Cars with a Charge

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Coming around again

New plug-in electric cars fail to allay mileage-range anxieties

New plug-in electric cars fail to allay mileage-range anxieties

Electric cars are really nothing new – interest in the electric car has come and gone many times over the past century. Electric cars have been tried by car manufacturers and other innovators since the invention of the battery. As concerns about fossil fuel supplies and environmental issues become more widespread, interest in the electric car is revving up once again.  The Obama administration is committing billions of dollars to the development and production of electric cars, in the hope that they will become a meaningful segment of U.S. vehicle sales and vehicle loan markets in the near future.

The center of attention

Situated in the Silicon Valley,Tesla Motors, Inc., is the cynosure of the latest round of electric-car enthusiasm. Tesla, the maker of the all-electric Roadster and the new Roadster Sport, is the only manufacturer currently marketing highway-capable electric cars in any appreciable volume. Bolstered by a $465 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy, Tesla is assembling its automobiles domestically.

The others

Also coming soon are the Leaf, a fully electric, moderately priced sedan to be launched by Nissan Motor Co. next year along with new offerings from Ford Motor Company and start-up company Coda Automotive. Additionally, General Motors Co. plans to release the Chevrolet Volt, a hybrid vehicle promoted as an electric car with extended range ability. After the first 40 miles of electric travel, the Volt recharges its battery with a small gasoline engine.

By 2011, Toyota Motor Corp. plans to offer a plug-in version of its Prius hybrid, which can be recharged and driven short distances on electric power alone by plugging it into a wall socket or a recharging station. Several other hybrid cars as well are scheduled to appear on the market soon.

A closer look at the line-up

Tesla Roadster Sport: elite hot rod. Two common objections to electric cars are that they lack get-up-and-go and that if they run out of power, you’re stranded. According to the hype, the Roadster may not overcome the second objection, but it quashes the first. The 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport touts a 0-to-60-mph time of 3.7 seconds, approaching race-car performance if not lift-off speed, without a drop of gasoline.

The Roadster Sport may appeal to power-junkie car enthusiasts as well as greenie-types, and  promoting electric vehicles as powerful sports cars could be a key to bringing them into the mainstream.  Still, with a sticker price of $128,500, (minus a few thousand dollars in federal tax credits), mainstream may be but a dream for the Roadster Sport.

Nissan Leaf: hatchback family car. The Leaf is expected to be priced more moderately and in line with other family sedans. Charge time is up to eight hours and driving distance between charges is 100 miles. Impressive technology or not, however, the Leaf may not do much to allay consumer anxieties about the limited mileage ranges of electric cars.

GM Volt: high-price Chevy passenger car. GM claims the Volt will run up to 40 miles on battery power alone and up to 300 miles with the gasoline engine charging the batteries, which, again, does little to get car-buyers beyond the fear of being stranded without power. In addition to concerns about the limited mileage range, the expected sticker price of $40,000 makes it comparable price-wise to a luxury car like the BMW 3 Series sedan. At that price the, Volt may be affordable in the world of electric cars, though not necessarily in the world of Chevy-buyers.

Toyota Prius PHEV: improvements on a flagship hybrid sedan. According to its maker, the plug-in Prius PHEV will have an all-electric range of about 14.5 miles and a range of about 870 miles on a full tank of gas and a full charge. Like the other plug-ins, the idea is to use battery power for short trips while saving gasoline for long hauls. The Prius PHEV is expected to cost around $34,000.

Cost effective by 2030?

The question remains whether plug-in hybrids will have any appreciable impact on gasoline consumption. According to a report prepared by the National Academies of Sciences, the question will remain largely hypothetical absent major breakthroughs in battery technology and so long as gasoline prices stay relatively low. According to the report, for plug-ins to make an appreciable difference in car-buying preferences, better and less expensive batteries are needed. Given current technology, the bottom line is that gasoline prices will have to stabilize at over four dollars a gallon before lithium ion batteries become cost effective.

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