Electric Cars: Charging Forward, or Out of Juice?
From Houston Chronicle
By Carolyn Lochhead
Electric cars are at a fork in the road, with oblivion lying in one direction, and the mass market in the other.
A woeful tale splayed across the pages of the New York Times on Feb. 8 of a dead Tesla electric sedan getting towed in wintry Connecticut did not seem a promising start.
But the firestorm that followed – Tesla founder Elon Musk all but accused the reporter, John Broder, of lying, Broder issued a point-by-point rebuttal, and CNN conducted a re-do that vindicated the car – highlighted the battle under way for the hearts and wallets of drivers.
At stake are an estimated $7.5 billion invested by the Obama administration, and billions more by automakers who will put eight new models of plug-in vehicles on U.S. roads this year, including versions from Ford and BMW. Nissan has invested $5 billion in electric cars, and General Motors $1 billion.
Mass adoption of the electric vehicle, or EV in car lingo, is critical, experts said, to controlling greenhouse gas emissions. That means weaning drivers off the internal combustion engine.
“There’s no backing off,” said Brendan Jones, director of marketing and sales for the all-electric Nissan Leaf. Nissan has just opened a big new battery plant in Smyrna, Tenn., where it builds the Leaf, and is racing to dot the nation with charging stations.
‘Like a Porsche’
Elizabeth Ferber just leased her first Leaf for her commute from her home in Albany, Calif., to her job in San Francisco.
“It takes off like a Porsche,” Ferber said. “It works perfectly. It loves traffic, it loves red lights, and it loves going downhill,” when the battery recharges itself. Ferber said she is saving roughly $150 a month on gasoline, after subtracting the cost of her home charging. Plus she gets to drive in the HOV lane.
U.S. households paid nearly $3,000 last year for gasoline, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, nearly 4 percent of their pre-tax income.
Sales of the Leaf, the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt and similar cars have fallen far short of expectations, despite a $7,500 federal tax credit and another $2,500 rebate in California, with many other states offering similar sweeteners.
That has led some analysts to conclude that the cars will never be more than a niche product.
“The Volt is a car that is genuinely fun,” said Timothy Cain, founder of goodcarbadcar.net, a website that “passionately” sifts car sales statistics. “The power is instantaneous. It’s a spectacular feeling, strangely normal and so abnormal at the same time.”
Still, he said, plug-in hybrids made up just 0.6 percent of new U.S. car sales last year, “and that was boosted by rebates that aren’t available to buyers of other cars.”
Vast expansion of charging stations, changes in drivers’ mind sets, battery improvements and lower prices are needed before the cars become mass-market, Cain said.
Enthusiasts embrace the new vehicles with evangelical fervor.
“People become evangelical because electric cars are simply better technology,” said Kirk Brown, the San Francisco based managing director of Plug in America, a non-profit group of dedicated drivers. “They are more responsive, quicker, they have better traction and control. They feel safer and in fact, they are.”
Drivers who have made the leap to electric seem to love the cars. The Volt ranks higher than any other car in customer satisfaction, according to Consumer Reports, and is outselling half of other car models, including the Mercedes S class and several Audis.
General Motors thinks the market is so promising that it is introducing a Cadillac extended-range plug-in, which like the Volt will have a gasoline powered generator to charge the battery when it gets low, as well as a new electric vehicle called the Spark, said Shad Balch, General Motors’ spokesman for environment and energy.
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