Electric cars are coming!

We're sorry to be buzz kills. But we've heard this one before. Like in 1990. And 1910. Do the automakers have the juice this time?

Published May 20, 2009 10:30AM (EDT)

On Tuesday, when President Obama proposed the first nationwide regulation of greenhouse gases, which would set limits on tailpipe emissions for cars and trucks, he jacked up the buzz about electric cars. The new regulation requires new cars and light trucks to get on average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, which is almost 40 percent more fuel-efficient than the requirements today. Automakers, which have kicked and screamed for generations about increasing fuel efficiency, stood politely by Obama, having to suck it up, as their fortunes now depend on the government. In good part, they will attempt to meet the goal with a flashy new line of cars powered by the electrical outlet in your garage.

"The industry is already transitioning. Hybrid cars are the first step toward electric drive vehicles, and the question now is how fast will the transformation take place," says professor Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis, and coauthor of the recent book "Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability."

On May 6, Ford declared it would spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convert an SUV plant near Detroit to churn out the Ford Focus. By 2011, the plant would be producing battery-electric versions of the diminutive car. Nissan recently claimed that 10 percent of its new cars will be electric by 2016. Mitsubishi plans to unleash its i-MiEV in Japan this year and bring it to the U.S. in 2012. Toyota, which has dominated the hybrid market with its Prius, plans to launch an electric Prius by 2012. Even famed investor Warren Buffett is jumping on the buzzwagon: He's bought a stake in BYD, a Chinese battery and electric car company.

The big automakers can thank independent upstarts for helping electric cars today lose their glorified golf-cart stigma. The flashy, very limited Tesla Roadster goes for a cool $110,000. If that's a bit steep for you, you're welcome to put down a $5,000 deposit for the forthcoming Tesla Model S, which will go for around $57,000. Some 1,000 would-be Model S drivers already have done so. (German automaker Daimler announced that it bought an almost 10 percent stake in Tesla on Tuesday.) Not to be outdone on the innovation front, there's the $27,000 Aptera, which looks like an insect and has three wheels.

The car in the eye of the publicity storm is the Chevy Volt, which the automaker calls an "extended-range electric vehicle," which promises to travel its first 40 miles on electricity, before burning any gas. Obama has said he wants to see 1 million plug-in hybrids on the road in the U.S. by 2015. He's committed some $14.4 billion in stimulus money to an electric-car future, including $2 billion for battery manufacturing.

The buzz is intoxicating. Yet for 100 years the electric car has shimmered on the horizon, like a mirage, always fleetingly out of reach. Today, even with advances in battery technology, as the major automakers unveil their forthcoming models, they're still hedging their bets that the internal combustion engine's glory days aren't over.

"The technology is always down the road; the better battery is always in the future," says Michael Schiffer, an anthropology professor at the University of Arizona, and author of "Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile in America." "People have been promising better batteries for over a century." Indeed, in 1909, a magazine advertisement for Baker Electric Vehicles touted the revolutionary new cars as "the Aristocrats of Motordom," which would go "100 Miles on One Charge of the Batteries." A century later, in 2009, the Mini Cooper's electric cousin the Mini E, now being leased in a pilot program to 450 drivers in New York, New Jersey and California, promises to go -- you guessed it! -- over 100 miles.

While electric-car enthusiasts naturally welcome the flurry of developments, Marc Geller, co-founder of Plug in America, a nonprofit that advocates electric vehicles, can't help lamenting the time lost by automakers, which turned their back on the vehicles in the 1990s. "The tragedy is that in the '90s this could have been done at much lower cost in every respect," Geller says. "We would be 10 years down the road in terms of achieving economies of scale and understanding consumer demand. At that point, you had profitable car companies attempting to do it, and at this point you have unprofitable car companies doing it essentially on the public dime."

Indeed, the automakers are going electric in part to win the Washington handout. They haven't all of a sudden sprouted an environmental conscience or instituted unique business plans to profit from electric cars. "It's almost impossible at this point for General Motors to make a dime on the Volt," says David Kirsch, a professor at the University of Maryland Business School, and author of "The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History." "They've got to do it to get money from the federal government. Talk about a loss leader."

Ellen Spertus is one driver who can be forgiven for viewing the new generation of electric cars with some skepticism. Back in 2002, the Mills College computer science professor was the happy driver of an EV1, which was General Motors' zippy two-seat electric car.

In the '90s, car companies grudgingly produced a handful of electric cars, such as the EV1, Toyota EV Rav4, Ford Electric Ranger and the Nissan Altra, to meet the "zero emissions vehicle" regulations in California, the nation's biggest car market. The auto lobby in turn lobbied like mad against the regulation. When California weakened its regulations, the automakers largely dumped electric cars. General Motors, in particular, summarily revoked all the leases on the EV1, and crushed the cars, as memorably chronicled in the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

"It's great to see a lot of electric cars are in the works now, but it's hard to get excited about the Volt because G.M. had a great electric car, and they didn't stand by it, they didn't promote it," says Spertus. "Why should I expect them to do anything different?" After G.M. took Spertus' EV1 away, it charged her several thousand dollars for dents in it, despite the fact it was headed to the great auto-body shop in the sky.

