The EV Revolution

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Electric vehicles power forward and head for the mainstream.

Outrage over the environmental and economic devastation from the Gulf oil spill could represent a real turning point in long-term public attitudes about oil dependence.  Yet, the common knee-jerk response is to throw our hands into the air and say, “Yeah, but we have to drive—we have to get to work.” That excuse is about to ring off the scale on the lame-o-meter, because a wave of mainstream cars that run on zero petroleum is about to hit the streets of California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Michigan, Texas, Tennessee, Greater New York and the D.C. area. Shortly after, EVs will arrive at dealerships across the country.

The electric car revolution is on: The Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt are scheduled to debut later this year, and about two dozen more will arrive in the next few years.

Major car companies have had the technology to make practical and affordable electric cars for more than a century. Ever since hybrid gas-electric cars stormed on the scene a few years ago, green car buyers have been eager to take electric driving to the next stage. So, why has it taken so long for auto executives to get behind electric cars

The complicated answer to that question was addressed in the 2006 documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? On the eve of the re-birth of the electric car, I posed the same question to Chelsea Sexton, one of the key figures in the film. “Electric cars challenge the status quo on which auto executives have built their companies,” Sexton said. “Aggressively committing to EVs is tantamount to acknowledging that these massive companies are not sustainable with what have always been their core products, and for some, comes uncomfortably close to saying ‘maybe we were wrong.’”

Don’t expect a mea culpa from Big Auto. Nonetheless, one by one, the biggest obstacles—some might say excuses—to the mass adoption of electric cars are fading away.

Propelled into the Limelight

Engineers are making steady advances in lithium-ion battery technology. These batteries provide all the necessary power, energy storage, and durability. The Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF will come with warranties of 100,000 miles or eight years.

Worries about limited driving range also are being addressed. The next wave of plug-in cars will commonly offer a range of about 40 to 100 miles—more than needed by most Americans, who on average drive less than that each day. Moreover, car companies, municipalities, and other stakeholders are realizing that almost all electric car charging will happen at home—and can be accomplished overnight during electric grid “off-peak” hours.

In fact, according to Pacific Northwest National Labs, the current national grid has the capacity to accommodate up to 180 million plug-in cars, without a single new power plant, since most of the charging will occur off-peak.

Daytime public charging will be needed only in a pinch, but thanks to generous government grants, hundreds of thousands of public charging stations are scheduled to be built in the next five years, according to Pike Research, a Colorado-based clean-tech market research firm.

Consumers are clamoring for cleaner alternatives. The number of reservation deposits for the all-electric Nissan LEAF has blown away expectations. Three months after opening up its online ordering process, the number of pre-orders (with a $99 deposit) is approaching 25,000, essentially selling out the car months before the first U.S. LEAF owner takes possession of keys.

It’s likely that demand will exceed supply for some time. And that’s before early adopters report their experiences—and share the best-kept secret about electric cars: their low centers of gravity and linear acceleration makes them fast and fun to drive.

Access

Bradley Berman is the editor of PluginCars.com and HybridCars.com. He writes about alternative cars for The New York TimesDetroit Free Press, Reuters and other publications. Mr. Berman is a tireless researcher of the green car market. He speaks directly to industry insiders and participates as a panelist at numerous professional conferences.

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