Electric cars brought back to life
While the Big Three automakers cry about shrinking market share, a handful of start-ups are tightening their belts and building EVs, one car at a time.
Fri, Dec 01, 2006 at 10:22 AM
SOCKET TO YA: When oil reached an all-time high of $75.78 a barrel, yesterday's has-been electric vehicle became a great white hope.
As far as he knows, Rick Woodbury is the only ordained Zen-priest-turned-electric-car-CEO on the planet. The combination seems a bit odd until you consider that many of the necessary qualities for the jobs are the same: enormous patience, unyielding determination, and an unwavering belief in the possibility of reincarnation. Because for all intents and purposes the electric car was dead, until Woodbury and a few others brought it back to life.
Once General Motors pulled the last of its 800 EV1s off the road and crushed them into metal pancakes in 2004, no one thought there would be a second coming. The only thing that had gotten them on the road in the first place was California’s Zero Emission Mandate, which required Detroit’s biggest automakers to make 10 percent of their lineups completely nonpolluting by 2003. Once California caved to pressure from Big Oil and Detroit and repealed the mandate, GM scooped up the entire fleet — which had been leased, not sold, to customers — and sent them to the scrap yard. According to GM, nobody wanted them. Gas was cheap. The Hummer was a new sensation. Toyota, Honda and Ford nixed their limited EV lines, too.
How things have changed. This summer, oil reached an all-time high of $75.78 a barrel, and suddenly yesterday’s has-been is a great white hope. Hollywood types — like George Clooney, who bought the first Tango electric sports car from Woodbury’s Spokane-based Commuter Cars Corporation — are buying up EVs like they’re, well, Priuses. Chris Paine’s gripping documentary about the EV1, Who Killed the Electric Car?, has been a surprise box-office hit. And in August, a Silicon Valley upstart called Tesla Motors unveiled the EV1’s racy successor, the Roadster, to great fanfare — and promptly sold out its first edition of 100 cars.
Neither the Tango nor the Roadster is built in Michigan. While the Big Three automakers cry into their coffee about shrinking market share, a handful of start-ups thousands of miles from Detroit are tightening their belts and building EVs, one car at a time. With both greenhouse gas emissions and consumer interest steadily increasing, could these outsiders make a zero emission vehicle for the masses a reality?
These new best-of-breed electrics are not like other sports cars. For one, they’re expected to be remarkably low-maintenance. There’s no clutch. No oil. No muffler. No fluids to top off or filters to change — in short, no tune-ups. And, of course, they’ll never have to cross a gas station threshold. Plug one into a regular, 110-volt electric wall socket before bed, and just like a cell phone, it will be charged and ready to go by morning.
Both the Roadster and the Tango (which each cost around $100,000) go from 0 to 60 in four seconds flat. The 130-mph Roadster can travel 250 miles on a single charge — with its leather seats and sleek curves, it’s basically a green guy’s Lotus. The Tango is no slouch either — clocking in at over 130 mph. At 39 inches wide, it can also split lanes like a motorcycle. “It’s the time you’ll be able to buy your way out of a traffic jam,” says Woodbury. (Another bonus: four Tangos can fit perpendicularly into the average parallel parking space.)
And those of us without $100,000 to spare need not despair. There are rumblings from several start-ups that an affordable, mass-produced electric could be around the corner. Some are available right now. Take the Xebra, a funky three-wheeled four-seater from ZAP (Zero Air Pollution), a 12-yearold, publicly traded, California-based company that started out making electric scooters. The Xebra’s no Tesla — it tops out at 40 mph and goes just 40 miles without a recharge. But the average American commute is just 30 miles per day round-trip, so it is an ideal city car. Plus, it’s a hoot to drive, with its Mini Cooper–esque tail and its bulbous body. The basic model retails for a mere $9,000. A mini pickup truck version is on the horizon, too.
Then there’s the smaller-but-speedier NmG (short for “No More Gas”) from Myers Motors, founded two years ago in Talmadge, Ohio. The $24,000 one-seater has three wheels and looks like a bumper car on acid; at 52 inches long, it registers and insures as a motorcycle. Its range is only 30 miles, but unlike the Xebra, this baby can hit 75 miles an hour, so it’s highway-legal; it also has six cubic feet of trunk space (a grocery cart full), a tiltable steering wheel, and ports for both your laptop and your cell phone.
And for those in search of a mate magnet without the Tesla price tag, look no further than World Class Exotics in West Palm Beach, Florida. “You can get a car based on a classic Porsche 911 for $45,000,” says owner Paul Liddle. The car will drive over 100 mph, go 50 miles without a rejuice, and charge to 85 percent full power in a mere 40 minutes. “And it will handle better than it did, better than it could, as a gas car,” he says. Demand, according to Liddle, “is up.” How up? So far, he’s built eight.
