The Electric Car Revolution Will Soon Take to the Streets  

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Yale Environment 360 has a look at the unfolding transition to electric vehicles - The Electric Car Revolution Will Soon Take to the Streets.

Electric cars are a green movement that is finally moving. Shunted to the side as the public indulged its love affair with gas-guzzling SUVs and four-wheel-drive trucks, history has finally caught up with the plug-in vehicle.

The North American International Auto Show in Detroit is the domestic auto industry’s biggest annual showcase, and the new models have traditionally been brought out in a son et lumière of dancing girls, deafening music, and dry ice smoke. The few green cars that made it this far were usually for display only — very few actually made it to showrooms.

But not this year. It’s become a race to market for green cars, and soon you’ll be able to buy many of the electric vehicles that were on display last week in Detroit. The auto show featured one hybrid and battery electric car introduction after another. Although the only truly road-worthy, plug-in electric vehicle you can buy today is the $109,000 Tesla Roadster, by the end of 2010 it will be joined by such contenders as the Nissan Leaf, Coda sedan, and the Think City.

Indeed, the entire auto industry — from giants such as Ford, GM, and Renault-Nissan to startups such as Fisker Automotive — has joined the movement to build and market affordable electric vehicles.

There’s a reason the automakers in Detroit are finally plugging in as something more than a greenwashing exercise. Spurring them forward is a historic confluence of events. Chief among them are Obama administration green initiatives, including Department of Energy (DOE) loans and grants, as well as economic stimulus funds that provide $30 billion for green energy programs, tax credits for companies that invest in advanced batteries, and $2.4 billion in strategic grants to speed the adoption of new batteries. (Much of that money is going to Michigan, which despite record unemployment is emerging as something of a green jobs center.)

Other factors behind the push to manufacture electric vehicles are a federal mandate to improve fuel efficiency to an average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, concerns about global warming and peak oil, and sheer technological progress building better batteries.

Even without federal largesse, some companies are moving aggressively into the electric vehicle market. A prime example: Coda Automotive, a southern California start-up, has raised an impressive $74 million in three rounds of private funding. CEO and President Kevin Czinger is a former Goldman Sachs executive, as is co-chairman Steven Heller. Among the company’s investors are Henry M. Paulson, who was Goldman Sachs’ chairman and Treasury Secretary under the second President Bush. Clearly, these former investment bankers see electric cars as a good bet.

A key factor in making today’s electric vehicles possible is the rapid development of the energy-dense lithium-ion battery. William Clay Ford Jr., the executive chairman of the company that bears his name, told me in Detroit, “Five years ago, battery development had hit a wall, and we were pushing hydrogen hard. But now so much money and brainpower has been thrown at electrification that we’re starting to see significant improvements in batteries in a way we hadn’t anticipated. Now we have the confidence that the customer can have a good experience with batteries.”

Drawing a huge crowd, Tesla Motors Chairman and CEO Elon Musk showed off his company’s 1,000th electric Roadster at the auto show. “For a little company, it’s a huge milestone,” he told me. “A year ago, we had built only 150 cars. We had two stores then, and now it’s a dozen.” has a look at some potential roadblocks to the revolution - 'Disaster' scenarios for electric cars.
The world is hearing more about, even seeing glimpses of an idyllic electric vehicle future.

But what if things don't go quite as expected, mused a panel of experts on smart mobility today at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.

Participants were ostensibly to discuss what will be required to make smart mobility a reality. They initially gave presentations articulating total lifecycle cost benefits of electric vehicles, their reduced carbon impact, mobility-on-demand as an alternative to vehicle ownership, the moderating effects of plug-in hybrids to potentially reduce utility power plant peaking expenses and more.

The conversation took a different path when Jörg Kruhl, Head of New Technologies for Germany's E.ON, ended his presentation with, "the next three years will be about the breakthrough—or maybe the disaster—of e-mobility."

What could prompt electric vehicle market disasters?

"I think of safety issues. Early trials resulting in images of damaged cars, burning cars. That would be a disaster," said Kruhl, adding, "[but] if that means they do not enter the market for the next ten years, they will come back later."

Some fear that lithium ion-based vehicle battery packs could experience fiery failures of the type occasionally suffered by lithium ion consumer electronics. Jan-Olaf Willums, former CEO of Think, now Chairman of the Zero Emission Mobility alliance—a battery certification organization—downplayed the problem.

"The last time there was a disaster it was because the batteries didn't perform. I think we're beyond the tipping point there. The batteries which are under testing are actually pretty good," he said.

Alan Lloyd, President of the International Council on Clean Transportation, who was very familiar with California's failed electric car experiments in the 90s, thought bad first impressions could be disastrous for the market, for instance "when early vehicles get out there and people are very disappointed with some aspect, particularly with their high cost, say the range or reliability."

The group also had opinions about elements of the electric car value chain to stay away from.

Battery swapping and public charging stations were not seen as having a short term future, for instance.

IEEE Spectrum is also focusing on the downside - Speed Bumps Ahead for Electric-Vehicle Charging and Loser: Why the Chevy Volt Will Fizzle.


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