An Inconvenient Lack of Electric Vehicles

By · December 11, 2006

Like millions of other Americans who saw Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which laid out the compelling realities of global climate change, I left the theater wondering what specific steps I might take to stave off the disasters depicted in the movie. Two minutes after the final credits rolled, my friends and I got in the car. I started up the gas engine, and quickly entered the crowded highway on our way to the local pub. (After Gore's horror show, we needed a few beers.)

I was struck by the sharp contrast between a personal desire to stem the tide of global warming, and the collective real-world behavior of the legions of highway denizens—including me—driving gas-burning, carbon-churning sedans, trucks and SUVs. In that moment, my friends and I were ready to swear off petroleum forever, and make the ultimate transportation sacrifice: purchase an electric car.

The next day, suffering from an Al Gore-and-Heffeweizen hangover, I clicked over to the web offerings from ZAP! (Zero Air Pollution) and GEM (Global Electric Motors), two purveyors of electric vehicles. No major car companies offer electric cars. My zero-emissions fantasy didn't last long. Don’t get me wrong—I love the idea of zipping around town in a 100-inch long, 1,000-pound mini-mini from ZAP! that achieves a max speed of 40 mph, or a door-less, souped-up electric minibus from GEM. What a blast that would be—but the needs of my family of four require a bit more vehicular heft.

I surfed on, but could not find an electric car with the size, speed, and stamina that’d earn it a space in the garage next to my modest, hard-working family sedan. That is, until I stumbled upon the soon-to-be-released Tesla Roadster. Built on the chassis of a Lotus Elise—the hand-built, lightweight British sports coupe—the Tesla promises (when released next year) to go from 0 to 60 mph in a four-second electric-powered rocket shot. The vehicle travels 250 miles before needing to be recharged, which can be done by plugging into a standard household outlet for three hours. Its maximum speed is 135 miles per hour.

The Tesla would be quite sufficient indeed—like sipping water from a firehose.

Believe it or not, the Tesla Roadster has already been beat to market by another all-electric speed machine. The Venturi Fetish, built in Monaco—a country that knows a thing or two about speed—debuted at the 2002 Geneva Motor Show, and is in limited production in Japan. The Fetish is powered by 100 lithium ion batteries to achieve 0-to-60 and max speeds similar to the Tesla, which runs on 7,000 of the small lithium ion batteries found in cameras and cell phones. The Fetish does exceed Tesla in one important regard: price. The privilege of parking the Fetish in your garage will cost you about $500,000. That makes the $100,000 expected price tag for the Tesla seem like a bargain. Not exactly the practical solution to global warming I was seeking.

The Tesla—the brainchild of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Martin Eberhard and Elon Musk, and backed by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin—is also not the newest play into the all-electric sports car category. Ian Wright, who is Eberhard's neighbor and former EV collaborator, broke off from Tesla to produce the Wrightspeed X1, a $120,000 vehicle that uses a 500-pound battery pack to achieve 0-to-60 performance in less than three seconds. That makes the X1, which has no doors, roof or windshield, the world's second fastest production vehicle of any kind.

At first blush, this looks like a game of macho one-upmanship played by ultra-wealthy geeks: "My electric batteries are bigger than yours." And their products come no closer to a practical, greener solution than those offered by ZAP! and GEM. But it turns out that this high-priced tit-for-tat may represent a brand-new approach to sustainable transportation. The petroleum burn rate—also known as fleet gas mileage—of vehicles from the world's major automakers, including Toyota, has slid in the last 20 years. Where Detroit is failing, Silicon Valley may succeed. Tesla executives talk about building a “new kind of car company” and are planning a second-generation car to be somewhat more popularly priced at around $50,000. That's still rich for my blood, but getting closer.

So, I'll wait to see if the diminutive but affordable electric cars can get muscled up, or if the très cher e-racers from high-tech start-ups add a back seat and come down in cost. Or better yet, if Detroit wakes up to the challenge, and pulls a realistic, mass-produced EV out of its hat. In the meantime, I'll continue to walk to work, take public transportation when I need to, and drive a hybrid—which still consumes gasoline and belches carbon dioxide, but not nearly as much.

Can I wait patiently for a better zero-emissions car to come along? Certainly. But we’ll need to send a message to the millions of Pacific Islanders threatened by rising, globally warmed seas. And we'll need to drop a line to the 25,000 remaining polar bears, whose population dwindles as the Arctic sea ice continues to melt. "Hey fellas. Hang in there. We're working on it."

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