electric car

On the third day of Christmas a Model S for Dee

It was only a few months ago that I happened across a Tesla showroom, and I do use the term showroom loosely. There was one (very very nice) car in the showroom with about 40 customers drooling over it (including me). I stated that the Tesla would be my next car, I was so impressed. Then I found out that in order to take the car for a “test drive”, I needed to leave a (fully refundable) $5,000 deposit to go towards an order for my very own Tesla, which incidentally takes 11 months to get one made for you. I started to wonder…Would I really want to spend $100K plus on a new car. Heck, I could almost buy a house for that price!

I found out this morning that the Tesla won the automotive industry’s equivalent to the Grammy for Best Motion Picture. Judges have unanimously voted the Tesla Model S the 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year. The U.S.-manufactured electric vehicle (EV) becomes the first vehicle to win the award not powered by an internal combustion engine in the 64-year history of the publication.

In 2010, the Department of Energy backed Tesla Motors, Inc., with a $465 million loan for the construction of two manufacturing facilities, one in southern California for the Model S electricsedan and one in Palo Alto, California, for electric powertrains. The Palo Alto facility is for assembling electric vehicle battery packs, electric motors, and related electric vehicle control equipment, both for Tesla's own electric vehicles and for sale to other automobile manufacturers. The Tesla offers three lithium-ion battery packs for the Model S that are designed to provide ranges of 140, 200, and 265 miles per a single charge. The 2012 model has an EPA combined city and highway rating of 89 miles-per-gallon equivalent.

Santa, I would like a new RED one just like the one in the picture for Christmas. You don’t have to bring in down the chimney, parking it in the driveway with a big gold bow would work just fine.  Thank You!

--Dee Cox

Photo credit: Tesla, Motor Trend

Tesla's Model S invades dreams and soon showrooms

The Tesla Model S beckons to me from a poster tacked to the wall behind my computer terminal.

It's a sleek silver with custom rims that look like blades of a jet turbine. I can imagine popping the door, climbing in after work and blasting quietly onto the freeway listening to AC/DC's Highway to Hell. 

That's the thought anyway.

Daydream nation

Many motorheads are likely tuning to a similar daydream. Cool car, custom and the latest technology. Great name too. Tesla, after Nikola Tesla, one of the greatest electrical engineers of the modern era, responsible for developing the alternating current electrical supply system. He even demonstrated wireless energy transfer back in 1891 and inspired a pretty decent rock and roll band.

Suffice to say the dude is cool. And so is the car named for him. Although this vehicle's arrival has more to do with Tesla Motors Inc. Chairman Elon Musk, another bigwig in the innovation realm. In addition to his co-founding of Tesla, Musk also has been instrumental of the commercialization of space travel via his efforts on SpaceX and its Dragon spacecraft, which returned successfully from a trip to the International Space Station.

Summer is the S season

The Model S is due in showrooms June 22, but the first cars will likely go to reservation holders as the manufacturer slowly rolls out each completed vehicle from assembly lines at the Fremont, Calif. plant. In an 8-K filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Musk writes that reservations for the Model S topped 10,000 soon after first quarter 2012.

"We plan to continue making customer deliveries on a slow, methodical ramp, and remain confident in our target of 5,000 vehicle deliveries by year end," he says.

Anticipation is building. "Eagerly waiting for delivery in LA 'Lower Alabama,' writes jlswit on a post by George Blankenship, Tesla vice president of sales, on the company website. There are many more such fan responses.

Range is key

The car sounds like a major step ahead of the competition. In addition to Chevy's Volt and Nissan's Leaf, Ford's come out with an electric Focus, trumpeting "You'll never need a drop of gas or an oil change." Mitsubishi has its odd looking MiEV, which according to the manufacturer is the "greenest vehicle of 2012." And there are the independents: Coda, Fisker and others.

The base price of the Model S is $49,900. But the statistic that catches my eye is the range. Darren Quick of gizmag.com posted a chart provided by the company that shows a potential distance of 450 miles on a single charge. Of course the driver would have to limit speed to about 25 mph, but it's possible.

Quick says the company plans to issue a prize to the first customer who logs more than 400 miles on a charge. More likely drivers will see their range between 250 and 350 miles, he says.

That range beats the pants off other electrics and makes the car more likely to win converts from the internal-combustion crowd.

Turning dreams into reality

And it makes me want one. This kind of interest in a car reminds me of my dream back in high school. Then I was deep into 1950s retro and Hot Rod magazine.

I daydreamed of a 1957, or 1956 (I wasn't too proud), Chevy Nomad. Black. In fact, I just spotted one on Blackstone Avenue in Fresno, Calif. A Bel-Air version in mint condition. It looked awesome but didn't quite have the same appeal to my present-day self. I ended up in high school (class of '79) with a $300 1963 Ford Galaxie. Four-door land yacht. Still, I loved the stupid thing.

The Model S has a taste of the exotic. In fact, it looks far more high-end than its price would indicate.

I recently stumbled across a peek at an Austin Martin DBS concept car that shared a look similar to the Model S's sweeping lines and tough, eat-you-for-dinner grill and front end. Not bad. To me the DB series will always be one of the coolest cars ever.

So if my fortunes change and I'm following this particular daydream to reality, you can expect to see me picking out a color and adding custom features to my own Model S. Yeah, right.

Donut-shaped EV goes back to the future, hovering in Beijing

This two-person transporter appears straight out of "Back to the Future II."

But it's not. Volkswagen AG, the folks who brought you the people's car, brings this prototype to light with the help of its People's Car Project, a contest that generated 119,000 ideas, most notably a two-seat, electric Hover Car, that looks like the metallic version of a massive heavy equipment tire.

The project was launched in 2011 and resulted in three top picks. The Hover Car, which travels above ground on an electro-mechanical roadway, is joined by the Smart Key and Music Car. All were on display at the Beijing Motor Show.

"The creative ideas from the People’s Car Project give us a valuable insight into the wishes of Chinese drivers", says Simon Loasby, head of design at Volkswagen Group China, in a statement. "The trend is towards safe cars that can easily navigate overcrowded roads and have a personal, emotional and exciting design."

The video is entirely in Chinese but gives an excellent idea of how the hover car operates.
According to the Volkswagen website, the Music Car is equipped with organic light emitting diodes, and the exterior color of the vehicle changes with the driver’s choice of music. "The car thus becomes a means of self-expression and a fashion statement for young drivers," officials say.

The Smart Key is a slim 9-millimeter key with "a high-resolution touchscreen which keeps the driver up to date on the fuel situation, climate conditions and the car’s security via the 3G network. The driver can also monitor the vehicle from a bird’s eye perspective through real-time satellite transmission."

Volkswagen Group's Luca de Meo, director of marketing, says that in "a long-term context" the project will influence the company's product strategy. However, "the design of our models will, however, continue to reflect the tradition of the Volkswagen brand."

So don't expect to see the Hover Car in the commercial market anytime soon. But it is cool.

Finding a solution to clean energy is one man's quest

Andrew West has nothing against clean energy.

"But they don't have the capacity to make a measurable difference in the near term," he says.

West says he has spent the past decade and about $7 million searching for solutions to big problems. One of those is clean energy. He and I began an email conversation after West commented on a colleague's blog post about the study "Beyond Boom & Bust," which said clean energy has reached a crossroad because federal support is expected to plunge. The study was put together by the Breakthrough and World Resources institutes and Brookings Institution.

West's focus is on concepts that can make an immediate difference. "We have been held hostage by oil imports, and the availability of energy is necessary for our continued growth," he says.

More than clean energy

West didn't limit his quest to energy. On his site, solutioneur.com, he also outlines concepts to tackle and develop sustainable agriculture, assist education, create affordable urban living and enable more effective and job creating charitable giving.