Today Spertus, who is now working at Google, while taking a leave from Mills, drives a Toyota Prius, which she calls a "real step backward" from the EV1, since it's only partially electric. "An American car company had a fantastic lead and threw it away," she says.

That's not only the view of one disgruntled car driver. Rick Wagoner, former CEO of G.M., fired by Obama in March, has said that his worst decision as CEO was "axing the EV1 electric-car program and not putting the right resources into hybrids." Says Kirsch: "They should have taken the EV1 and turned it into the Volt 10 years ago. It's 10 years late and $10 billion short."

As the recession grinds on, U.S. auto sales were down 34 percent in April. With Chrysler in bankruptcy and General Motors teetering on the edge, the U.S. auto industry is not exactly in a great position to innovate. Yet it also needs to find a way to meet the new fuel-economy standards and greenhouse gas regulations announced by Obama Tuesday.

While those plans may look good on the environmental drawing board, that doesn't mean they will materialize on the roads any time soon. "In the next 10 years, automakers have to wean car shoppers off of less fuel-efficient cars, and no one knows how that's going to happens," says Marty Padgett, executive editor of theCarConnection.com. "It's one thing for the government to say, 'This is the new standard, and automakers have to meet it.' It's another thing to get consumers to buy the new cars."

Last year, $4 gas found car shoppers considering hybrids and thinking twice about shelling out for monster SUVs. But as the recession has brought gas prices down, hybrids aren't looking as hot. While hybrids made up 3.2 percent of all cars sold in the U.S. in April 2008, now they're back down to around 2.5 percent of new vehicle sales.

Auto industry analysts say that for all the current buzz, it will take decades for electric cars to reach the masses and have any significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. David Cole of the Center for Automotive Research points out that upstarts like Tesla are exciting, but they're no solution. "It's pretty easy to do a $110,000 sports car in low volume because you can put a lot of cost in it and recover that in the sale of a specialized product," he says. "When you get down to something that's got to be $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 -- a lower price at high volume -- the complexity just blows up dramatically. That's where the real challenge is."

John Voelcker, who edits GreenCarReports.com, says hybrids are an illustrative example of how long it will take to get lots of electric cars on the roads. He explains it's taken a decade for hybrid vehicles to get to just 1 percent of global production of new cars and trucks. By 2015, he predicts they'll be at 4 or 5 percent, making up about 3 million of the roughly 70 million new vehicles made each year globally.

Voelcker estimates that by 2015, electric vehicles will make up just 1 percent of new vehicles manufactured globally, even if you count plug-in hybrids. "Because of how long it takes for new vehicles to become a significant fraction of the automotive fleet, it will be two decades before plug-in hybrids have much of an impact in terms of CO2," says Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars Initiative for Plug-in Hybrids, who favors retrofitting vehicles already on the road to use electricity, too.

Part of the holdup is that while battery technology has improved, it hasn't improved enough to make an electric car as affordable as a gas-powered one, even when you factor in the U.S. government's tax rebate of up to $7,500 for buying an electric. Lithium-ion batteries, which power laptops, cellphones, PDAs and iPods, are thought to hold the key for electric cars. That has battery engineers working frantically to try to improve them. "The cost per kilowatt is really what battery engineers all over the globe are hammering on," Voelcker says.

Electric-car historians say we've been waiting for a breakthrough in battery technology for a long time. "In 1898, none other than Thomas Edison promised the super battery," says Kirsch. "We're been waiting for the super battery for 110 years. Why do we think that the super battery is around the corner?" Schiffer takes an even dimmer view. "Battery technology is really mature, and I expect incremental improvement. But anybody who is pinning their hopes for electric cars and hybrids on better batteries is deluding themselves," he says.

To meet the Obama administration's new regulations, automakers can't stop with building electric cars. They will be forced to improve the fuel efficiency of vehicles powered by the old-fashioned internal combustion engine and killing off some of their most hulking gas guzzlers.

Mike Millikin, editor and founder of Green Car Congress, argues that even if automakers make good on their lofty electric car plans, it won't be enough. "We have to step back and keep in mind what the larger goal is," he says. "Even with the technology coming out, we're not going to move quickly enough to do the kind of reduction in greenhouse gases we need -- absent changes in consumer behavior." Although we've heard about those changes many times, he says, they bear repeating: drive less, carpool, walk or ride a bike. "It's going to require big changes beyond 'I'm going to drive an electric car rather than a conventional car,'" Millikin says. "Electric cars are part of the answer. But not the total answer."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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