For years, the promise and hype surrounding electric cars failed to materialise. 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.
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 recently 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 centre.)
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.”
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 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: