Detroit Takes Charge

Electric cars are poised to make a comeback—and this time they might stick around for good

Mar 26, 2007
Outside Magazine
Electric Cars

NO AMERICAN INNOVATION TODAY would be more patriotic, penny-wise, or planet-friendly than an affordable, high-performance car that gets 100-plus miles per gallon. Who (aside from oil kingpins) could dispute that? But in January, when General Motors unveiled the Chevrolet Volt concept car, a plug-in hybrid sedan that boasts up to 150 miles per gallon, it prompted just a smattering of applause and a swell of skepticism. For all the car promised—a range of 40 miles on electricity alone, the ability to recharge on the road, and the flexibility to run on electricity, gasoline, or a gas/ethanol blend—it came with a major hitch: The Volt's lithium-ion battery technology is three to five years, at best, from hitting the marketplace.

Given that GM is still reeling from a mammoth 2005 loss of $10.6 billion, it's easy to dismiss the Volt as a beleaguered company's attempt to score a major public-relations boost. But do that and you're ignoring some truly compelling facts. For starters, the car is nothing short of revolutionary. While current hybrids, like my Toyota Prius, run primarily on a gasoline engine, with a backup electric component that improves fuel efficiency, the Volt does just the opposite. It's powered by an electric motor, with an auxiliary gas-fueled generator that recharges the battery. It's a design breakthrough signaling that, after years of criticism for lagging behind Japanese automakers, Detroit's not just entering the clean-car race but preparing to pull out in front. If GM follows through with its plans, the Volt could be the most efficient, popular car in America within a decade.

I'll admit it: When I first heard about the Volt, I had a flashback to the EV1, star of the 2006 indie film Who Killed the Electric Car? GM introduced a limited number of the two-seat all-electric vehicles in 1996; by 2004, the company had yanked the entire fleet off the road.

But that was a different era—before oil prices shot into the stratosphere, before Hurricane Katrina made the threat of climate change feel real to Americans, and before U.S. policymakers hailed breaking our foreign-oil dependence as a top priority. It was also before the Prius, the first mass-marketed hybrid-electric car, had become a runaway success in U.S. markets, paving the way for new alternative-fuel vehicles. Today's consumers aren't just open to cleaner, more efficient cars—they're clamoring for them.

In fact, the question is no longer who killed the electric car; it's who will be the first to resurrect it. Experts agree that electric motors, whether powered by batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, or some other form of energy, will one day replace the gas-powered internal combustion engine entirely.

"Nothing comes close to the fuel and emissions benefits that electric cars offer," says Mike Millikin, editor of the technology news site "In the 21st century, we'll see electric propulsion become the dominant mode of transport."

There are further signs that the tide is turning. Toyota's 2008 Prius will come with a beefed-up battery that reportedly kicks fuel economy to more than 70 miles per gallon. Honda will release a new gas-electric hybrid in 2009. DaimlerChrysler is road-testing six Dodge Sprinter plug-in hybrid vans. And Ford recently debuted the Edge HySeries, a plug-in hybrid/electric prototype with a backup hydrogen fuel cell. This foray into all-electric vehicles powered by fuel-cell batteries is one that most automakers are experimenting with behind the scenes.

"What we're seeing, at long last, is the laws of competition kicking in for the auto market," says Chelsea Sexton, a former GM employee who's now executive director of the electric-car advocacy group Plug In America. "You've got all these solutions to the fuel-economy challenge emerging at once—flex-fuel, hybrid, plug-ins, fuel cells. I think the market will make room for all of them."

In the near term, I'm still betting that the Volt will be the most viable and practical answer out there. The car works with existing power and fuel technologies. Plug it into any standard 110-volt garage outlet and about six hours later you'll be ready to roll. If your daily drives are 40 miles or less, you might never visit a gas station again, and you'll travel emissions-free, capable of reaching speeds that highway drivers should never see:up to 120 miles per hour. On longer trips, a backup generator fueled by gas, biodiesel, or ethanol will kick in to recharge the battery, allowing the Volt to travel 640 miles (say, from Atlanta to Washington, D.C.) without stopping.

Yes, lithium-ion batteries still need work. "They have to get lighter, cheaper, easier to recycle, and more energy dense, and they need to last longer," says Bill Reinert, the national manager for advanced-technology vehicles at Toyota. Reinert guesses it will be from five to ten years before they're ready for the road.

Yet other insiders insist that the timeline is much shorter, and Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries recently announced plans to mass-market lithium-ion batteries for cars by 2010. Fuel-cell concept cars, by comparison, are well over a decade from becoming an affordable alternative and currently cost at least a million bucks a pop to manufacture. Plus there's the challenge of hydrogen distribution: A new infrastructure of pipes and pumps would have to be installed nationwide before fuel cells could hit the mainstream.

All-electric vehicles, like the limited-production autos currently being sold by specialty companies like Tesla Motors and Phoenix Motorcars, have similar drawbacks. The Phoenix can travel up to 130 miles per charge, but until high-voltage electric outlets are installed at stations across the country, all-electric vehicles aren't a practical answer.

What lies ahead—the evolution from concept car to production—is a long and bumpy road. But it's worth the effort, and it's something consumers should make noise about. GM is building a team of 175 engineers to work on the Volt project, but the company refuses to get specific about a release date or to put a number on the financial resources it's committing. The company says it doesn't want to short-shrift the Volt by putting it out too early, with a battery that isn't compact, long-lasting, and powerful enough.

That may be, but we can't let perfection be the enemy of the good. The economic, political, and environmental arguments for fuel-efficient cars in America are so overwhelming that an imperfect solution in the near term—an electric car with a little less trunk space or a somewhat shorter battery life—may be better than nothing at all.

To get cars like the Volt into showrooms quickly—and keep them there—consumers need to demand them. They can get on dealership waiting lists, call automaker headquarters, and support politicians and groups like Plug In America that advocate green-car technology. Washington must will it, too, both with tax incentives and fuel-economy standards. President Bush offered a nudge recently when he issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to purchase plug-in car fleets as soon as they're commercially available, but heavier-hitting efficiency requirements are necessary to hurry the technology along.

The bottom line: It's up to consumers and elected leaders, not just carmakers, to put clean, green electric cars on the road to reality.

Filed To: Culture

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