Thinking Tech

Don't hold your breath waiting for electric cars

Don't hold your breath waiting for electric cars

Posting in Energy

Despite the hype, car makers are still cautious.

There's an electric car conference in downtown San Jose this week -- Plug-In 2010 -- and it doesn't seem that crowded. There was plenty of parking when I drove there this afternoon, and plenty of room inside San Jose's cavernous convention hall.

Inside the meeting rooms, car makers were hedging their bets. Yes, GM announced pricing on the Chevy Volt today, but at $33,500 ($41,000 without federal subsidies), it's still an expensive car.

And there are lots of other questions car makers are asking about how well electric cars are going to work and how quickly we will accept them.

Here are some of the things they are worried about:

- From BMW, which plans a "mainstream" car (meaning one with more than two seats) in 2012 and a "megacity" car (carbon fiber, with a range of 100 miles) in 2013 -- How long will the batteries last, and what are they going to cost? Except for a few early adopters, most people won't buy electric cars until prices come down, says BMW's Rick Steinberg. He wouldn't say what the magic price is.

- From BMW again -- How serious is "range anxiety"? The more people drive electric cars, the less they tend to worry about it, Steinberg says, but BMW does believe that public charging stations would ease public anxiety about how far these cars can go. Still, there is less need for public charging stations in the U.S. than in other countries, he says, because so many Americans have garages where they can plug in their cars.

- From the California Energy Commission -- The smart grid is several years away. "I don't expect vehicle-to-grid charging in my working lifetime," said vice chair Jim Boyd, "but we are talking about vehicle-to-home as a precursor. Although there are lots of rules that need to be changed in the electric business first."

- Also from the California Energy Commission -- Where's the power for electric cars going to come from? "Everybody wants to put (renewable energy) in the desert, and there's lots of flora and fauna and cultural issues there," Boyd said. A newly formed California Plug-In Electric Vehicle Collaborative Council is now working on a plan to guide public investments in power.

- From Ford -- Between 10% and 25% of Ford's global fleet will be electrified by 2020. That's 75% hybrids, 20% to 25% plug-in hybrids and the rest battery electrics. How fast Ford is able to go depends partly on the price of gas, according to Ford's Nancy Gioia. When gas prices in the U.S. fell recently below $4 a gallon, the number of electric cars also dropped, by about 20%.

- Also from Ford -- Battery technology is getting better, but it's not good enough. Charge discharge, temperature performance, lifetime performance and energy density to reduce size, weight and cost all have to improve.

- From the Tennessee Valley Authority -- Translate electricity use into miles per gallon, says James Ellis, so people can start to understand what the cost of owning an electric car really is.

- From Toyota -- It's outfitted 150 plug-in vehicles with telemetry boxes to collect data and survey drivers and is testing the cars in university research centers in Boulder and on both coasts. Data on how people use the cars -- when they plug in, how far they drive, etc. -- will be available on Toyota's Web site. "We have a lot of learning to go," said Toyota's Mary Nickerson.

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure