On the road again | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: July 16, 2024

After a false start in the 1990s, electric cars are back – and it looks like they’re here to stay.

Diane Daniel | October 2008 issue

I’m having no problem keeping up with Monday morning rush-hour traffic on Highway E18 heading west into Oslo, Norway, although I do wish I knew which exit I needed. Even better, I’m zipping past clumps of bumper-to-bumper cars because I’m cruising at 60 miles per hour (100 kilometres per hour) in the bus lane, taking advantage of my special status: I’m driving an electric vehicle (EV).
My bright yellow ride, which I was allowed to take for a spin a few weeks before it hit the market here in June, is a 2008 Think City. Its Norwegian manufacturer has pre-sold 2,000 of the highway-approved, crash-tested two-seaters (optional back seat), perhaps the most promising electric car to be mass-produced any time soon.
While it’s smaller than my 1994 Honda Civic DX hatchback (34 to 38 miles per gallon/14 to 16 kilometres per litre), the car doesn’t feel all that different. It’s got a Toyota-Prius-like display panel, and its recharging cord sits coiled in the back, ready for the next drink at one of hundreds of free charging stations in Oslo. Considering its quick acceleration, maximum speed of 62 mph (100 km/h), official range of 112 miles (180 kilometres) per charge, darn cute body and $25,000 price tag (plus $200 to $300 a month for the battery lease), I wouldn’t mind owning a Think myself.
Maybe someday I’ll get the chance. If all goes according to plan, Think City will be one of the first of a cadre of reasonably priced, mass-marketed, high-speed electric vehicles sold in the U.S. The plan is to have a few hundred available, mostly for fleets and demonstrations, as early as the middle of next year, with thousands more for consumers in 2010, says Wilber James, acting president of Think North America.
In Norway, half the 2,000 vehicles sold will stay in the country, while the rest go to its Scandinavian neighbours. Think City vehicles should be available in the UK by spring and in Switzerland next year, says Sales Manager Sjur Heglund. After that, the company hopes to add Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands to its global market. The Norwegian plant has the capacity to manufacture 10,000 cars a year; building another plant in California in 2009 is probable, as are others elsewhere. The company hopes to sell 30,000 cars in 2010 and has a sedan ready to roll later.
While Think is making an early push to capture a piece of the American market, the field is crowded, as the recharged interest in electric cars is accelerating at top speed. From the largest American and Japanese automakers to small businesses such as Tesla Motors in California, companies are scrambling to get highway-ready full-electric or hybrid-electric cars on the streets. “Every car company in the world is looking at electric vehicles,” says David Swan, a consultant in battery technology.

Does that mean high-speed electric vehicles will be available to the average consumer next year? That looks unlikely. Only a few automakers have said they’ll have cars in 2009, and if they make it, production will be limited. Beyond Think, the car making the most waves is the Chevrolet Volt, not due out until 2010, which is powered mostly by battery with help from a gas engine. “There is a growing belief that battery technology can advance to the point where plug-in and electric cars can become a viable option,” says Brett Smith, senior research analyst at the Center for Automotive Research. “But that doesn’t mean they will, or that they will soon.”
However, if public interest is the gauge, the surge is unstoppable. “The electric genie is out of the lamp and there’s no pushing it back in,” says Linda Nicholes, president of advocacy group Plug In America. “I think that’s what automakers tried in the past, and this time it’s too late for that. People need a new way to power their cars.”
More and more consumers aren’t even waiting for automakers. Businesses that convert gas cars to electric (yes, it’s possible) are being inundated with phone calls and work orders, while low-speed electric vehicles are showing up in dealerships and on streets from Florida to California and throughout Europe.
Meanwhile, the public’s curiosity is growing. Involvement in America’s largest advocacy and interest groups—Plug in America and the Electric Auto Association (EAA)—have shot up this year, says Marc Geller, a board member of both. After a few stagnant years, the EAA has seen a doubling of national members, and a large increase at its 50 North American chapters’ (there’s also one in Germany) public meetings. Plug In America’s mailing list is 10,000 and growing, Geller says. A competition is also afoot that offers a $10 million prize to teams developing vehicles that get at least 100 mpg (42 km/l) or the electric equivalent, win a series of races and can be mass-produced. The privately funded Progressive Automotive X Prize competition will be held across the U.S. next year, with prizes to be awarded in 2010.

