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Will the Car of the Future Be Electric?0

Michael Kanellos | Wed Oct 6 2010 |

They are clean, fast and exciting. But will electric cars sell in large numbers?

Nissan, General Motors, Ford and a host of start-ups like Tesla Motors, BYD and Fisker Automotive have placed a multibillion dollar bet that a growing number of consumers want to buy cars that run wholly or in part on batteries instead of gas. If it works, electric cars could literally rewrite the political and economic destinies of nations. The marketing onslaught and excitement will hit a fever pitch by the end of the year.

The challenges? Batteries are expensive, electric cars can’t go nearly as far on a charge as they can on a tankful of liquid fuel and recharging a car can take hours, far longer than the ten minutes it takes to fill up now. Batteries evolve slowly. They are finicky canisters of chemicals that function as an organic whole. It takes roughly ten years for batteries to double in performance, according to J.B. Straubel at Tesla. Computer chips can do that in little under two years.

Electric cars sold well in the 1910s and 1920s, but faded out as gas prices declined. In the early 90s, manufacturers hailed a new line of electric cars, but struggled with ways to get the price down. Toyota succeeded when it switched to hybrids.

Circumstances have changed, say proponents. Battery prices have plummeted to $400 a kilowatt hour, or 60 percent less than they were in early 2007, and new chemistries like zinc air and lithium air will increase ranges and cut costs. While batteries may never see Moore’s Law-like rates of improvement, mass manufacturing and more activity in research and development may lead to a Moore’s Lite.

Battery swapping and leasing—like in the networks proposed by Better Place and its partners (General Electric is one)—could eliminate some of the fears consumers have about being stranded on the road or getting stuck with a lemon. Old batteries could even be repurposed for grid storage and home battery packs, giving a jumpstart to those markets.

Costco and hotel chains are installing charging stations that patrons will use for free: with a full charge running around $3.50, this could become the cheapest consumer loyalty program ever. Meanwhile some, such as electric bus maker Proterra and Zero Motorcycles, are expanding the concept of EVs.

Perhaps most importantly, they are a blast to drive. See the Tesla test drive here. Fast, quiet and responsive, EVs make drivers smile. If they play their hand right, electrics could usher in the second coming of the muscle car era.

Still, there is the price. Coda Automotive recently announced an all-electric city car. It costs $45,000. GM’s Volt will run $41,000. Tesla’s Roadster tips the scales at $109,000. Even with federal and state incentives and steady price declines, it is tough to justify electric cars on economics right now.

Will price win out, or will drivers feel the lure of the electric road? Where do you think the future lies?