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Electric Cars in USA - review

Page history last edited by PBworks 13 years, 1 month ago

September 23, 2007




They're Electric, but Can They Be Fantastic?



    • ELECTRIC cars are the future. **


That, at least, is the message automakers are sending to consumers as they trumpet big plans for cars that can bypass the gas pump.


Of course, backers of electric vehicles, or E.V.'s, floated those assurances in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, when General Motors released its star-crossed EV1. Today, almost no one drives an electric car.


But with a gallon of premium gas topping $3 on average, and as carmakers and entrepreneurs pour money into the latest generation of electric cars, the prospects appear brighter.


Trading the internal combustion engine for batteries could bring well-publicized advantages: reducing pollution, raising mileage, promoting energy independence. E.V.'s and plug-in hybrids could deliver the gasoline equivalent of 100 miles a gallon or more. For consumers, that would in effect roll back the clock to buck-a-gallon gas. Car owners could save money in their sleep, recharging in the off hours when electricity is cheapest.


And compared with hydrogen fuel-cell cars, the infrastructure for electric cars already exists, requiring only more plugs in more places. Aside from home recharging, it would be easier to install pay-per-use outlets at curbsides and in parking lots than to spawn a network of hydrogen filling stations. Wal-Mart and McDonald's might offer convenient electricity for customers or employees.


Sounds good? There is one problem. There is still not a single E.V. or plug-in hybrid available that can approach the driving range, interior room and performance of a typical gas-powered family sedan, at anywhere near the price that an average consumer would pay.


From a technical standpoint, the Tesla Roadster may well be the most impressive E.V. yet. But this plug-in two-seater, based on the Lotus Elise, is cramped and has near-zero cargo space. Its $100,000 price is well beyond the budget of even most sports car buyers.


So automakers, including Tesla, are again assuring Americans that practical, affordable E.V.'s are on the way.


Experts say the cars' arrival hinges on two make-or-break issues:


Developing safe, affordable lithium-ion batteries lasting 100,000 miles.


Overcoming a psychological barrier among people who can imagine the benefits - but who can also see themselves stranded with a dead battery and no place or time to recharge.


As for batteries, progress has been made, but more is needed. The EV1 started with old-school lead-acid batteries; today's hybrids have more robust nickel-metal-hydride units. But the most efficient batteries are lithium-ion, the kind found in cellphones and laptops. These cells would double or triple the power of, say, a Toyota Prius battery pack, but at half the weight or size.


Prabhakar Patil is chief executive of Compact Power, a company vying to power a G.M. plug-in hybrid based on the Chevrolet Volt concept car - and to have them ready by 2010 or 2011. He was previously chief engineer for the Ford Escape Hybrid.


He is convinced that his company can bring in lithium-ion batteries on time and on budget - and that plug-in hybrids are the necessary bridge between gasoline and pure E.V.'s.


"If you had asked me even five years ago, I'd have said forget it," Mr. Patil said of the technology's prospects. But since Sony offered the first commercial lithium-ion cells in 1991, their costs have fallen by a factor of 12, he said. Today, California's Air Resources Board calculates that lithium-ion packs would cost $3,000 to $4,000 in mass production, cheap enough to be feasible.


As with most plug-in proponents, G.M. envisions its Volt as a second car in a household, the one that handles commuting and errands. The Volt is designed to travel up to 40 miles on battery power alone, delivering the equivalent of 100 m.p.g. or more.


The Volt's gasoline engine would be used solely to charge the batteries, delivering a total range of 640 miles. At the Frankfurt auto show this month, G.M.'s Opel division showed the Flextreme, a variation on the Volt with a small diesel engine charging the batteries.


The issue of travel range brings up the second E.V. hurdle: the psychology of electricity. After 10 years of sales and heavy publicity, hybrids have grabbed less than 2 percent of the market. And that's for cars that don't need to be plugged in.


That's why the plug-in hybrid "is a great step toward a pure E.V.," Mr. Patil said, adding, "You skip the gas station, save time and money, and it takes away the fear factor on the limited range."