EV admirers are spreading the word, too. There’s the 15-year-old girl from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who bicycled across the U.S. last summer to deliver an electric-car petition to Washington, D.C., the movie star George Clooney awaiting his Tesla in the public eye and former Intel chief Andy Grove, who speaks and writes about the virtues of plug-ins. Even U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain are promoting electric cars in their energy plans. So why is all this happening now? Did consumers finally hit the panic button when gas prices skyrocketed?
“Of course the price of gas is a huge factor,” says Bill Lentfer, senior technical engineer at Electro Automotive, one of the longest-running gas-to-electric conversion shops in the country, in business in California since 1979. “But I really think it’s the zeitgeist of the thing. Some people want to be part of the change, some want to be on the cutting edge and some people just want to stick it to the man.”
Another factor on everyone’s lips is the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? The film, written and directed by Chris Paine, chronicled the histories of several electric cars, especially General Motors’ EV-1, put on California roads in 1996 after the state mandated production of zero-emission vehicles. When the regulations were rolled back in 2003, GM and others later recalled their electric cars (most were leased) and even destroyed them, despite a campaign by drivers to keep them. “That movie was the best PR we had,” says Geller, who still drives a vehicle from that era, his beloved Toyota RAV4 EV, which he was able to purchase instead of lease.
So why should we expect electric cars to succeed when they failed a decade ago? “With the technology being realized, my optimism says it will make it this time,” says consultant Swan, of Nova Scotia, Canada, who served on the expert panel of the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board during the no-emissions era. “I’ve seen the interest rise and fall several times, but today there’s a lot of new blood and a lot of new ideas.” Swan is pleased with the progress of Think, which has a storied past in California. “I think City cars are a very good place to start,” he says.
The company, called “Pivco” at its inception in the early 1990s, was bought by Ford Motors during the no-emissions period, when it sold the cars in California under the name “Think Nordic.” After pumping $10 million into research and development, Ford sold Think when the regulation was overturned. The company was moved back to Norway, and a new set of Norwegian investors formed Think Global in 2007. The company plans to roll out an electric sedan called Ox in 2012.
The only new high-speed electric car available in the U.S. this year is the splashy Tesla Roadster, with an acceleration capacity of 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) in four seconds, and a top speed of 124 mph (200 km/h). While the California company has more promotional merchandise than cars—and their $100,000 price tag is far out of reach for most consumers—its arrival has been hailed as significant. “There are numerous reasons why Tesla is important,” says research analyst Smith. “It’s certainly pushing the envelope and making people react to it—consumers, battery companies, major manufacturers. The barrier is how long it’s taken Tesla to get cars on the road. They are evidence that it’s just not that easy to make a car.”
While Tesla earlier announced it would produce hundreds of cars this year, only 10 had been delivered as of mid-August. A whopping 1,000 have been pre-sold, while the company’s reported backlog of one year will grow much longer at the current rate of production. One Tesla owner, original eBay president and billionaire philanthropist Jeff Skoll, calls the car “a joy to drive.” Skoll is a principle investor in the company, funded primarily by chairman Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, an e-commerce business eBay bought in 2002.
“It’s light and fast, and it handles very well,” Skoll says of the Roadster via email. “Unlike any gas car, there is full power throughout the range, so you don’t have to wait for the engine to rev up.” The southern California resident notes the 250-mile (400-kilometre) range can be a hindrance, but says, “I hope this opens a new way for people to think about transportation.”
In his experience, driving a Tesla can’t be done anonymously. “People recognize the car all the time,” Skoll says. “Some people even get out at stoplights to ask questions—all guys though, alas.”
At the opposite end of the sexy-ride spectrum are Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs). These low-speed electric cars are configured to go 25 mph (40 km/h) and can’t legally be driven anywhere the speed limit tops 35 mph (55 km/h). They typically have a range of 30 to 50 miles (50 to 80 km). Manufacturers include Chrysler’s Global Electric Motorcars, Zap, Zenn Motors, Miles Automotive and Myers Motors. Traditionally, NEVs were found only in gated communities and company lots; now they’re showing up on city streets. “NEVs are very viable and affordable,” Plug In board member Geller says. “The problem is the restrictions.”
While most states allow the vehicles regulations and enforcement vary among cities. Despite that, Ian Clifford, president of Zenn (Zero Emissions, No Noise) of Toronto, Canada, estimates there are 45,000 NEVs and climbing on American roads. In his home country, federal and provincial rules forbid electric cars most everywhere, though British Columbia and Quebec allow low-speed electric vehicles on its urban roads.
In practice, many NEVs are being altered to go 35 mph (55 km/h)—and should be manufactured to operate at that speed with safety features to match, says Russell Sydney, who heads the Sustainable Transport Club in Santa Monica, California. “Five states have passed laws that allow NEVs to drive 35,” says Sydney, whose group, in conjunction with electric car dealership Environmental Motors, has asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to create a middle-speed classification for all-electric cars that reach 35. “They acknowledged receipt several months ago and they’re sitting on it,” Sydney says of the request.