The quest is a big one and potentially all consuming, especially for one guy. But the Earth has big problems, and we all need to do our part. Rebecca Solnit writes of "chipping away" at the problems facing the current economic quagmire and besieged climate on TomDispatch.com. "We now live in a world that is wilder than a lot of science fiction from my youth," she says before extolling her readers to "find your way into solidarity and people power, and dream big about other futures."

And West dreams big. His solutions are listed as intellectual property and owned by his AWEquities LLC. His Solutioneur Foundation is a nonprofit "that seeks to provide assistance in the research, development and demonstration of ideas, concepts and projects that can have an important social impact and can be shared with the world more rapidly."

Oxy-fuel combustion

As for clean energy, he suggests replacing coal and traditional natural gas-fired power plants with oxy-fuel combustion technology, which he says can produce twice the kilowatts and slash emissions compared to traditional natural gas plants. Oxy-fuel technology also has been tested using coal to reduce pollution by the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

Oxy-fuel combustion has been extensively studied but a google search shows much of it geared to coal and CO2 sequestration. The process involves burning fuel in a nitrogen-lean and carbon dioxide-rich environment, accomplished by supercharging the combustion process with exhaust gas and oxygen, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study.

This results in emissions "of predominantly carbon dioxide and condensable water" rather than traditional nitrogen-rich stack exhaust. Applications also include manufacturing, studies show.

West says he'll release information on a project to demonstrate oxy-fuel combustion on a natural gas power plant in the near future. "Oxy-fuel natural gas can reduce CO2 by 80 percent, eliminate NOx and SOx, without any increase in the price of electricity," he says.

Plug-in hybrids

West says with cleaner energy, the best option for transportation is hybrids that have a range of about 50 miles on batteries (basically a little better than a Chevy Volt). "This would reduce CO2 emissions from automobiles by 50 percent or more," he says.

An analysis by Adam Aston at GreenBiz.com of conclusions by the EVProject, which has compiled data from 24 million miles of electric vehicle drivers, shows that most EV drivers don't exceed 27.7 miles a day, that Volt owners like to use electric mode rather than gas, that average recharge times are 1.5 hours and that it's too early to judge demand.

West says, "I know there is a lot of anger towards any fossil fuel, including natural gas, but it can be burned cleaner and the results make a significant difference now."

He's one of a growing army of people looking to promote change an idea at a time.

Electric vehicles better watch out for flying pizza drones

Recent movies like "Transformers," "Inception" and even "District 9" have elevated public expectations of technological breakthroughs.

Science portrayed on film promises powerful new energy sources, morphing smart robots and mind-bending concepts. Tune in "Men In Black III" and watch Will Smith travel back in time to rescue his friend Young Agent K (Josh Brolin).

Alas, the real world is somewhat less fantastic, ushering in a limited-range electric vehicle for the dawn of the 21st Century. Call it the curse of George Jetson. The cartoon about a red-headed buffoon living in an idealized future premiered 50 years ago on Sept. 23, 1962, and while some of its computing predictions have hit the mark, others like personal space flight remain decades distant.

Robotics finds friends

On a side note, robot development does appear promising, especially with drone aircraft. The pursuit also has taken root amongst young people with events like the 2012 VEX Robotics High School World Championship over the Earth Day weekend in Anaheim, Calif. Tiny Riverdale High School's team under the tutelage of Roland Reyna placed in the top 40 of 396 teams. Reyna, who lives in Fresno, Calif. has inspired a team of mostly farmworker kids to tear apart old donated computers and electronics devices to make amazing stuff.

Still, nobody's created anything to keep up with Rosie, the independent house-cleaner robot that took care of Jetson family disasters. Likewise, George Jetson's flying transport with its iconic bleeping propulsion system may never get built, especially the feature allowing the bubble-shaped vehicle to fold into a briefcase.

Instead we have electric and hybrid powertrains that have yet to intrigue a significant percentage of U.S. drivers. The big drawback beyond their limited range and consumer resistance is the high battery cost. This prices many EV and hybrid models in line with entry level luxury cars.

Recharging EVs

There are also recharging issues to deal with. A support network is critical, says a report by the American National Standards Institute.

"This infrastructure must be reliable and broadly interoperable regardless of the type of EV or charging system," say the authors of "Standardization Roadmap for Electric Vehicles."

The report says that pesky recharge requirement is needed "at home, at work, and in public locations." The big question is how the infrastructure gets built and who pays for it. The home part's covered. Owners foot that bill.

But along highways and at many places in towns and cities? The private sector will have to work that out.

Systems of tomorrow

There's potential for wireless charging, but its arrival -- if ever -- is years away. In the interim, most of the options involve plugging in at a variety of locations and service stations and sitting there from 20 minutes to three hours while the car battery fills with energy. The problem here is to have the right recepticles and  proper systems. Conformity and industry standards will have to be settled before too long. The beta vs. VHS war of the early 1980s provides an earlier example of some potential pitfalls.

To move this technology forward, prices must drop. But that requires more sales. Solving the conundrum could take time.
Meanwhile, other technologies could steal the spotlight.

For instance, Thomas Frey of the DaVinci Institute speculates that pilotless drones will nose their way into the consumer consciousness. He offers this anecdote in a blog post: "Imagine yourself in 2030 ... sitting in your living room watching your favorite show on a 3D holographic display, and ... you instantly start craving pizza, and simply utter the word 'yes.' Thirty seconds later, a flying delivery drone docks with your house and delivers the exact pizza you were craving along with a six-pack of your favorite beer."

Nothing like Jetson's car. But the concept does sound possible.

Pilotless drones

A recent episode of "Harry's Law" on NBC featured a story about a woman whose privacy was invaded by police using a small drone to spy on her in her bedroom. The situation is speculative, but the technology is real.

Frey says flying cars will require the development of the following: fully automated navigation systems, low-impact vertical take-off, convenient fly-drive capability, silent engines and specialized safety systems.

Give it time. Frey contends flying cars -- should they be cheap enough to get all us George and Jane Jetsons puttering around the sky -- could do for transportation what the Internet has done for communication. "We could only begin to imagine the opportunities that would eventually accompany this kind of innovation," he says.

Coda ships first car; electric vehicle news accelerates

Coda is shipping its small electric cars to customers.

Mercedes, meanwhile, has confirmed that it will begin building an electric version of its SLS super car .

And recharging stations are popping up. Oregon's got a 160-mile section of Interstate 5 covered with eight recharging stations, enabling electric-car drivers to conquer range anxiety. Even in California's sunny and fossil-fuel dominated San Joaquin Valley, such docking stations may be on their way.

"Change is coming," writes John Voelcker, senior editor of Green Car Reports, in a piece about the declining price of electric car batteries that touched on EV trends. He advises taking the long view of the industry and forecasts a price decline in batteries of about 7 percent a year.

Developments continue

Activity in the electric car sector -- despite the lackluster sales of the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf in recent months -- has been nothing short of frenetic. Automakers and parts and component manufacturers just keep announcing developments, far beyond the prototype stage. And while Coda's deliveries are about a year and a half later than initially promised, the cars are on their way to a dealer network. Tesla's also planning to bring its Model S sedan to market in big numbers next year, and its Model X SUV is in the works.

Even the resurrected DeLorean Motor Co. is back with an electric version of its flagship gull-wing "Back to the Future" car.

Now there's even an option for the person of means. Say this average high-brow consumer has a little spare cash, maybe something north of $200,000, for a unique environmentally conscious ride. The Mercedes SLS E-Cell would be the perfect selection.


Electric cars can perform

And it will be U.S. made. Brian Dodson of gizmag.com says the offering from Mercedes-AMG has been "confirmed for production in Detroit in January will be available in 2013."

Dodson says the E-Cell accelerates from 0 to 100 km/h in 4 seconds, just a hair shy of its gas-powered counterpart, which covers the same distance in 3.8 seconds. The e-version tops out at 155 mph, while the other can manage a whopping 197 mph.

