21 Jan 2010: Report

The Electric Car Revolution
Will Soon Take to the Streets

For years, the promise and hype surrounding electric cars failed to materialize. But as this year’s Detroit auto show demonstrated, major car companies and well-funded startups — fueled by federal clean-energy funding and rapid improvement in lithium-ion batteries — are now producing electric vehicles that will soon be in showrooms.

by jim motavalli

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.

Getty Images
The Tesla Model S electric vehicle at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
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
A key factor in making electric vehicles possible is the rapid development of lithium-ion batteries.
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.”

For a major automaker, 1,000 cars would not be much to show for a year, but electric vehicles are still in their infancy. And since the electric car’s
An e360 discussion with Tesla's Elon Musk.
first swan song in the 1920s — when the widespread availability of petroleum ushered in the era of the gasoline-powered car — very few start-up companies have reached the milestone of making green vehicles, especially battery-powered ones.

Here’s a look at some of the prime contenders bringing battery cars and plug-in hybrids to market:

The list of players in the electric vehicle race goes on. Toyota is building

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plug-in hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles, and showed off a small cousin of the Prius in Detroit. Chrysler has an ambitious electric vehicle rollout that’s been stalled by the company’s bankruptcy and merger with Fiat. Honda continues to deploy clever hybrid cars, including the upcoming two-seat CR-Z it showed in Detroit. BMW has electrified the Mini for a test program, and has similar intentions for the Concept ActiveE, a plug-in version of the Series 1 BMW coupe. And Audi has shown sudden interest in this segment, debuting the second of its electric e-tron vehicles.

By this time next year, electric cars will no longer be just on auto show stands, but will have arrived in showrooms at last.

POSTED ON 21 Jan 2010 IN Business & Innovation Energy Oceans Policy & Politics Science & Technology Sustainability North America North America 


Great to see green tech progressing, although we should have been here 20 years ago.

Great article Jim

Posted by VentureDen on 21 Jan 2010

Although I think this was a great article, the opening paragraph about how people love their gas guzzling SUV's etc is way off the mark.

May I suggest anyone who truly wants to know why we are still driving around vehicles that are not electric view the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car." It's well founded that the industry itself put a squash on the electric car, not consumers. The movie can be seen for free at You Tube.


Posted by Kristin Barber on 21 Jan 2010

That's all good. I think ...

Rapid mass adoption of electric car technology is going to have rapid mass impacts on the markets for electricity though, isn't it? There's a disconnect between how quickly you can ramp up consumption of those vehicles and how quickly you can ramp up supply of electricity -- something that is planned on a decadal scale. Is someone out there doing the projections?

One of the cheapest quickest ways to get more electricity supply is to build coal-fired plants. How does that trade-off pan out? From a climate change perspective are we better off with coal-powered cars than with petroleum-powered ones?

Posted by Aaron Cosbey on 21 Jan 2010

Interesting point, Aaron.

I think the jump in venture capital that is funding green tech companies this year shows that we will see huge strides in windmill and solar power generation very soon. Wind power capacity jumped 50 percent last year to over 25 gigawatts in the US alone, making the nation the world’s top producer of wind power, we are seeing a similar situaton in the solar farm industry.

I would just hope that green energy grows faster then the increase for electricity grows.

Posted by VentureDen on 21 Jan 2010

The sale of electric cars to those who can afford them is commonly held to be highly benign in reducing greenhouse gas emissions [GHGs].

In reality, that view is a delusion. The petrol that these vehicles will avoid burning will be bought and burned by other people, mostly abroad, at a marginally lower price than it would have made without the electric vehicles' intervention. [Only a global treaty setting binding national caps on GHG emissions can constrain the global trade in fossil fuels].

In addition to this 'status quo' GHG output is that of the power plants supplying the electric vehicles' batteries. Given the small fraction of US power that is neither fossil-fired (including nuclear fission) nor mega-hydro sourced (with its damaging methane emissions) it is reasonable to suppose that the additional power demand from evs' mass-sales would ensure that fewer coal-power plants would close in the coming decades, thus obstructing GHG cuts.

Given the looming impact of Peak Oil supply on the affordability and availability of petrol in the coming years, there is a serious question whether electric vehicles are really a means to reduce GHG emissions, or whether they are actually just a means to keep driving affordable for more people.

You decide.