Every plug-in and E.V. on the horizon still takes several hours to charge, though some new approaches are being considered. Altair Nanotechnologies of Reno, Nev., claims that its batteries can be juiced up in 10 minutes via a special high-voltage charging unit, thanks to minutely scaled lithium titanate electrode materials. Those performance claims will be tested when Altair supplies batteries for a promised electric pickup from Phoenix Motorcars.


An interesting aspect of E.V.'s is the proliferation of small, feisty companies trying to beat the G.M.'s and Toyotas at their own game. In recent decades no upstart has survived, but Bryon Bliss, a vice president at Phoenix, said major automakers remained largely wedded to the internal combustion engine, creating opportunities for new companies with fresh ideas.


"The perfect storm is brewing," Mr. Bliss said. "The demand is there to get off petroleum. But the big companies haven't exploited it, and there's an opening for smaller companies to fill this market."


Are electric cars in the pipeline, or are they still a pipe dream? Strip away the promises and the offerings are virtually nonexistent. Not a single purely electric vehicle with four seats and the ability to reach highway speeds is being mass-produced anywhere in the world.


The glorified golf carts known as neighborhood vehicles are not street-legal in many states and don't meet the needs of most families. And while some tinkerers have turned Priuses into plug-in hybrids, most alternative-car experts consider this retrofitting to be a technical and economic dead end.


Despite the daunting challenges, several companies insist that the time and the technology are now right. Here are the electric cars closest to reality:


Tesla Roadster


With an initial 2008 run of 600-plus cars now set to begin production late this year, the Tesla has attracted unprecedented interest in E.V.'s thanks to its sexy looks, its blistering acceleration (0 to 60 m.p.h. in less than four seconds) and a driving range that was just revised upward to 245 miles.


The Silicon Valley start-up has benefited from tens of millions of development dollars from Elon Musk, the PayPal founder who is Tesla's chief executive and is developing his own space program; backers include Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.


The Tesla has provoked a worldwide outpouring of fait accompli press coverage: the technology will put Detroit's dinosaurs out of business, it is said, and render the internal combustion engine obsolete. Yet that would be a tall order for a company with no experience in the brutal auto business, one that has yet to build its first production car, open its first showroom or build its first service facility.


In August, a co-founder, Martin Eberhard, was shunted aside for a new interim chief executive, and the start of production was delayed for about four months. Yet company executives said that their desire to deliver a top-quality car is the only reason for the delay. To alleviate concerns, Tesla has allowed some buyers to test-drive pre-production models and post unedited comments on the company's Web site




When I took a brief spin in the Tesla last spring, company officials did their best to deflate overwrought expectations. They are the first to emphasize that the $100,000 British-built roadster aims to prove the fun and feasibility of E.V.'s, not solve the transportation issues of average Americans. But Tesla is developing a second E.V. (its code name is White Star), a generously sized, $50,000-$70,000 sport sedan. Starting in 2010, Tesla plans to make 10,000 White Stars at a new plant in Albuquerque.


Certainly, the celebrity-friendly Roadster is a marketing smash. But the White Star will be the real test of Tesla's technology and long-term prospects.




The company name, Zap, sounds like something from a Batman comic. (It stands for Zero Air Pollution.) But if the project gets off the ground, the Zap-X would be one superpowered E.V., with a claimed top speed of 155 m.p.h. and a 350-mile range. While the car has been derided by skeptics as "vaporware" that will never see production, the Zap-X would be based on the APX concept car by Lotus, which is also building the Tesla at its Hethel, England, factory.


The five-passenger aluminum-intensive crossover would use high-tech electric hub motors at all four wheels, delivering 644 horsepower to the ground from a lithium-ion battery pack. The hub motors would eliminate the need for transmission, axles and conventional brakes, opening up space beneath the floor for a giant battery pack.


On Friday, Steven Schneider, the chief executive of Zap, closed a long-brewing deal with China's Youngman Automotive Group to manufacture E.V. passenger cars, buses and heavy equipment. Mr. Schneider said the alliance opens the door to bringing the Zap-X, and possibly other electric models, to the United States by about 2010 for around $60,000.