"You will not believe the performance," says David Coulthard, former Formula One race car driver from Scotland and sometime TV commentator. That's him in the video.

Another sports car heavyweight, Porsche, has a monster of its own in development, the 918 Spyder. It boasts two electric engines, one for the front wheels, another for the back and an 8-cylinder engine. In all the hybrid offers up 770 horsepower, says Damon Lavrinc in jalopnik.com.
Smaller market larger

OK. So most people will be thinking smaller. Coda comes to mind. And the Tesla Model S does 0 to 60 mph (about the same as 100 kilometers) in 4.4 seconds.

The intent of Benicia, Calif.-based Coda Automotive appears to be the average, environmentally minded consumer who's not afraid of dealing with occasional range anxiety. The targeted consumer would see the car as a plus, a way to save gas on perhaps about 90 percent of his or her routine travel.

Ben Coxworth of gizmag.com says three buyers snapped up the Coda soon after its debut, two from the Los Angeles dealership and another in Northern California. He says the car reportedly averages 88 miles on a charge despite a maximum listed range of 125 miles.

Market for the Coda

The Coda has an understated and rather generic look, bypassing the otherworldly unique design of the Leaf and the custom and aggressive stance of the Volt. In a somewhat counter intuitive move not likely to attract a thrifty audience, the Coda has been priced at $44,900, higher than the Leaf at $35,200 and the Volt at $39,145.

"As an upstart automaker, Coda Automotive always faced an uphill fight against electric cars like the Nissan Leaf," says Chuck Squatriglia of wired.com's Autopia. "Slapping a $44,900 price tag on its forthcoming EV has made the road ahead that much steeper."

Federal tax incentives for electric vehicles shave up to $7,500 off the sales price. Residents of California can qualify for a $2,500 tax rebate through the state's Clean Vehicle Rebate Program.

EV forecast cloudy

The reign of the electric car remains somewhere in the future. Coda and struggling competitor Fisker, which also recently rolled out its first cars, don't appear likely to alter that forecast. Escalating gasoline prices enhance consumer interest, but the American public is notoriously fickle and resists change.

However, Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research projects that by 2017 "more than 1.5 million locations to charge vehicles will be available in the United States, with a total of nearly 7.7 million locations worldwide."

About a third will be home-charging units

Charging centers coming

Infrastructure to support electric cars is beginning to materialize. A $200,000 grant issued by the California Energy Commission to the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District will enable the regulatory agency to study the best locations for plug-in recharging stations and assist jurisdictions in crafting permitting processes. The Air District plans to set up a coordinating council to help promote the use of the cars in the politically and fiscally conservative region.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy has offered up a new grant program intended to take a bite out the diesel and natural gas big truck market. The agency, which has done quite a bit promoting the electrification of the highways in the past several years, has made up to $10 million available to proposals that "demonstrate and deploy electric transportation technologies for cargo vehicles, such as trucks and forklifts."

The Energy Department's intention is to help reduce the nation's reliance on gasoline and diesel and diversify the nation's energy portfolio. Money would go to "demonstrate cost-effective zero emission cargo transport systems and collect detailed performance and cost data to analyze the benefits and viability of this approach to freight transportation."

Getting electric power into cargo transportation is the goal. The move, if successful, would significantly cut consumption of fossil fuels and slash greenhouse gas emissions.

Integration takes coordination

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions is working a different angle with similar intent. The nonprofit succeeds the Pew Center for Global Climate Change and generates analysis and seeks to find solutions to avert global warming.

The center, in the report "An Action Plan to Integrate Plug-in Electric Vehicles with the U.S. Electrical Grid," says electric cars could become an important part of the U.S. market if given "a fair chance to compete with conventional vehicles."

It proposes standardizing regulations as they relate to the electrical grid. These are multi-tiered involving everything from commercial recharging stations, home chargers and the finance of such infrastructure to protecting the grid, rate structures and encouraging beefing up the system for demand.

Jacking the grid

Between a major new source of energy consumption (electric cars) and power generation (solar, wind and other renewables), utilities will have a heck of a time sorting it all out while providing a steady stream of consumeable current over power lines. Analysts expect changes at many levels with smart grid technology emerging as an important element to maintaining system integrity.

This includes integrating smart meters, meter networking and communication, in-home energy management, demand response, meter data management, other smart grid software and services and related gear into an outdated and often overtaxed grid, according to Jeff St. John of greentechmedia.com.

"The smart grid market continues to move ... to a wide swath of new, advanced applications ranging from consumer behavior analytics, to next-gen control and protection, to greentech integration and grid optimization," St. John writes.

How all this turns out is anybody's guess. We were talking with our friends at the Air District about the subject, and the conclusion is that we probably won't be seeing noticeable change, at least in the San Joaquin Valley, any time soon.

Other stories of interest:
The DeLorean is back and this time it's electric
Electric car sales ramp up, is change coming?
Stockton electric truck company scores big with UPS

The DeLorean is back, and this time it's electric

Translogic's Bradley Hasemeyer talks with the chief executive of the revived DeLorean Motor Co. about its new electric version of the iconic car made famous in the "Back to the Future" movie trilogy.

Stephen Wynne, DeLorean CEO, explains how he bought the company and its technology after restoring and repairing existing models. He's now using the inventory and plans to make new cars, and after being inspired by Tesla's Roadster decided to build an electric version.

This electric DeLorean puts out an impressive 260 horsepower. The original offered less than half that. And it sports a number of upgrades. But it won't come cheap. The price for the car is in the $95,000 to $100,000 range but will have a significant number of options, Wynne says.

Expect more from the Texas-based company, however. "We've got to move to the next level of technology," Wynne says.

At the DMC website, there's more information. Not everybody wants an electric car, obviously. The company sells used vehicles that look immaculate. For instance, a 5-speed with 4,357 miles runs just $54,900.

Electric car sales ramp up; is change coming?

Electric automobile sales have yet to disrupt the dominance of internal combustion.

Electrics at this point would appear bound for a niche market, hardly living up to President Obama's pledge to encourage their proliferation to about 1 million plug-ins on the road by 2015.

That prospect had gop.com's research division saying: "Another day, another broken promise from President Obama."

Fisker flounders

And Fisker, the manufacturer of the much-ballyhooed Karma and recipient of a half billion-dollar U.S. Department of Energy loan, has announced layoffs after issuing recalls in prior weeks of its more than 200 cars sold. John Voelcker of greencarreports.com says Fisker and fellow electric car builder Tesla are vulnerable to the same type of criticism surrounding failed photovoltaic panel manufacturer Solyndra, which also was on the DOE's loan llist.

None of that taint appears to have landed on Tesla, which is coming off a raft of positive press with increased sales, a deal with Daimler for an electric Mercedes-Benz and the debut of its electric SUV, the "Falcon Wing" Model X. If this latest round of news is any indication, the appetite for electric cars may prove more robust as consumer options and infrastructure to keep the cars charged increase.

Tesla shines

The sector remains unproved. Tesla, despite its evolution, continues to lose money. But revenue is increasing. Chairman Elon Musk says in the company's 8K report to shareholders that "net losses will continue as planned until we reach volume sales of Model S in 2013."

The Model S is a high-end family sedan built in Tesla's Fremont, Calif. factory. The price is expected to be somewhere north of $60,000. Musk says about 8,000 orders for the car have been placed so far. It accelerates from 0-60 mph in about 4.5 seconds, which is faster than my friend Al's built-up 1977 Trans Am.

The Model X is a media darling, getting coverage all over the Web and in the automotive press. Huffingtonpost.com's Sharon Silke Carty says it "has struck a chord with wealthy, environmentally conscious customers" who snapped up about 500 reservations after its recent debut.

Production is expected to begin in late 2013 with customer deliveries starting in early 2014, Musk says. Volume is targeted at 10,000 to 15,000 units per year.

