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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Keeping Current on Electric Cars

Air Date: Week of

American taxpayers have pumped more than two billion dollars into electric drive vehicles. What are U.S. car companies doing? Host Jeff Young talks with car rider and writer Jim Motavalli about what’s down the road for electric vehicles.


YOUNG: Nancy Gioia says the electric Focus is coming in 2011— no word yet on the price tag. GM’s main electric offering, the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid, rolls out late next year. Environment writer Jim Motavalli calls the field embryonic now, but close to explosive growth. He’s the author of the book “Forward Drive,” and writes about electric cars for the New York Times. I asked Jim who has the inside track on electric cars.

MOTAVALLI: I think Ford is actually at the forefront of the three, big American automakers. I think they actually have a good overall strategy. General Motors could be said to be putting all of its efforts into the Volt, and I think time will tell whether that’s a good strategy or not. Because of its economic woes, Chrysler has announced that it’s going to be building electric-drive vehicles, but I think they’ve been able to spend very little on developing those. I think Ford’s plans in this space are very conservative. Like, they would say that they’re only going to do like 5, 000 to 10,000 of the Focus-based electric cars, worldwide, in 2011 – that’s a very small number. It’s certainly not going to make a dent in the worldwide auto industry, but they’re not sure. They don’t think there’s a lot of early adopters out there.

YOUNG: So, where do the US companies then compare to what companies based in other countries are doing?

MOTAVALLI: I would say probably the smartest overall strategy for vehicle electrification is coming from Nissan, a Japanese company, and what’s smart about their approach is they’ve also got into the charging business. The Renoit-Nissan alliance has built strategic alliances around the world to set up charging stations.

YOUNG: What about Chinese automakers?

MOTAVALLI: I think Chinese automakers are very well poised, because the Chinese companies, in many cases, are vertically integrated and also own battery companies. The most prominent player in this space is BYD, which is a Chinese company. I think the name translates to Build Your Dreams and Warren Buffet is a ten percent owner in this company now, and probably would buy more if they let him. And they are one of China’s biggest battery makers. They make batteries for all kinds of portable electronic devices. But they have also got to be a fairly large automaker in China - they introduced the world’s first plug-in hybrid car on the Chinese market and they’re planning to bring a battery car into the US that would be competitive with vehicles like the Ford battery-electric and the Nissan Leaf.

YOUNG: So, you’ve been visiting a lot of automakers, test driving a lot of vehicles, going to companies both big and small. Who do you think has the juice here? And by juice, I mean the kind of innovative spirit – who’s really bring the new ideas to the table here?

MOTAVALLI: Well, I think the most creative ideas I see generally tend to be out of a startups. Tesla’s only built 700 cars. Fisker has not yet actually put out its Carma vehicle; it’s going to come out next year. But, I do have confidence and I think that some of the startup companies have really smart technology, really good people working on it, and I think they are worth supporting. Though I think that the General Motors efforts to date show they are capable of reinventing themselves and rethinking their old paradigms. I mean, you take GM as the classic example of the high-bound, bureaucratic company and, if you look at it today, you see a lot of evidence of new shoots and growth and new thinking, and I think that’s crucial if GM is going to survive.

YOUNG: Well, gives us a sense of what you think we might see in the way of electric-drive vehicles over the next, I don’t know, five years, or so – will there really be that many of them on the road?

MOTAVALLI: There probably won’t be so many that every second or third vehicle you see on the road is going to be electric. It takes a long time to turn over a country’s auto fleet. People keep their cars like ten years.

YOUNG: And do you think that means electric vehicles are really going to make a dent in our greenhouse gas emissions, our reliance on imported oil, all these other problems associated with the way we do transportation now?

MOTAVALLI: Yes, they will put a dent in it. I wish the timetable was faster. We still have a massive learning curve in the American people to get them used to the idea of driving an electric car and charging up. I do see a very fast spread in which charging technology will take off and big-box stores, for instance, will have free electric car charging, and this will get people to visit them. When you think about it, a charge doesn’t cost very much, it might cost three or four dollars, but if you get somebody in the store and they basically have to stay there until the car is charged - a fast charge might take 20 minutes - you’ve got a captive shopper for 20 minutes. That is worth more than four dollars. That’s why you get this move towards not only widely available charging, but free charging as a competitive advantage.

YOUNG: Jim Motavalli keeping us plugged in, keeping us current on electric vehicles! Thanks a lot.

MOTAVALLI: Great, thanks.



Motavalli Contributes to BNet’s Auto Analysis blog

Forward Drive and Motavalli’s other books


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