Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Who Revived the Electric Car?

Electric Cars Roll Again

One scene alone in Chris Paine’s film The Revenge of the Electric Car is worth the price of Netflix rental.

The occasion is the big spring North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Paine, behind the camera, is chatting up Elon Musk, CEO of the upstart Silicon Valley electric car (EV) company Tesla Motors. Serial entrepreneur Musk has rumpled the fenders of auto industry pros by betting his entire PayPal fortune that he can beat them at their own game.

Into his reverie wanders legendary General Motors “car guy” Bob Lutz, Detroit daddy of the Pontiac GTO, Chevy Camaro, Cadillac Escalade, and Hummer, but also the one person officially responsible for pulling the plug on GM’s innovative EV1 all-electric vehicle. The EV1’s traumatic corporate death was the subject of the filmmaker’s 2006 Who Killed the Electric Car? But in Revenge, the sequel, Lutz is one of the good guys, the film’s most unlikely hero—a man using his considerable political capital inside GM to make sure the Chevy Volt makes it into production.

Lutz’s change of heart is not because he took to heart all those “you-killed-my-grandchildren-may-you-rot-in-hell” emails he received after he killed the EV1, though the fact that he even mentions his hate mail reminds us of his humanity. No, Lutz is a good businessman, and cars are his business. He built his career on knowing what Americans want to buy before they know it themselves. It was Lutz who insisted that GM unveil the Chevy Volt at the company’s 100th anniversary party. He has risked his entire legacy at GM on the Volt, betting it will be a commercially viable plug-in electric car.

(Bob Lutz, now retired from GM, heads up VIA Motors, which manufactures a powertrain that transforms GM trucks, vans, and eventually SUVs into extended range plug-in EVs. By 2018 VIA expects to sell 50,000 of its trucks and vans for fleet use.)

It's immediately clear that both Bob Lutz and Elon Musk are impressed by the Nissan Leaf. (photo by XXXXX)

It’s immediately clear that both Bob Lutz and Elon Musk are impressed by the Nissan Leaf. (photo by Tom Raftery)

Together Musk and Lutz, the vocal industry rebel and the consummate insider, glad-hand their way through the New York auto show. Suddenly they come upon the all-electric Nissan Leaf—the well-designed cool blue sedan-style EV that gets more than 100 miles per battery charge. Their virtual silence is instructive. Both are clearly impressed as they study the exhibit. This car comes from Nissan CEO and President Carlos Ghosn, who has bet that company’s fortunes (some say very existence) on electric vehicles.

But the film features one more gambler: Greg “Gadget” Abbott, a talented shade-tree mechanic determined to demonstrate how almost any car can be transformed into a plug-in EV. Abbott is the one “star” of Revenge who doesn’t have a pony in the corporate race. He has staked everything he owns on his personal plug-in electric projects—custom EV conversions including a Triumph Spitfire, a Camaro, and a Porsche. Experimenting with battery configurations, Abbott needs to build cars that consistently get 100 miles or more per electrical charge, the mileage range that meets the daily needs of most U.S. drivers. The magnitude of his personal risk is all too clear when a massive fire incinerates his cars and his uninsured tools and shop.

The E-Bugster plug-in Volkswagen (photo by

The E-Bugster plug-in Volkswagen (photo by Mike Chino, Inhabitat blog)

What is so compelling about electric cars that makes otherwise sane people risk so much on their behalf? Why do naysayers still scoff? And why should the rest of us care?

As California Goes, So Goes the Nation

By 2025 at least one of every seven cars sold in California will run on electricity—just one goal of new policies adopted by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) but a powerful national and international boost for electrical vehicle manufacturers.

In Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car? the California Air Resources Board (CARB) was portrayed as one of the bad guys—accused of gutting its own early zero emission vehicle (ZEV) standards at the behest of the auto industry and the hydrogen fuel cell lobby. (See last issue’s Who Killed the Early EVs? for a political recap.) But CARB was wearing a white hat again by January 2012 when The Bay Citizen and other media announced California’s new vehicle emission standards.

Starting with the 2017 model year California’s Advanced Clean Cars program begins to go into effect, gradually increasing the number of zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) of all stripes and phasing-in other emission standards. When the rules are fully implemented in 2025 all new cars in California will emit one-third fewer global warming gases than they do now and 75 percent fewer smog-supporting emissions. Consumer fuel savings are expected to average $6,000 over a vehicle’s lifetime—more than offsetting the projected average car price increase of $1,900. These calculations, however, were made long before gas prices started to take a dive in late 2014.