EV sales lackluster

EV sales currently are dominated by General Motors and Nissan. The Volt closed out 2011 with a minor sales flurry. It sold 7,671 units for the year, with more than 1,500 of those in December, according to figures compiled by Martin LaMonica of cnet.com.

Nissan sold 9,674 units of its all-electric Leaf, with 954 of those in the final month of 2011, according to goodcarbadcar.net.

Other nameplates sold fewer cars.

Electrics find a place

But battery power is making headway on the highway. At least in California, the cars have become more commonplace. The other morning as rain pelted me in the health club parking lot, a Leaf quietly rolled past. The thing moved like an oddly shaped ninja. And all lit up in the darkness, it even looked graceful.

Soundless electrics certainly would reduce road noise, until a Harley with straight pipes pulls up alongside.

Gas prices make a difference

Gas prices, which could push $5 per gallon this summer, may influence some buyers. Oil-price.net reports oil per barrel prices above $100 for West Texas Intermediate and its one-year forecast price climbing $20. That's not a big deal. Crude prices have hovered around the centennial mark for a couple years now.

But it's the rapid rise nationally in gas prices in the first months of the year that has some worried about what the summer holds. Summer is usually when more people are on the road and prices increase at the pump.

Ronald D. White of the LA Times quotes analyst Brian L. Milne as saying the early increase may point to higher prices later in the year. "There's a chance that the U.S. average tops $4 a gallon by June, with some parts of the country approaching $5 a gallon," Milne says.

Nothing inspires change like price increases. Of course, electric cars remain very expensive.

Hydro Gene makes a prediction

Automotive enthusiast and hydrogen energy activist Gene Johnson says as long as the price point for electric cars sits so far above the average consumer's means, the segment will remain somewhat exclusive. Johnson, a big clean energy proponent in California's San Joaquin Valley, offers a better method -- retrofits.

He and some friends took a Toyota RAV4, removed its gas-burning stock engine and replaced it with an electric drive train. They sold it on eBay for more than $20,000, easily covering the retrofit cost with a tidy profit.

He says that's the way to go. Johnson predicts more companies will enter the conversion business. He even goes so far as saying Fresno would be a great place to start.

Solar shoulders in

At some point, on-board solar may play a role in recharging electric cars.

The solar-powered SolarWorld GT started the U.S. leg of its round-the-world trek at the University of California, Santa Barbara and plans to drive across the country, according to gizmag.com. The car, a collaboration between solar panel manufacturer SolarWorld, and Bochum University of Applied Sciences in Germany, is hardly a production vehicle.

But its sojourn may be the start of something. The car and its team are to head to Florida, where the GT will be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to continue driving across Europe, Asia and Africa and back to Darwin, Australia. Assuming the car returns, "it will set the Guinness Record for the longest distance covered by a solar car -- approximately 34,000 kilometers, or 21,080 miles," Ben Coxworth writes.

Such accomplishments are but interesting footnotes. However, should solar panels some day be incorporated cheaply into a car's surface and still be efficient enough to provide a continuous charge, there's no stopping the electric car.

We'll see.

Photo: SolarWorld GT race team.

Building a sustainable-car market with 8 horses

Jim Kor could design great heavy machinery and standard automobiles.

But he wanted something more, something sustainable.

What he came up with is an 8 horsepower car he calls the Urbee. His crew designed it by taking what he calls the "long view," looking for ways to reduce impact while providing people a way to continue their car-centric pursuits. He said that now there are about 1 billion vehicles on the road.

"By mid-century, there could be almost 2 billion," Kor said in a presentation at the State of Green Business Forum in Chicago early in 2011. "This could lead to global ecological catastrophe."

Reducing smog

Perhaps. Two times the number of internal-combustion engines burning fossil fuels could smoke the skies, adding dangerously to the already high carbon content of the atmosphere. But many besides Kor are engineering concerted efforts to subvert that scenario. A number of those projects found their way to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Sturgis (for you biker fans) of U.S. car shows.

As never before, designers and innovators are looking to engineer the automobile to run on something more than a gallon of fuel every 10 to 12 miles. Not that there's anything wrong with awful mileage, within reason. There are quite a few cars far beyond my reach that I'd love to have in my stable.

Mercedes joins the game

Mercedes-Benz, which is hardly known for its fuel-sipping ways, came out with several models of interest. The most obvious and different looking is the Smart pickup, which runs on a 55 kilowatt magneto-electric motor, powered by a 17.6 kWh-capacity lithium-ion battery pack, according to Ben Coxworth, a reporter for gizmag.com.

"The Subaru Brat-like mini rear cargo bed definitely gave it a unique car-truck-combo appeal ... or repulsion, depending on the observer," Coxworth writes.

Mercedes also debuted its E300 diesel hybrid, which writes Sebastian Blanco of autoblog.com, is expected to get 45 miles per gallon, while the gas-electric E400 Hybrid is expected to get 27 mpg.

Sailing the autobahn

Blanco says the E-Class hybrids use a combination of lithium-ion batteries, regenerative brakes and the ability to "sail" to save fuel. "Sailing here means that, at speeds of up to 100 mph, the combustion engine can switch off while the electric motor keeps the car moving," he says.

Mercedes maintains its traditional horsepower with 231 for the E300 and 333 for the E400.

That's not super green but far better than most luxury performance sedans I occasionally dream of owning. Here's a post I wrote while still business editor of the Fresno Bee about perhaps my ultimate ride, the Audi A8, driven by Jason Statham in "Transporter 3." Fuel economy: 16 mpg, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's fueleconomy.gov. The car is amazing, and I can just imagine shortening the ride from my sister's house in Hermosa Beach from four hours to two plus, screaming down 99 in the pitch black sharing the road with nobody but truckers.

Building a better Urbee

Kor's venture is not yet ready for prime time. His base is in a Winnipeg, Manitoba shop, and he could use some investors. The Urbee is a hybrid that's engineered to slip through the wind with the least amount of resistance and expended power. He says he wants to make it simple and patterned it after the easy-to-build-and-repair Ford Model T and Volkswagen Beetle.

Kor says the majority of what's produced today is unsustainable, and he'd like to help change that. "The solution resides within all of us," he says.

Cars are an obvious entry point to sustainability. They're full of fantasy and style, as Kor says. Make the next Aston Martin DB5 ("Goldfinger" version) in green and watch the industry evolve overnight, or something like that.

Ford electrifies Fusion

Even Ford is getting into the alternative transportation game. Globalenergywatch.com reports that the automaker's Fusion is the first sedan to offer gasoline, hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions this year.

"Derrick Kuzak, Ford's group vice president of global product development tells the site: "We brought our global teams together around a blank slate with the charge to develop a mid-size car with ground-breaking design and jaw-dropping fuel economy."

Ford's entry continues to crowd the field, adding to Chevy's Volt, Nissan's Leaf, Tesla's Roadster and upcoming Model S and various other makes.

EVs stalk commercial market

It's hard to say how the segment will fare with consumers, who fret about range and recharge speeds. But energy costs, especially with continued uncertainty of supply from the Middle East, drive development of electric and hybrid vehicles. And don't expect any sustained declines in fuel prices.

Ulicia Wang of earth2tech.com reports another trend that could sneak up and grab a bunch of market share: commercial trucks. VIA Motors, headed by former General Motors Chairman Bob Lutz, retrofits new trucks with electric/gas drive-train capable of 402 horsepower. The first 40 miles is electric with a range of 400 miles using the gas engine.

Wang says the company plans target corporate clients and later consumers.

Green car rental

And there's the Venice Beach, Calif.-based outfit MPG Car Rental, which rents a fleet of high-mpg vehicles like the Honda Insight and Chevy Volt to people in Los Angeles. "MPG is helping reduce our carbon footprint and bring an affordable green alternative to car rental," the company says.

