Plugging Into the Electric Vehicle Revolution

Photograph by USFWS Pacific Region/Flickr

Plugging Into the Electric Vehicle Revolution

Cars may prove to be one solution to our climate change problem.

By Jim Motavalli
Published: 02/22/2013

During the past two years, many of the electric and plug-in hybrid cars that have been endlessly hyped at car shows and in glossy green image advertising finally hit the streets. Truth be told, they've so far met with a muted reception. The public is wary, because of range anxiety (fear of running out of charge) and initial high prices, but sales volumes are slowly building--and prices are projected to come down dramatically.

Here's a close-up look at five green cars now in showrooms. They range from sensible family transportation to exotic luxury chariots. I've driven them all, and don't worry--you can still have fun behind the wheel. Not one of these cars is a slow-moving slug, and some are downright rocket ships.

What is the environmental advantage of electric cars when they're charged from America's diverse grid, which is powered by everything from dirty coal plants to solar arrays and wind farms? Eladio Knipping, a senior technical manager for the environment at the Electric Power Research Institute, came up with a rough estimate that electric vehicles (EVs) are 30 percent to 40 percent cleaner overall than conventional cars in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions. (Plug-in hybrids have to be judged separately, because although they can cruise on battery power alone, they also have gas engines that extend their range.)

Your battery car, then, will have about the same climate impact as a hybrid. But over time the equation will increasingly favor the EV. Charles Griffith, the Clean Car Campaign director at Michigan's Ecology Center, told me, "The basic point is that it's not worse to have electric vehicles on a grid that is primarily coal-based. As we put more renewables into the grid, the profile for EVs will only get better over time. We're moving in the right direction." The bottom line is that all five of these cars will electrify your ride and significantly reduce your carbon footprint.

Chevrolet Volt: Mistaken Identity

On a fast drive from LAX to Santa Monica, I got a sense of what's great about the Chevrolet Volt--it's one of the quietest cars I've ever driven, with a seamless transition when the four-cylinder gas engine starts up, and ample highway power on tap. What's more, I could ask for directions en route, and an operator seamlessly delivered them to my car via the connected OnStar system.

The Volt (which will be complemented by a luxury Cadillac version called the ELR in 2014) is priced at $39,145 (before a $7,500 federal tax credit) and is unlike any other green car on the road. Its gas engine is there mostly to act as a generator and produce electricity. Although the people who have bought Volts are passionate about them, the car is unlikely to be a moneymaker for GM (its build cost is only a little less than its selling price). Still, the Volt is enormously important to the company's image as a reborn technology innovator.

Angus MacKenzie, editor-at-large of Motor Trend (just one of three auto publications that made the Volt the 2010 Car of the Year), told me that this ambitious project would "never have gotten past the bean counters in the old days," and that's certainly true. General Motors' favorite phrase for this clean-sheet-of-paper car is "range-extender electric vehicle" because it doesn't much like "plug-in hybrid." But the company finally admitted that under certain conditions the gas engine does drive the wheels, so plug-in hybrid is as good a description as any. The Volt can travel 25 to 50 miles on just electricity, but with the gas engine running, its range jumps to 300 miles.

The handsomely styled Volt, which creates zero emissions most of the time, is an EV for people with range anxiety--those who worry about where their next charge is coming from. On the debit side of the ledger, it's pricey, seats only four, and needs to be plugged in. In its favor, the car is very sophisticated and offers a smart approach to electrifying the automobile that other automakers would do well to emulate.

Another advantage over some other electrics: Because the Volt's battery pack is relatively small (16 kilowatt-hours), you can charge it easily from regular 110 house current without having to install a $2,000 home charger.

Nissan Leaf: Plugging Ahead

The Leaf, a battery electric with an official EPA range of 73 miles (less in cold weather) and worldwide appeal, is a big bet for Nissan that so far hasn't met expectations. The company had hoped to sell 20,000 in the United States in 2012; instead, by the end of year it had sold fewer than 10,000. The Leaf is eligible for the same federal and state subsidies as the Volt. And a somewhat stripped-down model benefits from a $6,000 price cut (to $28,800 before any rebates) for the 2013 model year, plus a slight increase in range and other new options.

Giving battery cars a federal "miles per gallon" rating is a bit of a challenge--they don't actually have gas tanks--but the Leaf has been officially rated at 99 mpg (combined) by the EPA. The car is also doing its best to interact with a smarter grid: With their cell phones, owners can pre-heat or pre-cool the car, and they can dial in a charge start time, too (to take advantage of lower late-night electricity rates).

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Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli contributes to the New York Times, Autoweek, Car Talk, Mother Nature Network, and others, and is the author of High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug in the Auto Industry (Rodale).

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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