“Revenge of the Electric Car” director Chris Paine and crew on the floor of the GM Chevy Volt production facility shoot the “birth” of the 100th pre-production Volt EV. Paine’s film “Who Killed The Electric Car?” chronicled the “death” of the Saturn EV1. (Photo: Ecoautoninja.com)
When General Motors pulled the plug on its Saturn EV1 electric car in 2000, most people assumed that was it … lights out for the battery-powered electric vehicle. Only available for lease (it was never for sale), one former user, Los Angeles Internet entrepreneur Chris Paine, held a goodbye party for his car. He was so passionate about it that he produced and directed, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” The 2006 documentary took a look at the rise and fall of the EV1 and what he opined at the time were the forces and events combined to off the electric car.
Just a few years later, hybrid vehicles are all the rage, and with GM making another attempt at reintroducing the electric car this fall, the question has morphed into “Is the electric car really dead?” The answer: maybe not.
Part of the motivation for a renewed EV push could be coming not from GM and its new plug-in hybrid electric Volt EV, but rather from GE (General Electric) and its new WattStation charger, the ads for which are popping up all over TV and other media.
The ad’s tagline says, “While the world is waiting for the electric car, maybe the electric car has been waiting for the WattStation,” a sleek-looking terminal that could have helped the earlier wave of EVs. Introduced to the marketplace this past July, the WattStation, which reportedly can recharge an EV battery in 4-8 hours, is the first national-scale, high-profile device that significantly addresses EV infrastructure. WattStation designer Yves Behar says on the GE site that the experience of using the charging unit is supposed to be “the opposite of using a gas station.” While gas stations are dirty, noisy and harsh, Behar said, he tried to make the WattStation “friendly,” simple, silent and “more like the greenery in the urban environment.”
Behar also said that the WattStation (probably in version 2.0) also has the potential to serve as a digital platform and a connection to mobile devices. Picture yourself driving around in your EV and receiving a text message that an open WattStation charger is close by. Behar said he envisions an ecosystem of applications eventually being built around the WattStation. Initial chargers began rolling out in the U.S. in the second quarter of this year, “with full-scale production ramping up throughout the year,” GE said. WattStations will be commercially available in 2011, and a specialized home version of the charger was targeted for late in 2010. Industry analysts Pike Research calculated that the growing need for intelligent management of electric vehicle charging could create a $297 million industry in the U.S., and $1.5 billion globally as of 2015.
Carousel of EV progress
Most people may not know it, but the electric car can trace its roots back to the earliest days of the automobile itself. At the turn of the last century, the internal combustion, petroleum-powered engine was the exception, not the rule, and EVs actually held most of the speed and distance records. In those early days, expansion of the nation’s electric power grid was well underway, and EVs were seen as cleaner, quieter and more economical than their gasoline or steam counterparts. Inconsistent rural availability of electricity, however, was a major challenge to charging and opening a sales market to farm communities. At their peak in 1912, most of the 33,842 EVs registered in the U.S. were city cars.
Part of the problem that also plagued EVs then and now, is the battery, and its limited capacity. Still seen as too short on distance and too long on price, the battery packs are large and expensive, leading most buyers to prefer a cheaper, gas-powered car as opposed to an EV.
Long-distance batteries are still being researched, and some longer-range tests have reportedly been achieved. For now buyers thinking about going EV need to consider that in 2010 the U.S. government estimated that a battery with a 100-mile range would cost about $33,000. Concerns remain about durability and longevity of the battery. Most batteries will have a slightly lower capacity each time they are charged, though worn out batteries can be repurposed, recycled or even used as a spare.
Then there’s the question of how green EVs really are. Electric cars produce no pollution, but also increase the demand for electricity, and thus raise the question of how much CO2 is generated by the power source used to charge the vehicle, the efficiency of the EV and any energy wasted in charging.
For example, a 2009 study by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, found that if coal is used to power a nearby energy plant, a mid-size EV would emit roughly 11 ounces of CO2 per mile, compared with an average of 9.7 ounces of CO2 per mile for a gasoline-powered compact car. The study further concluded that introducing one million EV cars to a country such as Germany would, best case scenario, only reduce CO2 emissions by 0.1%, if nothing is done to upgrade the electricity infrastructure or manage demand.
The Volt, one of the products of the propped-up GM and its enormous bailout, has been the target of considerable controversy. It can go 40 miles without using a drop of gasoline, but that feature alone may not be enough to hook prospective buyers in showrooms. The Volt’s $41,000 estimated price tag has sent quite a jolt to auto industry analysts. Far above what many consider a reasonable price point for a car that essentially is still just another hybrid, industry insiders have expressed concern that such sticker shock could lead to the car’s own electrocution in the marketplace.
And there are some who wonder whether the average consumer should be the sole target market for EVs. Los Angeles attorney Tom Difloure said he thinks passenger cars are fine, but the industry is missing out on a huge opportunity to really build up the use of EVs as fleet vehicles. “What’s the one application just about any city or town has that makes perfect sense for EV technology: the Post Office,” Difloure posited. “Most of the driving is local, the vehicles leave from a fixed location in the morning to deliver the mail and return to the same location at the end of the day.” He also said the application could be used by other parcel carriers to some extent, and is likely a good fit for local governments. Fleets, he suggested, could account for sales well into the tens of thousands of EVs to carmakers.
Meanwhile, Paine is already in production on a sequel to “Who Killed the Electric Car.” His new film, with the working title “Revenge of the Electric Car,” chronicles key players driving the EV renaissance. Paine says the film will feature behind-the-scenes access to automakers working to electrify the industry, including corporate giants General Motors and Nissan (with its Leaf), as well as recent upstarts such as Tesla Motors.
Still intrigued and want to do a little price comparison window shopping? While not the cheapest EV entering the market, the Volt, isn’t the most expensive either. That honor goes to the Fisker Karma at $87,000 and the Tesla Roadster at $100,000. Just a few dollars more than the Volt is Mitsubishi’s iMiEV at $44,700. The cheapest so far: Nissan’s Leaf, which will set you back $30,000.