More like-minded companies will spring up. Their success or failure will help chart the course of the electric-vehicle segment. I'm betting such entrepreneurship, high gas prices and an expanded EV and hybrid lineup will pull in significantly more believers.

And that's not even counting the electric motorcycle market.

Photo: gizmowatch.com

Stockton electric truck company scores big with UPS

United Parcel Service plans to swap 100 of its delivery trucks for versions that never need to refuel with diesel.

They will, however, need to plug in.

Stockton, Calif.-based Electric Vehicles International finalized a deal with the package delivery company that will likely be viewed by many as a breakthrough for commercial electric vehicles.

"EVI's vehicle met our requirements in the test phase," said Mike Britt, UPS's director of vehicle engineering, in a statement. "Now we will operate these vehicles in the real world and help establish the future viability of this technology."

Trucks join electric market

The electric vehicle roll-out largely has been dominated, at least on the media front, by Nissan's Leaf and General Motors' Chevy Volt. But there are other players in the plug-in field, and the emerging commercial truck market appears to be one to watch.

David R. Baker of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that other electric-vehicle companies are looking to get into the commercial truck market. He writes, "Frito-Lay last year agreed to buy 176 trucks from Smith Electric Vehicles U.S. Corp., based in Kansas City, Mo." Staples, he says, purchased 41 plug-in trucks from Smith and Ford, with Azure Dynamics, have sold 30 of their electric vans with more planned.

Segment shows promise

Smith advertises its trucks by promoting fuel savings of 75 percent over diesel-burning counterparts, zero emissions, "slashed" maintenance costs "because there is so much less to maintain," less noise and being "perfect for urban deliveries."

And it appears expansion is in the works. The Kansas City Business Journal reports that earlier in 2011, Smith raised $58 million, "which it planned to use to pay for the recent purchase of its British counterpart, Smith Electric Vehicles UK, and to build up its supply-chain and manufacturing capabilities."

California Energy Commission Vice Chairman James Boyd says the purchase by UPS of the EVI trucks benefits all involved and pumps up the state economy. Boyd says the deal "improves public health by reducing air pollution," adding that EVI's decision to establish a new manufacturing facility in Stockton provides much ­needed jobs and sales revenue to the San Joaquin Valley.

Future growth

The electric and hybrid market remain less than 2 percent of new vehicle sales, and commercial truck sales are a fraction of that. However, numbers in the segment are expected to increase steadily. Going-electric.org says the most pessimistic forecasts predict that sales of electric cars, including plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles, will reach 3 percent of all new cars while the most optimistic show the market segment growing to about 15 percent.

The site did predict that sometime during the next decade EV and hybrid sales "will rapidly rise to a near 100 percent." For more on the topic, go to this previous post.

Recharge stations coming for electric cars

Commercial recharging stations for electric vehicles will materialize, a new study says.

The view may sound like "the check's in the mail" response to many who purchased the first wave of electric only cars.

Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research projects that by 2017 "more than 1.5 million locations to charge vehicles will be available in the United States, with a total of nearly 7.7 million locations worldwide."

About a third will be home-charging units.

Pike Research President Clint Wheelock and senior analyst John Gartner say electric vehicles are coming. "It is only a question of how many plug-in electric vehicles that tap into the grid for power will be driving alongside their internal combustion engine counterparts," they write.

While the electric and hybrid market remain less than 2 percent of new vehicle sales, numbers are expected to increase steadily. Going-electric.org says the most pessimistic forecasts predict that sales of electric cars, including plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles, will reach 3 percent of all new cars while the most optimistic show the market segment growing to about 15 percent.

The site did predict that sometime during the next decade EV and hybrid sales "will rapidly rise to a near 100 percent." For more on the topic, go to this previous post.

Pike says the Asia Pacific region will lead charging-equipment sales. It attributes the prediction to strong government incentives and directives in China, Japan and Korea followed by increasing private sector investment.

Configurations of for-profit stations weren't discussed in the study's free executive summary, but Pike says the business model will evolve and grow as operators create new services. It also says prices for charging systems will drop by more than a third in the next six years.

Photo: Courtesy Pike Research.

EV, hybrid sales mediocre but sector expected to grow

Electric cars are coming to a lane near you, but nobody seems to know how quickly or what to what extent the U.S. consumer will switch from filling up to powering up.

While the latter term definitely sounds cool, few have adopted the concept. Edmunds Auto Observer reports that the two battery-powered vehicles and 29 hybrid models now on the market remain below 2 percent of U.S. auto sales.

"Were it not for Toyota, there'd barely have been a July hybrid market to track," writes John O'Dell for Edmonds.

Sales up in mid-summer

Sales crept up in July over the previous month but still remained below the same period a year earlier at about 18,000 hybrids and EVs. O'Dell says the high price for premium technology doesn't sell well in a soft economy, especially when small cars with conventional engines are getting such good mileage. Much of this may be due to availability of electrics, of course.

Sales forecasts show different scenarios. Two provided by going-electric.org indicate slow but steady growth over the next decade.

Going-electric says the most pessimistic forecasts predict that sales of electric cars, including plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles, reach 3 percent of all new cars while the most optimistic show the market segment growing to about 15 percent.

While the site said sales through 2020 largely depend on government incentives for consumers and car makers, it did predict that sometime during the new decade EV and hybrid sales "will rapidly rise to a near 100 percent."

Some goals fall short

A new report by Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research says that sales expectations by President Obama of 1 million plug-in electric vehicles on the streets by 2015 "appears to be well beyond what the actual vehicle market is likely to be."

Pike Research does say the annual market for plug-ins should grow to about 1.3 million vehicles by 2017, and that the overall market, with hybrids, should grow to 2.9 million. Not bad.

The U.S. Department of Energy hopes to make sure local governments are ready. DOE unveiled a couple of programs designed to help cities, counties and states design permits, provide inspectors with training and speed inspections

Standardize charging station regs

The idea is to create a standardized process and "create more favorable conditions for EV businesses, including infrastructure providers and installers, to thrive as more plug-in electric vehicles come to the market," officials said in a press release.

One of the serious downers for electric car drivers is range anxiety. Most of the cars get less than 100 miles. While no big deal for a set commute, throw in an extra trip, a wait in traffic and the driver starts worrying if he'll have to do the Fred Flintstone and push with his feet. No Yabba Dabba Do there.

However, there is some help in that department. Ariel Schwartz of fastcompany.com put together a piece on phone apps that highlight nearby charging stations. Of course those are few and far between, but more are promised.

Expect more EV sightings. I've seen Nissan Leafs when I'm least expecting it and passed a Chevy Volt down by Pixley on Highway 99.
Photo: Porsche 914 EV conversion on sale for $9,000.

Electric car bulletin: Tesla posts losses, Ford & Fisker prepare EV debut

Electric cars have been on the road a measly few months and they're already dominating automotive news.

Tesla posted first-quarter losses nearly double those of a year earlier. Ford plans to begin production of its electric Focus late this year. And Fisker stands to be the second major independent automaker to launch commercial production and sales of an electric car.

Expect more to come. The sector once was only a partially forgotten memory relived by people who had seen the 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

But now it promises to get increasingly active as the year rolls on and buyers appear. Utilities are talking about recharging centers and retailers are planning to stock home-charging devices as more and more of the vehicles enter the commuting landscape.

Detroit automaker Ford plans to join Nissan, Chevy and sports car builder Tesla with commercial-scale production of electric vehicles in the United States. But it looks to be beaten to the punch by Fisker Automotive, which intends to deliver its long-delayed 403-horsepower Karma to showrooms in June or July, according to a story by Katie Fehrenbacher at earth2tech.com.

Ford advertises the EV Focus as guilt-free.

The car offers a 6.6 kilowatt on-board charger that enables it to be recharged in half the time it takes for the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, says Nick Chambers of plugincars.com. Of course, with the Volt's smaller battery, that difference works out to about the same amount of recharging time.

