The Death and the Rebirth of the Electric Car

Is the electric car, the Holy Grain of people who seek environmentally sound personal transportation, dead? If one were to see the new documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, one would tend to think so. But developments outside the big automakers suggests that perhaps the electric car is about to come into its own.

Who Killed the Electric Car?, with its breathless tone of conspiracy, tells the story of GM’s EV1, built in response to California’s mandate that a certain number of automobiles sold in that state should run on electricity. The EV1 was not sold to customers, but rather leased. So when the electric car mandate was lifted, GM duly yanked the electric car from its customers and scrapped them.

Who Killed the Electric Car?, in the same breathless tones, suggests some nefarious doings behind the scene. GM would not be able to sell parts for the repair of the EV1, was one reason given. Selling parts for cars is one way an automobile company makes a profit on their products.

Leaving aside the idea that a company ought to be compelled to sell a product that it doesn’t find profitable enough, there were other problems with the EV1 not mentioned in Who Killed the Electric Car? If the EV1 were ever sold in the conventional sense, they would have cost in excess of eighty thousand dollars, based on company information of what it cost to build them. However, without heavy government subsidies, an EV1 would have cost about nine hundred thousand dollars.

The EV1 lacked the range of an ordinary gas powered vehicle. The first generation EV1 with lead acid batteries got about fifty five to a hundred miles before needing a recharge. The second generation EV1, using a nickel metal hybrid battery, got seventy five to a hundred and fifty miles before needing a recharge.

Nevertheless the demise of the EV1 called into question GM’s commitment to developing a viable electric car. Those people who did manage to obtain an EV1 were, on the whole, very satisfied with the driving experience the vehicle imparted. There were unfulfilled waiting lists of people wanting to lease an EV1.

Whatever the reason for the termination of the EV1, inadequate technology or nefarious corporate conspiracy, the question arises-is the electric car now dead? Maybe not.

Tesla Motors, which was bankrolled by internet billionaire and aspiring rocket maker Elon Musk, proposes to sell a line of electric powered two seat sports cars called the Tesla Roadster. It is expected to cost about as much as a high end sports car, about a hundred thousand dollars, and will be available in early 2007 in California, New York City, Chicago, and Miami. An out of service surcharge of eight thousand dollars will be charged for those desiring a Tesla Roadster who live outside these areas.

If the Tesla Roadster the answer to the electric car? The company advertises it as having a range of two hundred and fifty miles before the lithium ion batteries (the same used in electronic devices like cell phones and lap top computers) needs recharging. A connection system ships with the vehicle that can be installed in ones garage. An alternate mobile charging kit allows one to charge from any available electric outlet.

The Tesla Roadster can go from zero to sixty in about four seconds. It has a top speed of a hundred and thirty miles an hour. The Tesla Roadster, were it a gasoline powered car, would get about a hundred and thirty five miles a gallon.

Tesla also has plans for a luxury model four door sedan electric car, the White Star, that will cost about forty five thousand dollars , about the same as a BMW for 2008. A third model that would be “even more affordable” is also in the works. It is hoped that the increased drag for the White Star over the Tesla Roadster will be offset by advances in battery technology to maintain the long range of Tesla’s developing line of electric cars.

Tesla, the company and the automobile, is named after Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-born American inventor, electrical engineer, and scientist. Among his life’s many inventions are the induction motor and alternating-current power transmission.

Among Tesla’s potential competitors are Wrightspeed, which is also offering a high end, electric sports car with a range of two hundred miles. Zap will import an electric car from China that has a range of forty miles and a top speed of forty miles an hour.

Is the era of the electric car at last at hand? That would depend on the response of consumers to the Tesla Roadster and products from other companies. It is interesting that none of the major car companies, GM, Ford, or even Toyota seem to be serious players in the electric car business. Elon Musk of Tesla suggests a parallel between the development of electric cars and the personal computer. The electric car may well be at the point the personal computer was in the late 1970s. The big computer companies of the 1970s, IBM, etc, were not initial players in the personal computer revolution. The players were young upstarts like Apple and Microsoft, now multi billion dollar companies thanks in large part to their vision and risk taking.

As an aside, one of the things that some drivers of electric cars have found unnerving is the absolute silence with which these vehicles run. No problem, suggest some of the engineers at Tesla Motors. They propose an MP3 sound system for the Tesla Roadster that would simulate the robust sounds of a eight cylinder muscle car.

History may be about to repeat itself. If so, a revolution in automobile transportation may be at hand.

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