And there’s the rub. For EVs to become more than a rich man’s hobby, regular people have to buy them. “They’re trying to attract a market,” says EV World magazine’s editor, Bill Moore, “but it comes back to the old chicken and egg. You’ve got to have a product that’s affordable for people to buy them, but you can’t make the cars affordable until you can make them in large enough quantities.”
Woodbury agrees. “Let’s say you wanted to buy the parts to build a Geo Metro, which is probably a $10,000 car, and you went to a parts counter and ordered them. It would probably cost you over $200,000. There’s literally a 2,000 percent markup. By the time you’ve bought not even half the parts, you’ve exceeded the cost of the car, and all you have to show for it is a small pile of pieces lying on the ground.”
Right now, Tangos sell for $108,000 each and the parts alone cost $85,000, says Woodbury. So far, he’s sold six and taken orders for 100 more, but his plan is to secure enough funding to invest in the infrastructure for producing higher numbers. “If we were able to build 10,000 cars a year, with a $60 million investment, we’d be able to sell a car for $18,700.”
There are several other companies in the same boat. AC Propulsion, the makers of the now defunct tzero and the current Tesla drive train, are working on a Scion EV with a target price of $75,000. Fueled by the latest lithium ion batteries, it will drive 150 miles without a recharge and will hit a top speed of 90 mph. But the car’s in prototype; a mere 20 vehicles are expected be released next year.
Phoenix Motorcars, a renegade company out of Ojai, California, will produce at least 500 electric cars in 2007 for about $45,000 a pop, but they’re fleet orders, says founding partner Dan Riegert. “If we don’t fully subscribe to fleet commitments, we’d be willing to sell to individuals, but I doubt that will happen,” he adds. The truth is that these sub-$100,000 electrics have yet to hit the assembly line. They’re being built by hand, in garages across the country, in the hopes that interest will pick up. Detroit remains steadfastly belligerent to the idea.
Will any of these start-ups ever be able to make the electric car the mass-produced reality that Detroit is so afraid of? “Absolutely,” says Paine. “The train companies of the 19th century did not become the car companies of the 20th century. And I think the gas-car companies might not be the people who make electric cars a viable business. They’re too entrenched in the internal combustion engine; 40 percent of their dealer profits come off aftermarket for the gas engine. The electric car is considered disruptive technology because it breaks their business model. They don’t want it. They want to make money the way they’re used to making money.” The innovation coming from these smaller companies is, continues Paine, “a shot across the bow letting major car companies know that there is a market for electric vehicles.”
Of course, for the electric car to really take off, a lot of stars will have to align: tech, consumer demand, high gas prices. But looking around, it’s starting to seem like exhaust-free roads are more an inevitability than a pipe dream. “I think the handwriting on the wall,” says Moore, “is that electric cars in some form are going to be the way of the future. Will it be in my lifetime? Probably. But definitely in the lifetime of my daughter.”
PLUG IN YOUR PRIUS?
The plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) has been a reality for several years now, but usually only for skilled enthusiasts who’ve transformed their Priuses into plug-ins. Soon, though, those less mechanically inclined can join in as a few companies prepare to roll out conversion options.
In a nutshell, a PHEV is a hybrid with an extension cord. Just like a regular hybrid, it can be filled up with gas. But unlike its hybrid brethren, it can be plugged into an electric socket. “Your car essentially becomes an electric vehicle with a gas-tank backup,” says Paul Scott of the advocacy group Plug In America. They can get approximately 1,000 miles per fill-up — the equivalent of 20 to 30 cents per gallon.
Two companies — EDrive Systems of California (edrivesystems.com) and Hymotion of Canada (hymotion.com) — expect to start converting cars by mid-2007. You’ll be able to drop off your Prius (2004 or later model) in the morning and pick up your PHEV by early afternoon. Your newly transformed PHEV will act like a fully electric car for the first 50 miles, or until your speed hits about 40 mph. When you’re in danger of switching to gas mode, the display will warn you. If you don’t slow down, the car will begin using gas. At 55 mph, three-quarters of your power will still come from electricity.
The cost of this conversion will be around $10,000 — but a cheaper option is also on the horizon for folks who don’t mind getting their hands greasy. CalCars.org, the nonprofit that built the first plug-in Prius in 2004, is planning to offer a kit for do-it-yourselfers in early 2007. Two non-mechanics will be able to convert a car in a week for under $5,000, says founder Felix Kramer. An outfit called Electro Automotive also sells kits online for $6,500 to $15,000 (electroauto.com). Expect about 60 hours of sweat labor for the more expensive “custom” kits (available for specific models, like the Geo Metro), or well over 200 hours for the cheaper “universal” ones.
Even the car companies are getting in on the action. Rumor has it that Toyota will have a PHEV on the showroom floor by the end of 2008. DaimlerChrysler is also testing a plug-in version of its Sprinter van. And GM, who squashed the EV in the first place, has announced a PHEV in development. Ironically, they may have the first such car to market.
Story by Danielle Wood. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.