"The Focus Electric looks like a true competitor and will likely make Leaf fence sitters think twice — and may even cause some current Leaf orders to give up their place in line," Chambers writes.

Like the Leaf, the Focus Electric has a 100-mile range. Ford says the car will come with "electric-vehicle-specific features," specifically a custom Ford MyTouch instrument cluster, which allows the driver to keep tabs on the battery charge status, the distance to the next charging point and expected "range surplus" as well as mess with other information. The car also has a Microsoft feature that tells the owner when to get the cheapest utility rates for recharging.

Fisker is flush, having raised more than $1 billion in equity, loans and grants, says Fehrenbacher, citing U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The latest is $100 million from Chicago-based Advanced Equities Inc. That should help the automaker ride out the bumpy road Tesla's taken as the pioneer in the market. The Karma sedan is expected to sell for a princely $96,000 but go 0 to 60 in 5.9 seconds.

Tesla posted losses in the quarter that ended March 31, 2011 of $48.9 million, up 66 percent from the same period a year earlier. The Palo Alto automaker's stock closed at $27.55 per share, down 12 cents, on May 13. (A Friday by the way.)

In its SEC 10-Q form, the company said it remains dependent on revenue generated from the sale of its Tesla Roadster, "in the near term, and our future success will be dependent upon our ability to design and achieve market acceptance of new vehicle models, and specifically the Model S."

Tesla officials said the company will stop making the Roadster in December but will continue selling the model until all units are gone. Production on the Roadster began in 2008.

Tesla's planned sedan, the Model S, is expected to begin production sometime in the middle of 2012. However, officials say it "requires significant investment prior to commercial introduction, and may never be successfully developed or commercially successful."

The company appeared to be issuing a reality check in its filing, explaining that there can be no assurances that the Model S, which will have a $50,000 price tag, will prove to be a viable car as it is based on unproven components, will be built in a Fremont plant that may cost to much to equip and may have different styling and design than that of the concept vehicle and turn off consumers.

All of it just goes to show that any venture is a risk. Tesla's taking a big one, and its executives made note of that in very frank language. Still, the company had received about 4,300 reservations for the Model S as of March 31, 2011.

And gas prices likely won't go down too much.

Top 7 earth friendly cars, plus a Tesla

I saw my first Tesla.

Up close, and personal. My first impression: This car is teeny. Would I be able to fold in my 6-foot 2-inch frame? Heck yes!

Tesla Roadster
With 3.7 seconds to 60 mph, this baby would fly. The possibility of me expanding my horizons with speeding tickets would increase exponentially if I were allowed access.

The Tesla Roadster was one of the key attractions at Fresno Earth Day celebration at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Fresno. Accompanying the little black electric powered ball of fury were a Nissan Leaf, a Chevy Volt, a solar-powered Toyota Prius, a hybrid Honda Insight and several other vehicles of interest.

The festivities included other attractions. Those included 75 participants for a crowd-pleasing variety that included live music, food, workshops, tours, exhibits, free e-waste recycling, solar cooking & bio-fuel making demonstrations, xeriscaping and more. The church itself is worth checking out as it is LEED certified and makes use of energy efficient materials, low-flow plumbing and landscaping that needs very little water.

But I was there to see the cars. For me, the experience proved valuable even if it was self-indulgent. My wife, Peggy, tagged along for the experience. I promised her it would be brief and that I would avoid engaging in any long-winded discussions about cars.

I succeeded. We left after about 20 minutes and still got a chance to look at the solar oven display. Very cool concept. Great for reducing deforestation in third world countries.

Zap Car
But the wheeled objects really captured my interest. There was a Zap car, one of the three-wheeled creations of the Santa Rosa-based manufacturer of electric vehicles that until recently served as a niche product. Zap recently purchased controlling interest in Chinese automaker Zhejiang Jonway Automobile Co. Ltd. and hopes to tap into the growing Chinese market with a new lineup of vehicles. I suspect it's a company to watch.

Peggy snapped several pictures of the Zap mobile, figuring it would be a favorite of her students. She teaches ninth-grade English at rural Riverdale High School (which by the way has its own solar installation.)

Nissan Leaf
I checked out the Nissan Leaf. The owner explained details of power consumption and some of the variables for getting the most miles out of a charge. One thing I noticed about the rig was that it looked a lot beefier in person. The photos of the Leaf online make it look dainty somehow.

Up close, the Leaf looks quite solid. The aluminum wheels are rather large and sporty and the interior is spacious and not too Jetsons. Here's a shout-out to Phil T, who's been blogging about his experiences as a SoCal Leaf owner for the past several months. "Phil, you're right. Photos don't do the car justice."

Smart Car
We also got to get up close and personal with Smart car. I've been repulsed by the things since I first saw one skittering down the freeway. All I can think of is the short wheel base and how the thing would spin like a top on ice.

But looking at it from a different angle gave me greater appreciation. Just the engineering of the car is amazing. All sorts of stuff crammed in without looking crammed. The engine fits in back like a Bug. (Obviously not in in a Beetle's league, but still interesting.)

There's an electric version of the rig available this year at dealerships across the country. Dubbed Smart Fortwo Electric, the tiny vehicle was anticipated by Daimler designers two decades to be powered by an electric drive train, according to officials. They apparently left room in the design so there appears no change in outward appearance in the two vehicles.

Two vehicles that stood out at the Earth Day event, at least to me, were a couple of Volkswagen Jetta TDI series, one older and another brand new. TDI, for turbo direct injection diesel, is the designation VW bestowed upon its latest generation of diesel vehicles. The older Jetta was tuned to run on biodiesel, while the new one sported VW's latest "clean diesel" technology. Mileage in the latter is listed at 34 mpg combined city/highway.

Fred Voglmaier, who writes on tdiclub.com, says demand for the diesel rigs is high. Could be.

The Prius owner at the Earth Day event gave a serious rundown on what kind of mileage he gets under multiple conditions. The data was fascinating and he can get up to 56 mpg under certain conditions. The model even was equipped with a solar panel in the glass roof.

Toyota is set to introduce its Prius PHV, for plug-in hybrid, next year. Here's how Steve Siler of caranddriver.com described the differences with the conventional hybrid: "The Prius PHV is essentially just a Prius whose nickel-metal hydride battery pack has been swapped for a far pricier, far heavier, and far more potent lithium-ion pack."

Range is supposed to be far less than the Volt or Leaf.

The Chevy Volt looked the most conventional of the electric cars at the Unitarian church that day. In fact, it looked rather large, hardly a compact car. Interior space was ample, and the design, inside and out, was very un-Chevy. By that, I mean Chevy's had a reputation for short-shrifting its cars on style. The SUVs look cool. The cars, on the other hand, and I personally believe since the Camaro was redesigned in the 1970s, just looked lame.

The Volt, and the redesigned Camaro, return Chevy to a contender among car buyers.

Biodiesel Mercedes
There was also a beat up old Mercedes at the show that looked as if the owner brewed the biodiesel in the trunk. It's an original, late 70s or early 80s vintage. Cool but definitely somebody else's project.

Honda Insight
The Honda Insight is a great vehicle and reasonably priced. Great entry for the hybrid/electric market. My wife despises the design as she does that of the Prius.

All in all great show. I saw the Tesla driving around Fresno. I pointed it out to some young people at the athletic club, but they just stared blankly until I said, "0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds."

Electric vehicles are coming: Recharge with 5 choices

The MiEV is coming to town.

Translation: Mitsubishi Motors North America Inc. is offering up its Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle (amazing name, I know) for pre-order starting April 22, Earth Day.

This vehicle, like Nissan's Leaf, is all electric all the time. The only other full-on electric car commercially available is the Tesla Roadster, which will set you back about $100,000. Tesla's sleek Model S sedan, which also boasts a 300 mile charge life and claims zero to 60 in 5.6 seconds, costs about half that and comes out next year.

