The new generation of electric cars

Sarah Gardner May 17, 2010

The new generation of electric cars

Sarah Gardner May 17, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: General Motors did something last quarter it hasn’t done in three years: Actually, it made money. Almost a billion dollars on the back of bankruptcy-related court cost and impressive sales, the company announced today. GM’s also getting ready for its biggest new-model rollout in years. The plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt debuts in November. Nissan’s Leaf is going to roll out about a month later. And it could be the beginning of a radical change for American drivers — the transition from gas stations to cars powered by rechargeable electric batteries. If we’re ready.

Sarah Gardner reports from what’s likely to be the number one market for electric cars in this country, Los Angeles, Calif.

Sarah Gardner: If anybody in this city knows the tortured history of electric cars in America, it’s Chelsea Sexton. She was a central character in the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Sexton’s one of the most vocal advocates for electric vehicles in the country. So, I was a little unsettled when she drove up to our interview in a Saturn.

Chelsea Sexton: Yes, well, that is one of the ironies. I, of all people, do not drive an electric car.

Sexton says electric vehicles, or EVs, are tough to find these days, unless, of course, you have $100,000 to plunk down on a Tesla. Or you want a used Toyota RAV4 left over from the first but failed wave of EVs in the 90s. We found about five of them charging up in a parking lot at the L.A. airport.

Sexton: There’s several hundred of them still out there, still being used, still being loved, and they’re holding up really, really well. They actually sell for $40,000, $50,000 still on eBay as used cars, and drivers are hanging on to them ’til there’s something new available.

Twenty years ago, California tried to jump start the EV market with regulations but failed. The effort did leave the state with over a 1,000 public charging stations, though. So L.A.’s ready to plug in, right? Not quite, says Sexton.

Sexton: We actually skinned some knees in the 90s, and one of them was that every different vehicle back then used a different type of connector for the charger. And that was, as you might imagine, a royal pain.

Sexton says automakers are now uniting around one standard plug, but it doesn’t fit these older charging stations, so they’ll need retrofitting. The city of L.A. says it’s going to do that and install more. Other cities like Seattle and Phoenix plan to do the same. But that’s not the tough part.

Ted Craver: The most important thing is to make sure this is a good customer experience from day one.

That’s Ted Craver, CEO of Edison International, they own Southern California Edison. Craver says most people will charge overnight at home. But last year, Edison discovered it can take more than a month to install that home capability. Since then, utilities everywhere have been working on that.

Austin Beutner heads L.A.’s public utility. He insists his customers won’t be waiting.

Austin Beutner: You call us on Monday, by the next Monday, it’ll be permitted, installed and you can start charging.

Utility execs are also trying to get potential EV buyers to “raise their hands” now. They want to identify clusters of homes where electric cars may all be charging at the same time. Power companies may need to upgrade transformers to avoid blackouts. If they don’t, they risk a backlash against EVs. And that’s the last thing Mark Duvall wants to see. He’s with the Electric Power Research Institute.

Mark Duvall: Well, I drove an EV-1 and of course, those were leased so I had to give it back. I briefly considered chaining myself to it, but I felt that would come back to haunt me at a later date.

Duvall does expect some speed bumps on the road to electric transportation. But he believes this time, electric cars will stick with more than crunchy environmentalists and California car geeks.

Duvall: This is something that resonates with a lot of the American population right now. No one believes that overdependence on petroleum is a good idea.

One of Nissan’s early launch markets for the Leaf is even oil-friendly Houston. And L.A. activist Chelsea Sexton says there’s more consumer choice this time too — including next year’s Fisker Karma, a plug-in sports car almost as pricey as the Tesla.

Sexton: Fisker’s also a $90,000 car or in that ballpark. So, again, out of my price range. Very pretty.

Al Gore has signed up for one. Sexton says she’ll be happy to settle for a Nissan Leaf or a Chevy Volt.

In Los Angeles, I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Those Fiskers are going to qualify for a big federal tax credit. Throw in state incentives, if you’ve got them, and you can get the price down to a mere $78,000 or so.

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