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GM tries to build the Holy Grail of electric cars

A Nissan Leaf electric vehicle.

It's easy to come up with reasons not to buy an electric car. There's the Tesla S, which is relatively expensive. The base price is $62,400. Then, there's the Nissan LEAF, which is less expensive, but the farthest it can go is 75 miles on a charge.

General Motors thinks it has found the solution. The company says it's working on a vehicle that'll drive 200 miles on a single charge and will cost about $30,000.

No word on when that car will be available, but when it is, will GM have better luck than Tesla and Nissan getting Americans to buy it?

To find out, we asked Sasha Strauss, a branding expert and founder of Innovation Protocol in Los Angeles. Strauss doesn't have an electric car himself, but he says he'll be in the market soon.

“We’re all waiting for the right trigger,” he said. “I always drive SUVs, so I’ve been waiting for the perfect car that I can take snowboarding but also drive family around.”

So how can car companies convince Americans to trade in the gas for an oh-so-silent electric? It's not going to be easy. Americans love their cars.

“Car equals freedom," says Strauss. "We all remember when we got our license at 16. It didn’t even matter that it was mom’s old minivan and had wood paneling. It was that freedom.”

“As soon as the car becomes a constraint on that freedom, even if it’s 1 percent of the time, that becomes a draw on us and we don’t want that type of distraction.”

Car makers are going to have to focus on what being a 'green' car owner means for a buyer's image. Kind of like Toyota did when they first came out with the hybrid Prius.

“Once you cross the $30,000 threshold of price in automobiles, it becomes less about the functional value of the vehicle and more about what it says about you in your professional or social roles," Strauss said.

“And that emotional sensation has not trickled into the electric car sector yet. Since this is a disruptive innovation -- this is a whole new type of car -- it’s going to take time for the audience to appreciate this is a whole new paradigm. It’s not just the next car.”

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
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We seem to have forgotten that GM already has built a very good electric car, way before there was a prius, leaf, or tesla. So 200 miles sounds great, but a trip of 250 miles would take two days due to the charging time. Well, they tell us if you are going to do that once a year, you shouldn't base your purchase on that. At that rate they should be telling us that we don't need cars at all - we should take public transportation. I have a feeling that these people who are so concerned about the energy use and pollution of cars have not looked at the whole problem: Cars are not the only consumer of energy and probably not the largest. I am also skeptical of the efficiency claims, they compare two subsidized energy delivery systems, one of which the cost is highly variable. So the motor itself might have high efficiency( probably at a specific operating point) but every component along the way has losses too, batteries, transmission lines, not to mention the gas powered generator that is likely powering it. So you say what about wind turbines? Nope can't have those, they kill birds ( and if you listen to the right wing fools, they catch fire). Can't have hydroelectric either, it damages our streams. nuclear? hah!

The commentator on this story seemed dismissive about the need for electric cars to have a greater range; it may be the case in his part of the country, but not for me. I live over 100 miles from the nearest city of any size, and most people in this community make regular trips to that city- monthly if not weekly.

Additionally, it is a community and region heavily dependent on local tourism- most visitors come from a major urban area that is over 250 miles away. What would happen if electric cars with a 200 mile range were widely adopted? Would the communities more than 200 miles from a population center fade away? This kind of remoteness may be hard for residents of the coasts to imagine, but it is a reality for many parts of this country.

I wonder why Lion-Motors doesn't get more press. They did very well in the Progressive xprize. They have the Wave II at $39 k that will go 175 or so miles per charge, and can be upgraded to go more miles on a charge (more battery and more cost). The INIZIO looks sharp, is very fast and priced over $100k. Just seems like an article should include other developers than Tesla. Might help the market grow.

The reporting here was disappointingly shallow and seemed to merely repeat the conventional wisdom. There was no mention that the vast majority of the driving that people do is short trips, e.g. commuting, and for these, an electric car is the more efficient vehicle, better suited for the job. There was no suggestion that another way to live is to have a compact electric car for your commute and then on the rare occasions when you want to do a long drive or haul cargo you rent a different vehicle. And especially disappointing, given that this is an economics program, was the absence of any discussion of operating cost, and how the much lower operating cost of an electric car relative to a gasoline car offsets the higher purchase price of the former. The fuel cost of an electric car is about $500 per year and for a gasoline car it's $2,300 per year, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_car, if you drive 15,000 miles per year.

First, an all-electric car is NOT a hybrid.
Second, GM's touting of the VOLT long before it was built was shameful, and the price was significantly higher than the earlier PR. We simply cannot believe the GM PR machine.
Third, who says an electric car is "green"? Most electricity is produced by burning something (coal, gas, oil, etc).

The Union of Concerned Scientist did a Well-to-Wheel Analysis about electric vehicles and emission. The CO2 savings depends on how the electricity is generated. I live in Michigan which is a high CO2 emitting state because of its dependence on coal. About 17% of people in the US also live in high emitting states. The report estimates driving a leaf in Michigan would be like driving a car that gets 30 – 35 MPG. An assumption in the report is a leaf will get about 3 miles to the kWh. However, after 5 months of driving I’ getting about 6 mile per kwh. So the CO2 may be about at same as a car getting 50 MPG.

One-half the population are classified as living in low CO2 emitting states. These states produce about 1/3 the CO2 as the power companies in Michigan. So the UCS report estimates EV’s in low emitting states would be equivalent to driving a ICE car getting 50 – 60 miles per gal of gas, with a little care you could get closer to 100 mpg. There are no cars currently on the market getting anywhere near this.

I listened to this on the way home from work, and I couldn't believe there was no mention of the Chevy Volt. I've had mine since January, and I love it. For my 20 mile round trip commute I only use electricity, if I ever want to go on a longer drive it uses the gas generator to extend the range another 300+ miles. While the Volt without rebates is still a little over 30k, with the rebates it is under 30k and should be under 30k on it's own soon. You get the best of both worlds, it's electric for commuting with no range anxiety.

I heard your story while driving home in the best-selling electric car in the US, the Chevy Volt. How could you have a story about electric cars without mentioning the Volt? Sasha Strauss says people won't buy an electric car because they want to be able to drive across the country, limited only by the availability of gas stations. You can do that with a Volt as it seamlessly reverts to an efficient hybrid vehicle when you reach the limit of its all-electric range of about 40 miles. There is no range anxiety with the Volt. For most people, the Volt's all-electric range is all they need for daily use. I often drive every day for months without using a drop of gasoline. Rather than informing your listeners, you merely repeated outdated fallacies about electric cars. How about a story about the Volt, including an interview with someone who actually knows something about electric cars?

I found this report especially interesting as I am considering the purchase of a hybrid vehicle. I'm actually the ideal buyer of an electric car but for one significant problem not mentioned here -- I'm an apartment dweller and therefore unable to recharge the car. Until an automaker can market an electric vehicle to all consumers, not just homeowners, the potential customer base will be markedly smaller regardless of price.

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