Chevrolet Volt


G.M. doesn't like the Volt to be called a plug-in hybrid, since it considers the car more of an E.V. But the concept car has a tiny gasoline engine, albeit one that's used exclusively to pump electricity into lithium-ion batteries, not to power the wheels. And there's definitely a cord attached, requiring eight hours to recharge from a household plug but far less with higher-voltage current.


G.M. is designing the Volt to run on electricity alone for up to 40 miles. So for more than 85 percent of American commuters, the Volt would indeed work like a pure E.V., using no gasoline and delivering up to 150 m.p.g. G.M. hopes to bring a car like the Volt to market by 2011 or 2012.


Think City


The Think company illustrates the hurdles faced by E.V. makers. Founded in Norway in 1990 as Pivco Industries, the company has run out of money, gone into receivership and passed through multiple owners. Now it has been revived as Think Nordic. Yet over 17 years, it has produced little of note.


Under Ford's ownership beginning in 1999 and driven by California's electric-vehicle mandate, the company produced 1,000 sluggish 50-mile-range Think City cars. Ford dumped the disastrous project in 2003, crushing leftover American models (as G.M. did with the EV1). Now, the company plans a second-generation two-seat Think City for Europe in 2008, powered by lithium-ion batteries provided by Tesla in a $43 million deal. The company has floated vague plans to sell the car in some American cities in 2009.


Beyond urban use, the new model's performance may not satisfy Americans: the company claims a mere 110-mile driving range and top speed of only 62 m.p.h.


Phoenix S.U.T.


Looking like the offspring of a Honda Ridgeline and a Subaru Baja, the Phoenix S.U.T. starts life as a South Korean pickup, the Ssangyong Actyon.


Phoenix adds a tiny twist: its lithium-ion batteries are said to employ nanotechnology - in this case, incredibly small lithium-titanate particles - to deliver faster recharging, safer operation and longer life. Ssangyong will ship the pickups, minus a powertrain, to Ontario, Calif., where Phoenix will install the batteries and electronics.


Using a special high-voltage charger, Phoenix claims the truck could store enough juice in 10 minutes to cover 100 miles. (A full charge would take six or seven hours from household current.) For now, only utility companies and other fleet customers can buy one of the $45,000 sport utility trucks from the initial 500-unit run. The company plans a small public introduction in 2008.


Wrightspeed X1


The racy Wrightspeed E.V. is the brainchild of Ian Wright, a New Zealander who was formerly chief engineer at Tesla. Essentially a juiced-up, lithium-ion version of the Ariel Atom tube-frame racer, the Wrightspeed is sickeningly fast. It is also stripped-down and devoid of comforts - a track car that's nearly useless on public roads. Wright hopes to bring the X1 to market for around $120,000. But even more so than the Tesla, the only thing the Wrightspeed would solve is the need to roar into the pits for a quick fuel stop.


Electrum Spyder


Another bit of California dreaming, this is a convertible E.V. from Universal Electric Vehicle of Thousand Oaks. The company, which is seeking corporate financing, claims the Electrum Spyder (estimated price: $69,900) could reach 100 m.p.h. and travel up to 150 miles on a charge of its nickel-zinc batteries. A $25,000 upgrade would add lithium-ion cells, increasing the range to 250 miles.


The company says it is taking orders for the car, with deliveries beginning 10 months after an unspecified start of production. The company said it was also designing a two-door four-passenger model with a target price below $45,000.


Venturi Fetish


If the Tesla strikes you as common, consider the Venturi Fetish. First shown at the Paris auto show in 2004, the two-seat roadster, powered by lithium-ion batteries, has a claimed top speed of 100 m.p.h. and a one-hour charging time. The Monaco-based company says it plans to build 25 Fetishes, priced at a cool $500,000 each.




It looks like a car that got caught in a trash compactor. Only three inches wider than a yardstick, the Commuter Cars Corporation's Tango is an all-electric two-seater. George Clooney, who is to get one of the first 10 Teslas sold to the general public, has reportedly bought a Tango, too.


posted to ClimateConcern

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