Posted by Lewis Cleverdon on 21 Jan 2010

Why, why, why do we think this is something new? I spent my summers in the Los Angeles area from 1986 to 1996 and saw all electric Rav4s plugged in at the Aquarium of the Pacific.

The post above by Kristin is right on point. We've had this technology for years and it has been squashed. There is no reason why an electric vehicle should cost $100K!

I am glad to see it has come full circle, but think how far we could have come had we not had to reinvent the wheel.

Posted by Kelly Wenzel on 21 Jan 2010

Why not use this type of technology, instead of building the projected two billion cars, primarily for building (or rebuilding in the US) urban rail so the world does not have to suffer all the material constraints and mining operations, costs of traffic jams and other inefficiencies of a private vehicle transportation system, especially for commuting? Over forty thousand die on our roads each year and many more are injured.

We could have some electric delivery trucks and a limited number of cars, but I see national rail freight and passenger service along with vibrant urban transit as more resource efficient and fun. Rent a car once in a while when you need to go fast or "off the beaten path." What country are we going to tear up now for all these materials, like lithium?

Posted by James Newberry on 21 Jan 2010

Great article. However, Jim didn't mention another global electric car player - Mitsubishi.

Mitsubishi is increasing production of its i-MiEV electric car by 20 percent from an original plan for fiscal 2010 to 8,500 vehicles.

It has sold more than 1,500 units to corporate customers in Japan and will also start selling its i-MiEV electric car to individuals from April 2010. Mitsubishi will start selling the i-MiEV in Europe through Peugeot Citroen PSA, and will also start exporting i-MiEV electric cars to the U.S. in fiscal 2011, leading to a further increase in production.

Posted by Mike on 22 Jan 2010

Excellent points brought by James and Lewis. This whole electric car hype seems to me a way to keep the "American way of life" (i.e. of consuming) intact by allowing people to keep driving for cheap, while sidelining the mainstreaming of public transit or biking as a means of everyday transportation.

The mechanism Lewis describes is I believe an application of what some call the rebound effect: if you cut on the use of a polluting resource in one sector, it will lower overall demand for the resource and make it cheaper for other sectors to use it, thus only displacing demand and not reducing it. That's why the overall consumption of oil (and associated emissions) might not be affected at all by the replacement of petroleum cars by electric cars.

However, one thing that will be affected is the profits of the companies who produce these new cars. They get the "green" subsidies from the government to reduce production costs, and will also get all these new sales from people who believe they will do a good action by going electric.

I believe an application of Jevon's paradox (see www.theoildrum.com/node/6116).

Lewis Cleverdon
James Newberry

Posted by jps on 26 Jan 2010

I am very in tune with the above article. I have had the opportunity to spend a little time in these new technology rides. I am still amazed at how quiet they are from idle to acceleration. I have found them to be very effective from stop light to stop light. The issue remains in my mind about the practicality and longevity of the battery's and running gear. How costly are they to fix and where will we service them outside of the dealerships of course.

My exposure to these greenies is based on my contract with one of the larger companies. We get to ship truck loads of there version of the "green car" from the research department to the testing areas. We have noticed that they are considerably lighter and much easier to move around on the trucks versus the gasoline counterparts.

Posted by Fred Cerrato on 28 Feb 2010

I would just hope that green energy grows faster then the increase for electricity grows.

Posted by chris on 09 Jul 2010

In hybrid venicles there is a gas or deisel backup power. I wonder if an on-board refillagle bladder of compressed air substitute for the gas or deisel fuel backup. It would be used to recharge an expanded batter array and service stations would dispense the air - or a home recharge station with solar or wind power source (or electric)? On board accessories would also draw on the compressed air. Perhaps vehicle weight could be reduced (engine weight subtracted) Government subsidies might be available. It is necessary to evaluate power in and out and storage capacity. This may be a new concept to explore.

Posted by david mcaleese on 15 Jul 2010

As for the demand increase for electricity.. it could easily be at least partially offset and met by currentexcess windpower production.
Posted by Jayson on 13 Sep 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
jim motavalliABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Motavalli is a contributor to the New York Times, CBS Interactive, The Daily Green, and the Mother Nature Network. He is the author of Forward Drive and a forthcoming second book about green cars. In a previous article for Yale Environment 360, he wrote about efforts to build a network of charging stations for electric vehicles.



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