Like so many car standards adopted by California—which, by virtue of its huge population, can essentially dictate terms to the auto industry—many other states will probably also adopt these stricter standards.

Why Doubters Still Doubt

Change is hard. Most of us don’t like it, and go to great lengths to keep things just as they are for as long as possible.

Concern about how easily and quickly you can recharge a plug-in electric vehicle turns out to be one key reservation. Sure, with most EVs it’s easy to plug in at home—with most cars you can use a standard outlet, though there are faster charging 240-volt options too—but what about while at work, darting around town, and heading out on the open road? Commercial and public charging stations are on the way but aren’t widely available just yet.

The high cost of electric car batteries is another worry. Overall out-of-pocket cost is another major issue keeping electric vehicles out of the auto industry mainstream, the high sticker price largely due to steep battery costs. The federal EV tax credit is an appealing incentive for taxpayers who expect to owe at least $7,500 in taxes in a given year—at least until 200,000 vehicles of any given model are sold—but doesn’t help those with modest incomes, or who opt to lease. California EV buyers are eligible for state tax rebates of up to $2,500 for most EVs, and up to $5,000 for hydrogen-fuel-cell cars.

Battery quality is also a concern—as well as battery range, or how far you can drive a plug-in before needing a recharge, the power equivalent of filling a gas tank—though advances in battery design and technology are coming so fast, and on so many fronts, that it’s almost impossible to keep up. Various industry insiders are strongly hinting these days that affordable vehicles with EV ranges of 250 miles and more are coming, and very soon. Breakthroughs in EV battery technology are happening on many fronts. Battery University offers a useful historical overview of EV batteries.

Change is hard, but driving a fun car helps (Tesla Model S, photo by Daniel Paraino)

Change is hard, but driving a fun car helps: Tesla Model S, Motor Trend’s 2013 Car of the Year (photo by Daniel Paraino)

Then there’s EV auto battery safety, a concern with lithium-ion batteries loudly pondered by U.S. media in 2011 after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s investigation into post-test-crash electrical fires in Chevrolet Volt. Joann Muller reported on Forbes.com in January 2012 that the Volt’s EV batteries are safe. The worry surfaced again following fires with Tesla’s Model S sedan, resulting in undercarriage safety modifications but pointing to the need for more and better battery options.

What’s Right with Electric Cars

People who love plug-in electric cars are passionate about them and their prospects for saving us from our excesses. The actor Danny DeVito shares this absolute enthusiasm. “First of all,” he says of his EV1, “it was the coolest car I ever had.”

Early in Revenge of the Electric Car DeVito describes his grief when General Motors took away his EV1. He and others drove the experimental cars to assist with their ongoing evaluation, but GM still owned them all. DeVito was crushed when the confiscated EV1s were literally crushed, and electric vehicles in general were left for dead.

Interest in EVs is clearly increasing, that fact being the occasion for Revenge of the Electric Car. At film’s end DeVito takes the new Chevy Volt for a test drive. The Volt doesn’t disappoint. DeVito is sold: “That’s the most solid Chevy I ever drove in my life, seriously!” But his decade-old disappointment is still alive. “You’re not going to take this one away from me, are you?” he asks his driving companion, a GM employee.

"You're not going to take this one away from me two?" Danny DeVito asks about the Chevy Volt in Revenge of the Electric Car (photo by Karlis Dambrans)

“You’re not going to take this one away from me, are you?” Danny DeVito asks about the Chevy Volt in Revenge of the Electric Car (photo by Karlis Dambrans)

The Chevy Volt and similar cars may be the ideal plug-ins for people who are sure they won’t like EVs. The Volt’s appeal comes partly from the fact that it’s not really a plug-in electric. As even GM explains it’s actually an “extended range” gas-electric hybrid. The Volt has a plug-in electric battery that can go 25 to 50 miles (the distance depending on driving conditions) before it needs recharging. But because it’s also a hybrid, if you keep driving instead of stopping to recharge, the gas-powered engine automatically kicks in to power the battery—and car—for up to 300 miles. The new Prius Plug-in is similar, though the range is much lower. In short, Volt and Prius Plug-In drivers never need to worry about how near or far an electrical outlet may be.

By definition true electric cars are powered by electric motors instead of gas engines, as HybridCars.com explains. An electric vehicle’s power is regulated by its onboard controller, which is in turn controlled by the car’s accelerator pedal. The considerable energy needed to propel EVs is stored inside powerful rechargeable batteries—now most commonly lithium-ion batteries similar to those used in laptop computers and cell phones—which are replenished with electricity.

