of Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, Tesla built a sexy, no-compromise electric sports car—it goes from 0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds with a range of 244 miles. Tesla’s big innovation was replacing the heavy, lead-lined batteries previously used in EVs with the lighter, lithium-ion batteries commonly used in laptop computers. In 2008 the Tesla Roadster went into production and won rave reviews. At $109,000 a pop, it wasn’t a mass-market machine, but the automotive world was entranced nonetheless.

General Motors chief Bob Lutz used Tesla’s example as an argument to fast-track the recently released Chevy Volt, a four-seat sedan powered by an electric motor. General Motors markets the Volt as an EV that can go 40 miles on a single charge, but also has a “range extending” gas engine that kicks in to power the motor if you run out of juice. With the gas engine engaged, GM claims the Volt gets 50 mpg on the highway. Its sticker price is $41,000.

Nissan has just rolled out its own EV, a four-door hatchback called the Leaf. It lacks the Volt’s gasoline backup but boasts a 100-mile range and a low price of $32,780—practically free by EV standards.

These cars are just the tip of the EV iceberg. Later this year another startup, Coda Automotive—working in partnership with the Chinese!—will begin selling a $44,900 sedan that seats five and gets 100 miles per charge. (It achieves this extended range in part because its top speed is only 80 mph.) Over the next two years Mitsubishi, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Fiat, Renault, and Smart all plan on bringing an EV to market.

And Tesla is preparing to reinvent the EV again in 2012 when it moves the Model S into production. The Model S is a four-door sedan with three rows of seats. It will have a range of 160 miles and an expected base price of $57,400. In 2009 the company bought a 5.5 million-square-foot plant in Fremont, California, that had once been jointly operated by GM and Toyota. Elon Musk mused to Wired, “We could have 250,000 cars coming out of here in five years.” And that’s just the start. He told the New Yorker, “We could be selling a million cars a year in ten years. That seems doable.”

Soon, a network of stations for quick-charging electric cars will appear, letting you take your EV on long trips, just like a gas-guzzler. And we’ll need them, because President Obama has set a national goal of 1 million EVs on the road by 2015.

If only it were all true.

Let’s start with the Volt. Popular Mechanics has tested the Volt’s mileage claims and found that it gets 33 miles on its electric charge (not 40) and that its miles-per-gallon performance is 31.67 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway (not 50). Edward Niedermeyer, editor of the website The Truth About Cars, writes that it’s “a vehicle that costs $41,000 but offers the performance and interior space of a $15,000 economy car.” The Volt’s 2011 production run was originally slated to be 60,000 units; it’s been cut to 10,000.

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