The $41,000 Chevy Volt is also on the streets. One was spotted by my co-worker Sandy Nax recently at a Kingsburg auto show. The Volt also features a gas engine for backup. Its all-electric range is 40 miles, not quite half the $32,780 Leaf's 100-mile advertised distance.

But according to Washington Examiner reporter David Freddoso, the news isn't all that electrifying for Chevy. Freddoso writes in his blog in March that sales of the Volt in February were a "very modest 281," down from 326 in December. Read some of the comments on the post, and it appears to be an issue more of supply than demand. One commenter says his Volt won't be delivered until late April or May.

After several delays, Fisker appears on track to begin delivering its Karma sedan in June or July, reports Products & Tech News. The blog says "Fisker’s Roger Ormisher also points out that the company did begin 'limited series production' at the end of March as planned, and he says the company is 'ramping up slowly to ensure absolute quality.'" The all-electric luxury car will cost about $100,000.

Comparatively, the entry-level 2012 Mitsubishi i will set buyers back a measly $27,990. Add in the federal tax credit and the price drops to $20,490, "a substantial savings ... when compared to its mass-produced production EV competition," the company says in a statement.

For a couple thousand more, buyers can get the SE package with "360-watt, eight speaker sound system, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, upgraded seating material with silver interior accents, unique two-tone interior and door panels, 15-inch alloy wheels and fog lamps." Another upgrade includes a quick-charge port for 80 percent recharge in 30 minutes and other fun stuff.

The MiEV will be on display at Earth Day San Francisco 2011 on April 23 in the Civic Center Plaza. For more information, go to http://www.earthdaysf.com/.

Mitsubishi didn't offer a driving range for the MiEV on its press release, but Michael Boxwell of thechargingpoint.com says the automaker claims a range of 92 miles. He said while testing the car, he was able to achieve a range of 92.7 miles in the city. "However, at higher speeds range does drop off considerably," Boxwell says. "On a trip down the motorway my range dropped to a little over 50 miles, while cross-country motoring gave me a range of 64.4 miles."

Blogger Phil T has been testing the limits of his newly purchased Nissan Leaf on Southern California roads and had this to say of its range: "I measured 86.5 miles of range on a day when I decided to try to run the car out of power to see what the range would be. I drove some of the miles gently and others aggressively, with no freeway miles. I know that the car is capable of more range, and I may try it again with a full 'tank' of careful driving."

I'll be following the exploits of Phil T, who just recently picked up his Leaf in Costa Mesa. I mentioned to him my fear of going all electric. (I have considered converting my black custom 1974 Super Beetle.) Phil says not to worry: "No point in being afraid, Mike. After all, 'faint heart never won fair maiden,' as they say."

In my defense, I will say I won the fair maiden 20 years ago.

Phil says it's just a matter of factoring in conditions and whether a driver's daily trips fit the range of an electric vehicle. "That and you'd need a plan for longer trips," he says.

So, if you've taken the plunge, I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Electric cars roll into showrooms and find believers

Blogger Phil T picked up his Nissan Leaf on March 31 and has been posting about his experiences ever since.

His reviews?

"We're very pleased with it," he writes. "The LEAF drives like a real car, accelerating and stopping quickly."

Phil T's experiences are being repeated across the country as others take the electric car plunge and embrace a technology with a decidedly short consumer track record. Pioneers like Phil T, who recounts in detail all his thoughts and experiences on drivingelectric.blogspot.com, blaze the trail for others.

Just how many will follow is one of the big questions on the minds of many. (Well, mine at least). For instance, what about that limited range issue? Will the Chevy Volt, which has a much shorter all-electric capability than the 100-mile Leaf, be the bigger seller?

Will electric vehicles remain a niche market limited to true believers or users whose driving requirements benefit from a zero-emissions ride?

Answers to these questions and many more will materialize over the next year or so. In the meantime, developments in the sector are coming so fast and furious that they're hard to keep up with. I'll recount about a half dozen in this post.

For instance, Google's gotten into the game, promising to map EV recharging stations.

Google has teamed with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and others in the venture, establishing a nationwide online network via GPS. Projects under way via the Clean Cities Program "include the deployment of electric vehicles and chargers" and other technologies like biodiesel and natural gas, U.S. Department of Energy officials said.

Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research just released a report acknowledging the entry of the electric automobile and saying its biggest impact may be preparing the market for the electric scooter and motorcycle. Pike Senior analyst Dave Hurst and President Clint Wheelock write that the market, currently suffering from low demand, is poised for growth in North America and Europe, especially in cities where the relative silence of the electric two-wheelers enables residents greater access and less irritation.

But Asia's the big buyer with projected sales of 19.6 million e-scooters and 2.9 million e-motorcycles by 2017, Hurst and Wheelock write. North America’s relatively puny but significant e-scooter and e-motorcycle markets are expected to grow to 41,146 e-scooters and 27,971 e-motorcycles in the same period.

Another indication that we aren't in Dorothy's Kansas anymore comes from General Motors, which released a statement saying it received 135 clean-energy patents -- more in 2010 than any other organization, according to the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index of U.S. patents. Patents include an ultra-efficient hybrid electric vehicle transmission, seamless start-stop fuel control system and a system to preheat the EV battery, improving range.

"GM has clearly put forth a lot of effort in a range of clean-energy technologies," said Victor Cardona, co-chair of the Cleantech Group at Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti, publisher of the index, in the statement.

Across the pond, Hertz Corp. has teamed with Mitsubishi Motors in the United Kingdom to roll out Mitsubishi's electric i-MiEV tiny city car as part of its rental fleet. Lance Bradley, Mitsubishi's UK managing director, underlined the status of the car to the Japanese manufacturer. "The i-MiEV is a very important vehicle for us, making a statement to the global car industry," he said in a press release.

Plymouth, Mich.-based AVL, a manufacturer of automotive power trains, recently announced its sponsorship of EcoCAR 2: Plugging into the Future, a collegiate engineering competition. AVL will provide resources and guidance, "offering hands-on experience to automotive engineers of the future, advancing the electrification of vehicles," officials said.

EcoCAR 2 was established by DOE and GM and is meant to train aspiring engineers and develop clean technologies through competition. The 16 university teams were selected when the competition started.

If the level of corporate firepower is any indication, electric vehicles are here to stay. How they will integrate into the current mix and whether alternative fuel like isobutanol, biodiesel, hydrogen or compressed natural gas will play a significant role is an question for the futurists.

In the meantime, people like Phil T will be telling the rest of us how it's done. His real-world insights provide invaluable information to newbies. For instance, in a recent post, the Leaf owner writes that the farthest he's driven in a day is 68 miles. He also says range can be variable.

"On the most surprisingly short range day, the range display showed 71 miles in the morning. But after an 8 mile trip taking the family out to lunch and a quick 20 mile freeway drive with air conditioning, the range display only showed 21 miles," he says. "That's a reduction of 50 miles of displayed range after driving only 28 miles."

Good to know.

Photo: Mitsubishi's electric MiEV in London.

Automotive future: Silent running or Hello Kitty?

Electric cars offer buyers a badge of immediate environmental friendliness.

Buy one and you can say to heck with Abu Dhabi’s $90 per barrel light Murban crude. But short of rigging some sort of electronic replacement, electric automobiles will never have one thing.

Decent sound.

The entire lineup -- no matter the manufacturer -- will never offer the throaty response of a Mopar, the finessed rumble of a GM Corvette V8 or even the riotous recoil of a hopped-up tuner. The really fast electrics do let out a kind of whine at the command of a floored accelerator, but I prefer the dual-carbed Super Beetle in my backyard. That meat-and-potatoes air-cooled roar alerts my dogs of my arrival a block from home.

