Front and Center at the Revival of the Electric Car

Front and Center at the Revival of the Electric Car

Is the BP crisis escalating the comeback of the electric car? While the promise of petro-free driving is piquing consumer interest, forward-thinking manufacturers have been gearing up for electrification for over a decade. The world's top players will address the future of plug-in hybrid and electric transportation at Plug-in 2010 later this month.

The great electric vehicle race of 2010 was on even before the Gulf oil spill became the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. As pundits ruminate over a correct response to this catastrophe, automakers, component suppliers, government agencies, utilities and many others are eschewing skepticism for action.

We still don't know how long it will take for the internal combustion engine to fall out of favor, but after sputtering along in fits and starts for two decades, all-electric vehicles are finally hitting the highway.

This bodes well for businesses. Electric vehicles have loads of advantages to offer: no fuel, no oil changes, zero emissions, and tremendously low maintenance. With federal tax incentives, buyers save up to $7,500 per vehicle. While individuals may receive up to $2,000 for installation of charging equipment, businesses may qualify for as much as $50,000.

Vehicle purchasers can immediately recoup some of their initial investment on fuel savings; at an average retail electricity cost of $.11 per kWh, it costs approximately $396 per year to drive an all-electric vehicle. Utilities are presently working on pricing models to provide overnight charging for as low as 4 cents per kWh.

Businesses and government agencies are already having some success with the low-speed, battery-powered neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs). Until this year, NEVs represented the vast majority of electric-vehicle models available for purchase.

Since NEVs work well in communities where the speed limit does not exceed 30 mph, such applications make these cars ideal for fleets. The U.S. Army, for example, has announced that it will lease 4,000 NEVs within three years for transport of personnel, security patrols, and maintenance and delivery services around its bases.

According to Rich Piellisch, editor of San-Francisco based Fleets and Fuels, a bi-weekly newsletter for clean transportation professionals, "Fleets will use electric vehicles as soon as they can get them. At present, fleets are using NEVs around campuses, industrial parks, retirement communities, housing developments, airports, and so on. Dozens of other applications will open up once road-capable electric vehicles become available. For the appropriate application, fleet owners have been extremely content with the performance of these cars."

Piellisch recalled one pioneering fleet manager in Fresno who even had his eye on the Aptera, pictured above at right. "He thought the car would be great for reading meters. He would love to go electric." Piellisch added, "Now that we have road capable EVs becoming available from major manufacturers, we're going to see a lot of fleet managers making the switch to electric."

Fleet managers will soon have a broader range of choices. For example, Freightliner Trucks is the first trucking manufacturer in the country to offer drop frame hybrid electric beverage trucks and vans equipped with Tesla battery packs.

If the great electric vehicle race has a winner, it appears to be Nissan, the first major automaker to achieve widespread sales of a mass-produced electric car: The LEAF, pictured at left. LEAF "hand-raisers" -- the company's term describing those who've indicated they would seriously consider owning or leasing a LEAF - number over 130,000. Sales of the first 50,000 vehicles will begin in December in select markets where public charging infrastructure is most widely available. Nissan will ramp the LEAF up to 400,000 by 2012.

Batteries still remain the largest obstacle to electrification. Research is underway to reduce battery weight, improve the density to weight ratio, and lower the costs. In the case of pure electric vehicles, range anxiety continues to be a concern for drivers even though 77% of commuters travel 40 miles or less per day.

In its own survey, Nissan found that a range of 100 miles would suit the needs of 95 percent of respondents. Automakers must factor in range with a host of other variables in order to find the formula that works for them. "For us," said Keiichi Kitahara, a senior manager with Nissan North America, "100 miles is the sweet spot."

Manufacturers across the electrification spectrum will join representatives from utilities, component suppliers, government agencies, the environmental community, and academia to address these and many other issues at the Plug-in 2010 Conference & Exposition in San Jose from July 26 through 29. The conference will cover all critical areas of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles including batteries, vehicles, and infrastructure. Discussions will be structured around technology aspects, market research, policy initiatives, and commercialization.

"Whether you work for a city that's preparing electric vehicle infrastructure, for a company developing charging stations, for a firm looking to integrate plug-in hybrids or EVs into its fleet, for an environmental organization -- or in any other related area -- we encourage you to attend Plug-In 2010," said Mindy Berman, Plug-In 2010's media manager. "You'll have a terrific opportunity to share best practices, advance policies, hear from industry leaders and see the latest plug-in hybrid and electric transportation innovations on the exposition floor."

For more details about the event, as well as an agenda and companies displaying their EVs at the show, visit plugin2010.com.