ALL CHARGED UP
SEPTEMBER 9, 1996
Is the era of electric cars finally arriving? With smog in the air and concerns rising over oil dependency, the forces of technology, government, and capitalism show signs of converging to make elecrtic-powered cars a reality. Spencer Michels reports.
SPENCER MICHELS: About $35,000 will buy you an EV-1, the new, two-seater General Motors electric-powered vehicle which goes on sale soon in Southern California and Arizona. Itís the first electric car from a major manufacturer. And GM says it will run 70 miles on a full battery charge in the city, 90 miles on the highway. It accelerates from zero to sixty in under nine seconds. At its unveiling last January, GM Chairman Jack Smith said the car was designed for commuters.
JACK SMITH, Chairman, General Motors: It is quiet, peppy, and fun to drive. This is not a concept car, and itís not a conversion. This is a passenger car developed specifically as an electric vehicle. Itís a car for people who never want to go to a gas station again.
SPENCER MICHELS: A lot of Americans felt that way with the recent rise in the price of gasoline. And that prompted a renewed interest in electric cars. The principal reason for developing electric cars is that gasoline-powered vehicles with internal combustion engines pollute the air. That is especially true in California, according to the chairman of the stateís Air Resources Board, John Dunlap, who promotes electric cars by occasionally driving them. His board has told the automakers that 10 percent of the vehicles they sell in California must have zero tailpipe emissions, that is, be electric, by the year 2003.
JOHN DUNLAP, California Air Resources Board: As a matter of fact, some 10 percent of all the vehicles sold in the United States are sold here in California, so this is a car culture, and we think that the way to get to improved air quality is to change that motor vehicle fleet in California over time to make it cleaner. And weíve done that with clean fuels, with the new gasoline, and weíre doing it with the low emission--zero emission vehicle technology as well.
SPENCER MICHELS: The prototype Honda Dunlap is driving produces zero emissions because it runs on batteries which also power the air conditioning and the stereo. It is one of several new battery-powered vehicles, including a version of the Toyota Rav Four and the Chrysler Epic, coming on the market shortly after GMís EV-1. A variety of cars and trucks that have been converted to electricity are already in use at the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District. The District operates 110 such vehicles and 200 charging stations, including one that produces solar energy. The batteries are charged mostly at night when demand for electricity is low. Mike Wirsch manages the fleet.
MIKE WIRSCH, Sacramento Utilities District: The cost of operation is pretty low for electric vehicles. If you look at just fuel cost, itís about one and a half to one point six cents per mile for the electricity cost, and right now, weíre paying about six cents per mile for gasoline.
SPENCER MICHELS: The oil industry is not thrilled about the electric cars. Officials are not eager for electricity to replace their product, though they claim that is not a concern at present. Industry representatives say it is unfair that automakers get tax advantages and subsidies for producing electric vehicles, and they say substituting electricity for gasoline wonít help the air because cars and gasoline today are already cleaner. Lew Blackwell is alternative fuels manager at Chevron.
LEW BLACKWELL, Chevron: With the cars that are being built now and will continue to improve with modern engine technology, modern emission control systems, with the new reformulated gasoline, we have taken out over 96 percent of the, of the pollutants that are emitted by an automobile to the point where itís basically equivalent to what you would get--the benefits youíd get from an electric vehicle.
DANIEL SPERLING, University of California: No matter how clean you make a gasoline engine, thereís still a substantial amount of pollution.
SPENCER MICHELS: Professor Daniel Sperling directs the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis, and conducts research on electric cars and batteries.
DANIEL SPERLING: All of these cars will have much less energy consumption. They will have much lower greenhouse gas emissions, much less pollution, be much quieter, and in another words, be environmentally far superior to what we have now.
LEW BLACKWELL: Think where the power comes to charge those batteries. Thereís going to be no more nuclear power. All the hydro power is at capacity, so all the--all the incremental electricity in this country is coming from fossil fuels. In fact, 30 percent of it comes from coal-fired plants. By going to electric vehicles, youíre not getting away from burning fossil fuels.
SPENCER MICHELS: Perhaps the stickiest technical problem facing electric cars today is the battery. Most electric vehicles, including the GM entry, now use a large number of conventional lead acid batteries which need to be recharged at least every 100 miles. Critics consider that a major drawback that will limit the appeal of the cars. Here at Davis, scientists are studying a longer-lasting battery, the nickel metal hydride battery, which should come on the mass market soon. For now, its cost is exorbitant. And engineers are working on an alternative to the battery, a fuel cell. But Professor Sperling says a study he made shows that an electric car with a sixty to one hundred mile range should find plenty of buyers.
DANIEL SPERLING: There is a large market for limited-range vehicles. In some cases, some households said 40 miles really is all they need, all they want. Okay. So thatís the first part. The second part we found is that people value very highly home recharging. In other words, they donít like going to gasoline stations. And, in fact, they are willing to pay thousands of dollars extra not to have to go to gasoline stations.
SPENCER MICHELS: This showy electric car is priced at $19,000, considerably less than the GM model with all the amenities. Itís made by a small California start-up firm that was all too happy to let me test drive it.
SPOKESMAN: Itís on.
SPENCER MICHELS: Itís on?
SPOKESMAN: Itís on.
SPENCER MICHELS: Itís on?
SPENCER MICHELS: Itís a Zebra, and its developers are betting there already is a large market for electric vehicles. Theyíre willing to go head-to-head with the big seven automakers.
GARY STARR, Zebra Car Company: Thereís 21 of these pre-production cars currently running around. Weíre taking orders for the first limited run of 500, which will be built next year.
SPENCER MICHELS: You sound very enthusiastic about this. Is there a chance that, that you could fail?
GARY STARR: Well, of course, thereís always a chance. I mean, but thatís whatís great about being here in the U.S. and having an entrepreneur company is, you know, you have the ability to try, and I think this vehicle has a good a chance as any. And as you saw, itís fun to drive.
SPENCER MICHELS: Nationwide, 450 companies like Zebra are working in some phases of advanced transportation technology. Most are in California, and many are part of the non-profit consortium Calstart. Director Michael Gage welcomes the big automakersí entry into the field but says the real innovation comes from the little guy.
MICHAEL GAGE, Director, Calstart: The real change will be driven by those outside this industry, not those who have a hundred years invested in the industry. Competition will drive down the cost of their car and every other car in the marketplace, and it will ensure a better quality product.
SPENCER MICHELS: Well, some experts believe pure electric cars are ready for market now, others believe that hybrid vehicles, with both electric and gasoline engines, make sense. Using that technology, these students at UC Davis converted a conventional Ford Taurus so it would get 80 miles per gallon and go for 250 miles, the gasoline engine extending the range. They have entered it in an ongoing competition sponsored by the Big Three Automakers. Professor Andrew Frank is the adviser.
ANDREW FRANK, University of California: At this time, for probably, uh, oh, maybe fifteen to twenty years into the future, this kind of a car, thatís a half--that has a little gasoline engine and an electric--is probably a good transition to, uh, to a future battery that may exist 20 years from now.
SPENCER MICHELS: Whether hybrid or pure, electric cars are poised to seriously enter the world car market. The experts say itís a question of when.