So what if you just can’t wait for your electric vehicle, one that goes on the highway and is crash-tested? You could do what Jim Pick of Pittsboro, North Carolina, did and convert your gas car to electric.
Pick bought a long-dormant 1987 Mazda pickup to experiment with, and plans to replace his lowest-mileage car with the truck once he gussies it up. The day it was delivered to his rural home, Pick and his wife, Judy, stood like expectant parents as mechanic Mike Moore backed the pick-up off the trailer he’d driven from South Carolina. A former race-car mechanic and driver, Moore owns Ampmobiles Conversions with his wife Paula. Moore does two to four conversions a week, conducts experiments for battery-makers and teaches daily conversion workshops.
Not only did Pick take Moore’s class, his truck was the one converted. “Mike said, ‘Give me a list of your expectations.’ I told him I needed at least 40 miles on a charge, and to drive at least 55 or 60 miles per hour for short distances,” says Pick, a retired veterinarian. “I live out in the country, and there are stretches where you need to do 55. He said all that was possible.”
Pick’s interest in electric cars started a few years ago. “I’ve always been into the idea of saving energy,” he says. “We have geothermal, solar hot water. People are looking at statistics and finding they really don’t drive long distances. An electric car just seems to me to be the logical way to go. I’ll use this to go to the store, take the trash to the dump, do errands.”
Also on hand was Tom Arnette of Graham, North Carolina, who’d arranged to drop off his 1992 Ford Ranger for Moore to take back to his shop and convert. Pointing out specifications to both men, Moore pops open the Mazda’s hood and, later, inspects under the bed behind the cab; both areas hold rows of sparkling clean six-volt batteries, 24 in total. “Let’s assume you have a problem with a battery,“ Moore says with a deep Carolina drawl. “If one battery goes bad you can remove it.” Otherwise, he explains, the vehicle won’t run.
While Moore gives a series of tips—“Always use the parking brake; the vacuum pump is what you hear when you turn the key; never have it towed with a tow dolly”—his wife runs a video recorder for the training film she plans to make for new customers. Everyone stops to admire Pick’s license plate: NOFRNOIL.
Moore, who started the business in 2005, says his days keep getting busier. “This year it has just gone crazy,” he says. “But some people, I talk them out of it instead of into it, mostly because of range. If they want to do 70 miles an hour for 100 miles (115 km/h for 160 km), you just can’t do it. So I don’t want them to get one and then go around badmouthing the electric car.”
The average price for a conversion kit ranges from $5,000 to $10,000, about $12,000 to $18,000 if you hire a mechanic. The EAA estimates there are 10,500 converted vehicles in the U.S., half in California. Bob Batson, owner of Electric Vehicles of America in New Hampshire, which engineers and sells conversion supplies, this year set up a network of mechanics across the country who do conversions. Moore was first on the list, and Batson expects to have one in every state by December.
With all these electrical vehicles out and about, where are drivers charging them away from home? Generally any 110 or 220 volt plug (some cars have both) will do the job, but location is the biggest factor. For now, charging stations are being built in dribs and drabs. Some large employers install them by employee request; others are found here and there, such as the 15-station network from the Florida Keys to New Smyrna Beach in central Florida.
A larger U.S. effort is underfoot, however. In August, the principles at Nissan Americas, based in Franklin, Tennessee, said they’d work with the state and the utility Tennessee Valley Authority to study a charging station infrastructure. (The automaker has said it will sell an electric car by 2010.) Around the same time, General Motors announced a relationship with Electric Power Research Institute, which represents more than 30 electric utilities in North America, to examine how power companies will cope with the charging demands of electric vehicles. Also in August, the city of San Jose, California, signed a deal with Coulomb Technologies to install electric charging stations in garages and on street lights. Furthermore, Coulomb said it hopes to put 450 stations, called Smartlets, into service nationwide. In Britain, a national network of more than 1,000 charging bays is in the works. By the end of 2009, about 200 will be installed in London, with the rest spread throughout the country.
Smith, at the Center for Automotive Research, predicts that despite the clamour for all-electric, the “limp-home” factor—when EVs stop running if they exceed their range—will interfere. “There’s no way without electricity that you can get home,” says Smith, who predicts the electric hybrid may come out on top. “I think the next big thing will be the Prius electric hybrid,” he notes, a car that, like the Volt, can rely on an internal-combustion system when the battery discharges. A plug-in Prius, however, isn’t expected to hit showrooms until at least 2010. Meanwhile, some Prius owners are buying $10,000 conversion kits, which can extend their electrical miles greatly before the gas engine kicks in.
Smith hopes automakers take the time to develop quality products. “We’re in a period now when, because of public relations and environmental issues, technology is being pushed to the market quicker than it would normally,” he says. “You might think that’s good news, but if you bring the technology out and it doesn’t work, then it’s bad technology. Oldsmobile brought out diesel cars [too fast] in the ’80s, and they were a catastrophe. They killed diesel’s future [in the U.S.]. There are stories like that happening frequently in this industry.”
Paine, who made Who Killed the Electric Car?, has grieved one round of deaths in the industry, but is hopeful for this seeming resurrection of electric vehicles and its new legions of fans, many of whom he’s been credited with bringing along. “You have to have a generous spirit with people who just woke up,” he says. “Welcome to the party. We need everyone on board.”
Paine, who has criss-crossed the country several times to speak at special screenings, is busy working on a new, more optimistic film on the electric vehicle’s renaissance. The title? Revenge of the Electric Car.
Diane Daniel wrote about a couple that remodeled an older home into a carbon-free zone in the September 2008 issue.

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