Updated from original article published May 2007.
Electric cars may be the biggest tease in automotive history. Promised for decades as the mass-market solution to all of our energy, environmental and traffic woes, highway-safe, all-electric vehicles have popped up from time to time in glowing media accounts — but only occasionally on a real road.
This time, however, things might actually be different: Highway-safe EVs seem to be headed toward commercial reality. A handful of start-up companies are building products that are already available. And if you plunk down a deposit right now for at least some of the new highway-safe models, after a custom-build interval of several months, you could expect to receive your new EV sometime next year.
It's true that we already have plenty of workable Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) that can legally putter around at up to 25 mph on 35-mph streets. And dozens of highway-capable EVs are sprinkled across the nation's traffic grid at this moment, including George Clooney's new Tango ride and some still-operable relics called Corbin Sparrows.
But in Save the Earth lore, mainstream EVs rank right up there with the snail darter. In fact, when the notion got closest to technological and cultural success, General Motors killed its EV-1 in the late '90s. And while even the humblest EVs have been embraced by greens and geeks over the years, they've never gone fast enough or far enough to enter traffic with conventional vehicles. So most American consumers have yawned at them.
"Consumers have a hard time understanding the practicality of an electric vehicle that won't do what their internal-combustion vehicle will do," says Ian Clifford, founder and CEO of Zenn Motor Co., a Toronto-based producer of NEVs and, he plans, highway-capable EVs someday. "That's the significant hurdle to wholesale adoption."
Highway-safe EVs finally are becoming tangible for several reasons. First, battery technologies have reached the tipping point in terms of sufficient range and low enough costs. And because of the success of hybrids, many U.S. consumers have become comfortable with the ride and reliability of battery-powered vehicles.
Soon, the U.S. government is expected to add more blessings to highway-capable EVs. The companies in or closest to production predict they'll soon pass required federal crash tests that will validate their claims that their highway-capable EVs are at least as safe as any vehicles already on the road. And new federal tax credits likely will exceed the one that will expire this year, which are worth roughly 10 percent of the price of the car up to $4,000, an amount that was reduced by 75 percent in 2006.
Of course, gasoline prices stuck uncomfortably close to $4 a gallon also have helped persuade many Americans that we really have entered the next automotive era. And a new breed of entrepreneurs, some from Silicon Valley instead of Detroit, have determined to finish the selling job.
If you want your own highway-capable EV by sometime in the next year — or sometime this decade, at least — here are the main options:
Number of passengers: Two
Prices: The base Roadster begins at $109,000, adding options from there that could take the price as high as $122,700.
Availability: The 2008 model has completely sold out. For anyone placing an order now: sometime in 2009. Tesla already has total orders for more than 900 cars.
Headquarters: San Carlos, California
Elevator pitch: "A lot of empty promises are being made by others, but they lack funding or infrastructure and only have prototypes," says David Vespremi, a spokesman for Tesla. "We've already got the real deal."
Why we should believe him: Tesla's extruded-aluminum chassis was pioneered by Lotus, so it's starting with most of the chassis work behind it and the cars are being assembled at first in England. An investment of $60 million in private capital already has been fueling the efforts of a staff of 170 for four years. And Tesla has made seemingly credible commitments to build a new plant in New Mexico and staff a research center in Michigan. For more on Tesla, see "Can a Car Company Change the World?"
Battery technology: Rather conventional lithium-ion cells, but a lot of them: 6,800, each about the size of a tube of lipstick, wired together.
Range: 227 miles
Charging time: 3.5 hours at 220 volts, 7 hours at 110 volts
0-60 mph: 4 seconds
Top speed: 125 mph
Differentiator: The Roadster is built to wow, not just to wean owners off gasoline. Test-drive recipients report peeling the doors off BMWs and Mercedes. Speed shills, of course. And inside the Lotus-built body is a lush interior with leather seats and a state-of-the-art sound system — plus an iPod holder.
Why wait for it: Because if you can afford it, you don't have to wait that long.
Celebrity connection: The Google cofounders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have invested in the company. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been on a test-drive.
Speed bump: Tesla claims that its computer systems will snuff out any hazard caused by the batteries, which are similar technology to the Dell Computer laptop batteries that caught on fire.
Bug-on-a-windshield factor: Every car is equipped with driver and passenger airbags, roll-over protection, and energy-absorbing sections in both the front and rear of the vehicle.
How do I get one?: Go to Tesla's Web site. Or wait until several months from now when the company plans to have its own retail outlets open in five major cities.
Model: Phoenix sport-utility truck and sport-utility vehicle
Number of passengers: Up to five people
Prices: $45,000 for the base model, which includes heat, air-conditioning, power windows and locks, front airbags. Options include leather interior, chrome wheels and navigation system.
