After years of stops and starts, electric cars and plug-in hybrids are on the cusp of a new era of mainstream acceptance, starting this year.
That was the message this week from automakers, government officials and utility operators at the Plug-In 2010 conference, a major international gathering of alternative vehicles at the San Jose Convention Center.
“Now the rubber hits the road”, said Craig Childers, an air resources engineer with the California Air Resources Board. “This is the last conference where we don’t have the cars. When we do this again next year, there’s going to be thousands of people driving these cars and it’s going to be great to see how that happens. We’ll learn from it and continue to evolve.”
A large amount of attention at the event went to two vehicles: the battery electric Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid. Both groundbreaking cars will begin appearing in showrooms in December.
At Tuesday’s conference, GM announced the Volt’s sticker price will be $41,000. A federal tax credit will bring the cost of the vehicle down by $7,500. The Volt also be available to lease for $350 a month for 36 months, assuming a down payment of $2,500.
GM calls the Volt an “extended-range electric vehicle,” which means that the car can go 40 miles on a single battery charge, using no gasoline. An additional 300 miles can be driven as the car uses gasoline to power an on-board generator to make more electricity and power the engine.
Tony Pasowatz, the Volt’s Vehicle Line Director, said that distance is key for getting consumers to overcome their “range anxiety” and trust that the Volt will get them where they need to go without being stranded with an empty battery.
“The Volt gives you an extended range capability that no other electric vehicle can provide you,” Pasowatz said. “So we have a good, solid confident proposition of 340 miles, whereas many electric cars will not achieve the range that they claim because their range is on a city cycle which no one drives, it doesn’t account for running the heating and air conditioning, and it doesn’t account for the degradation of the battery. And if you really only get 50 miles, the question is can that be your everyday car?”
The Nissan Leaf, an all-electric vehicle, which has a range of 100 miles on a single charge, will be made available to consumers by December in five states initially, including California.
To date, there have been 20,000 pre-orders for the Nissan Leaf, with more than 3,000 of those orders coming from prospective buyers in the Bay Area.
For Mark Perry, Director of Product Planning at Nissan, the consumer acceptance of the new generation of electric cars in the state resonates nation-wide. “If there was a barrier to adoption called affordability, that’s been knocked over. If there was a barrier to adoption called charging infrastructure, it’s been knocked over here in CA. There are no barriers now. The entire country is looking at California as a lead.”
The Leaf will cost $32,780, but after the federal tax credit of $7,500, and a California state rebate of $5,000 – which the Volt is not eligible for – the actual price will be $20,280. The Leaf also will be eligible for drivers to take into California’s carpool lanes without having more than one passenger, while the Volt will not.
Ginny and John Pauksta of San Jose paid $99 to reserve a Leaf. “The tipping point for me was the BP oil spill, the frustration of what we’re doing to the environment,” said John Pauksta. “It made me very angry. The fact that we’re fighting wars to protect our oil reserves just got to me. Electric cars were like toys, like glorified golf cars and now major car companies are coming out with electric cars that look like real cars.”
“You can fit five people in it and haul stuff around and the driving range is within a level of tolerance”, added Pauksta, who commutes 44 miles daily to his job in Palo Alto.
Instead of the lead acid and nickel-metal hydride batteries that powered the first generation of electric cars like GM’s EV1 in the 1990s, today’s electric car batteries are made of lithium-ion cells, which are now small enough that they can be easily assembled into battery packs and charged using a simple 120-volt outlet, as Pasowatz did with his Chevy Volt, charging it overnight at the conference center.
With the purchase of a Volt, consumers will get a 120-volt portable charge cord set and the option of GM’s 240-volt cord set, which would cut the charging of the vehicle in half, from eight hours to four hours.
Apart from the advancements in battery technology, a perfect storm of factors seems to brewing to usher in a new, more hospitable climate for electric cars, experts at the event, which runs through Thursday, said.
“The technology is moving ahead. The recognition of getting off of oil is important and I think the car is part of the larger energy environment ecosystem, it’s come to that realization that it is time to solve these problems in a systemic way”, said Pasowatz.
According to the Air Resources Board, there are roughly 20,000 pure electric vehicles in California, including roughly 15,000 small neighborhood electric vehicles that aren’t designed to drive on highways.
Utilities, regulatory agencies and environmental organizations expect those numbers to rise as long as gas prices continue to be high, which makes electricity as a fuel source a particularly attractive option.
“Gasoline is about $3, plus or minus, per gallon,” said Sunil Chhaya, a senior manager at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto. ”Electricity is about 75 cents per gallon, so when you compare operating costs per mile, it’s about a fourth or a fifth the cost of gasoline.”
As the economy improves and worldwide demand for oil grows, gasoline prices may not stay at the current level.
“We’re not sure what gasoline prices are going to look like in the next five to 10 years and it’s widely expected that those will get on an upward trajectory again and start climbing up and beyond four a gallon,” said Childers. “In that case, we’re talking about a very big price difference for electricity. We actually need that because these electric cars are more expensive to build and buy and the only way consumers can afford it is by saving money on fuel."
Moreover, California’s grid, with its mix of hydroelectric power, nuclear power and renewables like solar and wind power, is also cleaner than the nation’s grid -- which relies more heavily on power from coal-fired plants. So environmental benefits accrue when drivers plug-in to the grid to charge their vehicles. Chhaya said that “50 to 60 percent of the CO2 emissions can be reduced by using a battery electric vehicle plugged into the state’s grid.”
Still, a big factor for consumers is the sticker price of electric cars. Palo Alto-based Tesla motors offers currently only one electric vehicle line, its sporty Roadster that retails for more than $100,000.
Availability of public charging stations has also been a challenge.
Earlier this year, however, Campbell-based Coulomb Technologies received a $37 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to build 4,600 charging stations in nine metro areas, including San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento and Los Angeles by September 2011. The charging stations will also feature a new connecting standard adopted in January by the Society of Automotive Engineers so that any electric car can be charged at the charging stations.
For consumers like Kadife Besir-Dunlap, a schoolteacher from Woodland, neither the Chevy Volt nor the Nissan Leaf can compare to her beloved EV1 which was reclaimed by GM in 2002 when her two-year lease expired and GM refused to renew the lease for her or other EV1 owners.
“The Volt is a plug-in, it’s not full electric,” she said. “The car of the future is powered by the fuels of Jurassic time. My frustration is renewed right now. GM could have produced another electric vehicle. They had the technology and a really nice car with the EV1 and they could have reproduced something like that, a more affordable full electric car. A hybrid car is not progress, it’s stagnation.”
Since the tow truck took away her family’s EV1, Besir-Dunlap has been driving an all-electric Toyota RAV4. Earlier this month, under a partnership with Tesla Motors, Toyota announced plans to start production up again on the all-electric RAV4 in 2012 at the NUMMI auto plant in Fremont.
Still, some people at the conference couldn’t wait to plug-in and drive.
“I see nothing but increases in gas prices so I want to get out of the polluting, expensive internal combustion world and into the less expensive, less polluting world of electric vehicles,” said Jared Alaqua, a 28 year-old Novato resident pursuing his M.B.A. “And I hear that they actually perform better.”
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