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

Back to the Future with Electric Cars

Air Date: Week of

Thomas Edison pops the hood of an electric car in 1913. The batteries then were likely lead acid. (Smithsonian)

Electric cars have been around a long time but are finally coming into their own. Now, the race is on to build an electric car for the mainstream. Host Bruce Gellerman asks auto writer Jim Motavalli what our future cars might be, and what they share with the past.


GELLERMAN: Electric cars have a bright future - again. Seems electric vehicles have always been the little engine that almost could, but never quite did. But now, according to auto industry observer Jim Motavalli, their time in the sun may have finally come. His new book is “High Voltage: the Fast Track to Plug in the Auto Industry.”

MOTAVALLI: Electric cars were pretty successful on the market ‘til around 1920 and they were largely sold to women - they were sold as women’s cars - probably because the female sphere of activity was deemed to be not all that large.

Jim Motavalli poses with the all-electric Nissan Leaf. (Photo: Mary Ann Masarech)

And, the interior of the early EVs were sort of like Victorian living rooms, and they were very plush and they had little opera lamps and bud vases and things like that. But, in many ways, they were not that different from the ones we had today. They had a range of about 50 or 60 miles on lead-acid batteries, and they would charge overnight.

GELLERMAN: So, what happened to electric cars? Why did they get beat out by gas?

MOTAVALLI: Well, basically, around 1907 Charles Kettering, who worked for General Motors, developed the self-starter for the gas vehicle. It’s kind of ironic because the self-starter is an electric motor, but it meant that you didn’t have to crank your car which had the potential of taking your arm off. Also, the gas engine got a whole lot more reliable, quieter, so the technology got better than the electric car at that time.

GELLERMAN: Back then, they used lead-acid batteries; now we’re using very high tech lithium-ion batteries - the same kind of batteries we use in our laptops.

MOTAVALLI: Right, and in fact, in some cars like the Tesla Roadster, they, in fact, are computer batteries. They’re really not very different. You have 6,800 computer batteries in the Tesla Roadster.

GELLERMAN: The Chevy Volt, the plug-in hybrid, has been around for just about a year now. How is it doing?

MOTAVALLI: It’s a little hard to say how it’s doing. You see a sort of seesaw in which one month the Nissan Leaf is selling more than the Volt, and then the next month, the Volt is selling more than the Leaf, but they’re going ahead and dramatically increasing their capacity to produce the Volt next year. So, I think there are some constraints on the Volt - it is $41,000, and that’s kind of a lot of money.

GELLERMAN: Well, the marketing has really picked up. They’re trying to appeal to the masses. Let’s listen to a commercial:

[AD FOR THE VOLT: The Volt only need about a buck fifty worth of charge a day. And, for longer trips, it can use gas. So, get psyched! It’s a big step up from the leaf blower. Chevrolet Volt, the 2011 North American Car of the Year.]

GELLERMAN: And, here’s the Leaf ad:

[AD FOR THE LEAF: Imagine zero dependency on foreign oil, zero pollutants in our environment, zero depletion of the ozone. Suddenly, zero starts adding up. Which is why we at Nissan built a car inspired by zero.]

GELLERMAN: And, we should say that none of these cars, at least the electric cars, are actually zero emissions. Every car has to have emissions, even if they don’t come out the tailpipe, because they come out of a smokestack - you have to be generating electricity somewhere.

MOTAVALLI: You’re right, these cars are not really zero emissions. That is something of a misnomer because they are all connected to power plants and you really are only as clean as the grid that your electricity comes from. However, one thing you can say is that most cars get dirtier as they get older, but an electric car will actually get cleaner because the grid is getting cleaner. We’re retiring some of the oldest and dirtier plants and, therefore, the equation is better.

GELLERMAN: Actually, you could have zero emissions if you were generating your own electricity. I was looking into rooftop photovoltaics solar on my roof, and the salesperson said ‘You know, you could really make this attractive financially if you use the PV on your roof to charge an electric car.’

MOTAVALLI: That’s very true. I was recently out in San Diego, and the local utility there has a map that shows not only where people are buying the Nissan Leaf, but also which of those houses also have rooftop solar, which is very popular there. It’s probably among the highest concentrations. And companies like Envision Solar and Solar City are offering EV charging as part of the package, so I think we’re going to get into a lot of solar charging. It is a very sensible way to do this.

GELLERMAN: Well, there are some automakers that are taking a slightly different tact - instead of building electric cars, they’re trying to build cars that use standard combustion engines. The Chevy Cruze diesel gets 51 miles per gallon and costs only about $22,000.

MOTAVALLI: Yes. Diesels are a very impressive technology - the so-called ‘clean diesel.’ Bosch is a company that has been lobbying for people to realize what you can do with diesel technology. And they think that only one percent of the market by 2020 is going to be plug in vehicles of various types. I think it’s actually going to be more than that. Fuel prices, I think, are going to go up and four dollars a gallon gasoline is a big turning point for people.

GELLERMAN: You know, the Obama Administration is calling for cars to get 54 and a half miles per gallon by 2025, or I guess equivalent miles per gallon. Is that going to be, you think, diesel, electric, gas, hydrogen fuel cells?

MOTAVALLI: I think it will be a mix of vehicles. If you look at the auto manufacturers, they say it’s a mandate to electrify the automobile. But there are these other technologies that are coming forward - direct injection, and turbo charging, clean diesels - and I think we’re going to see an actual mix of vehicles on the road to get to 54.5 mpg.

GELLERMAN: You know, when you think about it, Jim, are we back to where we started 100 years ago? We had steam cars, electric cars, gas cars, diesel cars - it seems like, we’re, again, back to the future!

Motavalli tracks the recent journey from gas to electric in his new book, High Voltage. (Rodale books)

MOTAVALLI: Yeah, it’s funny, I visited Jay Leno’s car collection in Burbank recently, and he has a whole room of steam cars. And, in 1900, that was one of the dominant technology, and that got a lot more sophisticated quickly. But that technology died out despite some modern attempts by the father of the 8-track tape player, steam power hasn’t really happened. So, you had all those technologies vying for supremacy, and in a way we’re back to that.

GELLERMAN: So, Jim, do you think we are at the point where electric cars are not just going to be a curiosity, but really a car that every person drives around?

MOTAVALLI: Yes. I think that it will happen fairly slowly. I predict that maybe by 2020, 10 percent of the new cars sold will either be electric or plug in hybrid or hybrid or something like that - some variation of that. They’re quiet, they’re very high performance, and they’re zero emissions in the sense that they don’t produce any tailpipe emissions. They don’t even have tailpipes.

So, in terms of driving pleasure, if people think that electric cars are always going to be slow and there won’t be a lot of performance, you should just try the Tesla Roadster, which is probably the most fun I’ve ever had driving a car.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, they go from 0 to 60 in under four seconds!

MOTAVALLI: Right. A whole lot of fun. Why not? Why shouldn’t we be having fun while we’re saving the environment?

GELLERMAN: Jim Motavalli’s new book is called “High Voltage, The Fast Track to Plug-In the Auto Industry.” Jim, thank you so very much.

MOTAVALLI: Great. Thank you.



Read Jim Motavalli's blog


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