Availability: The company is making and delivering about 500 of the trucks this year to California utilities and for other fleet purposes. Individual consumers can place orders this year but probably won't receive a Phoenix until 2010.
Headquarters: Ontario, California
Elevator pitch: Highway-safe EVs aren't just for the rich — thanks to the Phoenix. And these are practical vehicles instead of cramped cages. "We love to drive trucks and SUVs, but we hate to fuel them," says Bryon Bliss, vice president of sales and marketing. "So you no longer have to sacrifice what you like to drive. And you can fuel [sic] them at a fraction of the cost."
Why we should believe him: The company has about 130 shareholders and was founded by two successful entrepreneurs. Phoenix has been hiring experienced hands from computing, electrical and automotive backgrounds.
Battery technology: Lithium titanate batteries made by Altair Nanotechnologies, which won't catch fire.
Range: 130 miles. An upgrade is in the works that will extend the range to 250 miles.
Charging time: About six hours. A special device can charge the vehicle in 10 minutes.
0-60 mph: 10 seconds
Top speed: 95 mph
Differentiator: Phoenix selected a promising price point and vehicle types for mainstreaming highway-safe EVs. And it has among the most promising battery technologies.
Why wait for it: Because it might be the first highway-safe EV available to you that is both affordable and credible.
Celebrity connection: None they crow about yet. Celebrities like six-figure toys.
How do you get one?: Go to the Phoenix Motorcars Web site. By 2009, Phoenix hopes to have dealers nationwide.
Speed bump: Like any vehicle brand with national ambitions, Phoenix also must develop "warranty centers" across the country to handle repairs.
Bug-on-a-windshield factor: Phoenix currently is conducting its federally mandated crash tests.
Model: NmG (no more gas) three-wheeler, an improved version of the Corbin Sparrow whose production was discontinued several years ago. They're featured in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog as The Electric One-Person Car.
Number of passengers: One
Prices: $29,995, down from $35,000 initially. The body is fiberglass and the vehicle is federally classified as a motorcycle.
Availability: Company has made and delivered about 30 NmGs and is producing new ones at the rate of about two or three a month. If you order one now, you will get it sometime next year.
Headquarters: Talmadge, Ohio
Elevator pitch: Myers has lowered the vehicle's center of gravity so it's not prone to tip over as the old Corbin Sparrow was. "And in most places you can drive in the carpool lane," says CEO Dana Myers.
Why we should believe him: Here's a vehicle that's already been proven safe on the highway through years of experience.
Battery technology: Lithium
Range: 60 miles
Charging time: About six hours.
0-60 mph: 12.5 seconds
Top speed: 70 mph
Differentiator: Affordability plus federal safety approval as a motorcyclelike vehicle.
Why wait for it: Because it might be the shortest wait that you have for a highway-capable EV.
Celebrity connection: Not yet.
How do you get one?: Go to the Myers Motors Web site.
Speed bump: Myers has found that any necessary repairs of the NmGs already on the road are necessarily, well, anecdotal. "With a few minutes of conversation with any auto mechanic, we can work out any problems that have cropped up," he says. "If necessary, we send him a part."
Bug-on-a-windshield factor: Myers claims that one NmG owner, rear-ended at 35 mph, suffered only a broken license-plate holder and a crack in one of the fiberglass roof pillars. "He said he wasn't even sore the next day," Myers says.
Many other companies say they're close to fielding highway-safe EVs or are on their way to that. Here are four of the most prominent:
Commuter Cars Corp: President Rick Woodbury has produced a handful of his Tango EVs in simple kits for actor Clooney and a handful of billionaires; they must get the car assembled themselves, so the Spokane, Washington-based company doesn't run afoul of federal law. Woodbury says he needs much more funding to be able to produce Tango en masse and meet his eventual goal of providing the 39-inch-wide car for $10,000 a pop.
Wrightspeed: Founding CEO Ian Wright says that his EV will be available for purchase within about two years. The Wrightspeed X1 prototype is faster than any car available except the Bugatti Veyron, he says, and will sell for about $120,000. Based in Burlingame, California, Wright believes he can give the car a 100-mile range and 4.5-hour recharging time. The former associate of Tesla's cofounders just needs more funding.
Zap: This publicly held company already sells NEVs, such as the ZAP Smart Fortwo, as part of its very-small-car lineup. But the Sacramento-based carmaker also plans to bring a sports EV, the Zap-X, to market by 2010, that would be built around a concept car developed by England's Lotus Engineering.
Zenn Motor: Ian Clifford's company supplies NEVs, but he has his sights on eventually introducing highway-capable EVs. Zenn's leg up, the founder says, is its proprietary relationship with a Texas company, EEStor, that is developing "the holy grail of energy storage," he says. "With that technology, we'll be able to have a highway-capable vehicle with all the performance characteristics that the average consumer wants." For more information see "The Long Ranger: EEStor's EV Ultra-Capacitor."
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