The benefits of plug-in electric cars are fairly obvious. They reduce our national dependency on oil, because they don’t need gasoline or oil to run. Without internal combustion engines EVs don’t produce tailpipe pollutants, although, unless an EV is recharged from solar panels or other clean energy source, their emissions are essentially moved “upstream” to a utility company’s power generation site. But because they are so efficient, even when powered by “dirty” electricity—visualize dark clouds emerging from a coal-fired power-plant smokestack—EVs help reduce the vehicular carbon footprint. And as the electrical grid gets “cleaner,” producing power from solar, wind, and cleaner, greener sources, electric cars get greener too.

The Nissan ENV200 at the 2012 Geneva Auto Show (photo by NRMA Motoring and Services)

The Nissan ENV200 at the 2012 Geneva Auto Show (photo by NRMA Motoring and Services)

With a plug-in electrical vehicle you’ll never (or rarely, in the case of the Volt and other plug-in hybrids) need to go to a gas station to fuel up. Just plug your car in when you get home, and/or when you get to work. The per-mile energy savings is substantial. And if you recharge your vehicle at night, during off-peak hours when energy rates are lowest, you can drop your fuel-equivalent cost even more.

Of course in the longer term, as oil supplies diminish and prices shoot up, plug-in EVs will be more affordable than gas-powered cars. Some observers say we are almost at that tipping point already, once you factor in the savings from low EV maintenance costs. With no moving engine parts to replace and no need for oil changes or emission checks, EVs need very little care. Plus they are fast and very fun to drive, with amazing zero-to-60 mph acceleration.

An Abundance of Choice

Suddenly there are plenty of electric cars to choose from, with almost two dozen available models and dozens more in the works. See Plug in America.com, HybridCars.com, and PlugInCars.com to see what’s coming and what’s already available, from the affordable, immensely popular Nissan Leaf sedan to the pricey Bay Area-based Tesla Roadster, now surpassed by the company’s Maserati-style Model S sedan (Motor Trend’s 2013 Car of the Year) and Model X SUV (still on the way). The Toyota Prius Plug-In has arrived, however, and has been selling fairly well despite the fact that its all-electric range is disappointing—testament, perhaps, to the power of slow but steady brand-building.

Just this month (January of 2015) GM unveiled its very stylish, second-generation 2016 Chevy Volt, expected to go at least 50 miles on a single battery charge and, when regularly charged, more than 1,000 miles between fill-ups. Coming soon is the Chevy Bolt, still a concept car, but expected to become an affordable EV ($30,000) cruising more than 200 miles on a single charge.

Lesser known options include mainstream newcomers such as the new Ford Focus EV, the plug-in Ford Fusion Energi, and the all-electric Chevy Spark EV city car. And could there be anything cuter than the Kia Soul EV? (Well, maybe the Fiat 500e, which looks something like a plump bumper-toed tennis shoe.) And yes, plug-in SUVs are here too, or almost, starting with the seven-passenger Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrid SUV (expected later this spring, with an all-electric version due in 2017) and then followed most likely by Mitsubishi, Tesla, and the Ford Escape.


The Fiat 500e, parked outside the Brady Bunch house (photo by Inhabitat blog)

At the high end there are some contenders aside from Tesla, including an all-electric Beemer, the BMW i3, good for 80 miles between charges, and the seriously pricey Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, which can go all electric, all gas, or both in combo.

China may yet become a plug-in-electric contender. Savvy investor Warren Buffet is betting that China’s BYD (“Build Your Dreams”) e6 crossover wagon, with a reported range of 200 to 250 miles and a top speed of 100 mph, may be the EV that makes them mainstream. According to the company you can plug the e6 into a standard 110-volt household outlet for 10 minutes and charge the batteries to 50 percent capacity, or 15 minutes to reach an 80-percent charge. So far, however, even with an army of engineers BYD hasn’t delivered on its impressive promises.

Despite doubts and naysaying about electric cars, many in the industry believe that their time has come. As one commentator observes in Revenge of the Electric Car, all that’s needed for the success of electric vehicles is time—time for the price of gas to continue climbing and the cost of vehicle batteries to keep dropping, changes that improve cost-benefit calculations.

Time may also change most people’s personal perspectives on cars. After all, in a world increasingly concerned about the effects of climate change, a plug-in EV is the only car that gets “cleaner” the longer you own it, given the expectation that over time the power grid will rely more on renewable energy sources.

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