Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Electric Car Fever is Rising Again

Nissan's electric-powered Leaf, scheduled to be in showrooms in December, has attracted 16,000 advance orders.

Battery-powered-sports-car maker Tesla Motors Inc. just launched one of the hottest initial public offerings in years. Nissan Motor Co.'s electric Leaf is generating buzz ahead of its scheduled December debut and has 16,000 advance orders. President Barack Obama plans to visit an electric car battery factory in Michigan Thursday to promote the government's $2.4Nissan's electric-powered Leaf billion program of grants to subsidize development of electric-vehicle technology.

And of course, the catastrophic Gulf oil spill is reviving anxiety over the national addiction to oil.

So, it's all systems go for a future in which most of our driving doesn't depend on fossil fuels, right?

To appreciate the obstacles standing in the way of the electric-car dream, you don't need to talk to electric-vehicle skeptics or hybrid haters. Instead, you can listen to the people who believe in electric vehicles, and are investing in those beliefs.

Proponents of the technology will tell you that anyone buying an electric vehicle will want to know at least two things: How far can I drive before I have to recharge? And, where can I go to recharge when I am on the road, far from home? Companies acknowledge that clear answers to those questions aren't yet available—and may not be until a good while after the coming flock of electric cars has hit showrooms.

Tesla Motors outlines as part of its public-offering documents a lengthy recitation of risks to its business. It's sobering reading for electric-vehicle enthusiasts. One of the concerns Tesla raises is that the Environmental Protection Agency is looking at new ways to measure how far electric cars can go before they need to be recharged. The aim is to make the advertised range figures better reflect how people drive their cars in the real world. Some of the new test methods the EPA is considering could require electric-vehicle companies to reduce the advertised range of their vehicles by as much as 30%.

The EPA won't comment on its rule-making. Tesla currently tells people who buy its $101,500 Roadsters that they can expect to drive as many as 245 miles between charges, a figure company officials say is based on existing EPA tests. Tesla has sold about 1,000 Roadsters since 2008.

Nissan has told prospective buyers of the Leaf that they can expect to drive up to 100 miles on a charge. "Up to" is a critical qualifier in the electric-vehicle business, given how cold temperatures, speed, the power drain from air conditioners and other factors can cut into battery life.

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