This concept crosses my mind as the electric automobile finally crosses the threshold in the arms of Joe Consumer. Let the wedding begin. Whether the marriage will be a happy one or fall apart after a rough weekend in Vegas is anybody's guess.

Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research said that union will be far from blissful with consumers having to accept the bad times with the good if they expect it to work. The 14-page study published this week said most people who drive electrics won't own them but be driving a fleet car and predicted that the media is likely to overreact when someone somewhere has a bad EV experience.

The rest of Pike's 10 predictions were push-back developing over charging times, arrival of start-stop technology (at stop lights to save power), charging stations going idle, emergence of fuel-cell vehicles, advanced battery development, range anxiety becoming more myth than fact, two-wheel EVs outselling cars and a drop in electric component pricing.

"Electric two-wheeled vehicles, including bicycles, scooters and motorcycles, comprise a huge global market that will continue to overshadow electric passenger vehicles for the foreseeable future," wrote senior analyst John Gartner and Pike President Clint Wheelock.

After going over their conclusions, I tried to imagine what the roads will look like by 2015 when Gartner and Wheelock say annual EV sales will surpass 300,000 units. Certainly more diverse.

But the highways may have some hydrogen-powered cars and other alternative fuel vehicles. Natural gas may wind up a decent competitor when domestic drillers find a measurable way to avoid disturbing underground aquifers with new fractal extraction techniques.

Hopefully automotive designers will stop making cars for Hello Kitty and produce something noteworthy. Although I must admit the Camaro, Mustang and Challenger meet coolness requirements. But they're supposed to.

The majority of the models from U.S. and Japanese manufacturers (I'm talking gas-burners) look pretty vanilla in a weirdly rounded way. I just hope they take a lesson from Tesla and kit-car Sigma when producing the next generation of electrics.

Go for just a smidgen of cool. Then along with the eco-badge, EV owners can retain just a bit of respect from the fossil fuel folks.

Electric cars: Drum solo for Coda

Tis the season of the electric car.

On the radio, I hear commercials for the Chevy Volt: "At a car dealer near you soon." The Nissan Leaf won best in class for mileage from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And now the latest: Coda inks deal with Hertz.

Coda still reminds me of the last Zep album and that ripping John Bonham solo, Bonzo's Montreau. But I digress. I must adapt my thinking.

Executives of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Coda are pumped by their news.

"The 100 percent electric CODA was designed to meet the needs of most Americans with dependable, all-season range, and fast, convenient charging," said Mark Jamieson, CFO & COO of Coda Automotive, in a statement. "With one of the world's largest rental car fleets, Hertz is uniquely positioned to catalyze the adoption of all-electric vehicles and infrastructure supporting electric mobility."

That means a big boost for the electric car company that has yet to hit the market with its flagship sedan. If Hertz is cool with the car, others likely will be too.

Many people are like me. Rent a car, enjoy the experience, then buy one.

Coda officials said their sedan hits the market sometime next year. No specific date was given. Here's what they said about it: "The Coda is designed to meet the day-to-day needs of most Americans, featuring space for five passengers, a full-size trunk and a dependable 90-120 miles of range during any season."

They also said the sedan's battery system has "at least 40 percent more usable energy than any all-electric sedan on the market in 2011."

Take that Leaf. Actually, the Leaf offers about the same performance. It goes on sale in California next month.

And neither will make anything like the sound my well-carburated 1974 Bug makes, especially burning the tires on a rainy day.

And this is the best read post on this blog. Amazing. Wonder if it has to do with the Coda reference that has nothing to do with electric cars and everything to do with "The Song Remains the Same."

Electric car countdown begins

Is that an EV in the lane near you?

It may be should consumers get over their sticker shock over electric cars. A new survey by Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research says 44 percent of respondents would be "extremely or very interested" in buying a battery-powered unit.

With nearly three dozen plug-in electric models expected to be introduced by 2012, that's some serious potential market activity. Maybe it'll open up room at the pump.

Nissan's Leaf and Chevy's Volt are on their way. And Ford announced this week the first markets selected for its Ford Focus Electric's debut next year. They are: Atlanta, Austin and Houston, Texas; Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, New York, Orlando, Fla., Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; Portland, Ore.; Raleigh Durham, N.C.; Richmond, Va., Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

"This is the first step in rolling out the Focus Electric," said Mark Fields, Ford Motor Co.'s president of the Americas, in a statement. He said Ford would evaluate markets as demand grows and "the country continues to build up its electric vehicle infrastructure."

The news comes on the heels of an announcement by General Electric that it will convert about half of its global corporate fleet to electrics and will partner with fleet customers to deploy a total of 25,000 electric vehicles by 2015. Most of those will be Chevy Volt sedans.

“By electrifying our own fleet, we will accelerate the adoption curve, drive scale, and move electric vehicles from anticipation to action," said GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt in a statement.

In the same release, FedEx Chairman, President and CEO Fred Smith said GE's move helps ramp up production and lower prices of electric vehicles, bringing elevated visibility and acceptability to the public at large. FedEx is also incorporating electric trucks and alternative energy vehicles into its fleet.

It means the quiet vehicles will be increasingly common.

Pike Research said its survey "found that, based on Americans’ driving and commute patterns, PEVs should be a strong fit for a large number of consumers." In fact, 81 percent of respondents said better fuel efficiency would be an important factor when purchasing their next vehicle.

However, Pike officials found some drawbacks. They said consumers may have a difficult time justifying the increased cost of purchasing an electric vehicle even when they pay nothing for gasoline. The savings at the pump could take many, many months. Unless, of course, you replaced the aging Bentley with a Leaf.

Photo: Ford Focus chassis.

2 ways to learn all about electric cars

Electric cars remain commercially unproven.

The market is largely untested as it awaits the debut later this year of the Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF and the expected introduction of the Coda next year.

But Southern California Edison, PG&E and other utilities have offered a major indicator that big changes are in store on American highways. The two California utilities have created a series of web pages for owners of plug-in electric vehicles.

The move stems from a declaration about a year ago by the Edison Electric Institute to prepare for the potential power drain.

“At a time of mounting concern about climate change, U.S. energy security and unemployment, plug-in electric vehicles will help tame carbon emissions while reducing oil imports and creating jobs," said Tom Kuhn, institute president, in a statement. "We also are mindful of President Obama’s very ambitious challenge to put one million PEVs on the road by 2015.”

Other utilities in the industry association include Dominion, DTE Energy, Connecticut Light & Power, CenterPoint Energy and Hawaiian Electric Co. But for purposes of this post, I'll keep the emphasis on two: PG&E and SCE.

1. The SCE site addresses many of the potential issues consumers face when considering a completely new technology, that many say costs just 2 cents a mile. The utility advises consumers to fill out its "Plug-In Ready Checklist" to help prepare them for electrical needs, potential home electrical upgrades and introduce potential deals on off-peak electricity consumption.

On the site, utility officials discuss potential effects to electricity rates from increasing demand by consumers to recharge cars ("rates will be determined in large part by the California Public Utilities Commission") and to the electrical grid ("how customers charge their vehicles ... will become a significant factor in determining the impact.")

2. PG&E likewise offers consumers a plethora of information on its EV web page. It explained details like how 110-volt, 20-amp outlets take about eight hours to recharge a car or how a consumer could cut that to a "few hours or less" with a 240-volt, 40-amp system.

But officials also offered this nugget, answering a a major concern over recharging I've had with electric vehicles. "Ultimately, advances in battery and charger technology could enable charging in the time it takes to fill a gas tank. Because of the high voltage involved -- 480 volts or more, which can be expensive to install -- such rapid charging would likely be available only at sites serving multiple BEVs, such as fleet garages or retail charging stations."

That's a potential game changer. Power it up Captain. Launch photon torpedoes and shift all available energy to phasers.

Devolved into an original Star Trek episode briefly. But the concept is sound, and this electric car concept could catch on.

Photo: SCE's plug-in hybrid at AgTAC.