When You Drive, Go Electric

white tesla filling up on gas
David Nuescheler

Back when the Toyota Prius was just a dream in some renegade engineer’s head, no one thought drivers were ready to sacrifice the space and heft of the day’s popular SUVs in favor of smaller, ecofriendlier cars. That engineer, Shigeyuke Hori, persisted, however, taking the Prius from an idea to a concept car to a “gawky” vehicle launched on the Japanese market in 1997, note Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon in Two Billion Cars (Oxford University Press, 2009). At the time, “Toyota saw the Prius as an experiment with only a five percent chance of succeeding.”

To the astonishment of Toyota’s upper management, the Prius skyrocketed past these low expectations, rapidly reaching sales of 2,000 per month in Japan and prompting the company to launch a US counterpart in 2000. By 2007, the Prius was the eighth best-selling car in America and the winner of countless awards and critical accolades, including being named Consumer Reports’ “top overall value” out of all 300 vehicles the nonprofit magazine tested in 2009.

In 2005, Hori received Wired magazine’s RAVE award for “mavericks and dreamers” who “change the way people think about culture, business, and science.”

Of course, Hori had a little help—in the form of every person who took a chance on the little green car that could.

When we reported on the incredible possibilities of electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) in 2008, there weren’t many of these cars making their way to market. Automakers, particularly in America, were stubbornly holding on to old, inefficient technologies that pollute our air and contribute to climate change.

Just one year later, every major car manufacturer now has plans to deliver an EV or PHEV to the market in the next few years—some as early as 2010. And consumers are ready: a 2009 poll by Rasmussen Reports showed that 40 percent of consumers say they are very or somewhat likely to buy an electric car in the next ten years.

It’s no wonder car companies are finally catching on—electric cars can meet drivers’ needs while resulting in less greenhouse gases and pollution and a greater use of renewable energy.

How They Work

The big difference between an electric car and the average internal combustion vehicle is that EVs are run on batteries instead of gasoline. They can be plugged into a regular outlet or a high voltage outlet (like the one that powers your clothes dryer) at home. For those interested in making longer trips, car companies are producing PHEVs, also coming to be known as extended-range electric vehicles. A PHEV is equipped with a battery and a gas engine, so that when the battery is empty, the fuel engine kicks in.

An all-electric car puts out zero tailpipe emissions—meaning it emits no greenhouse gases or air polluting particulates locally. It’s true that electric cars in the US are charged with electricity from the grid, where about half of our power still comes from dirty coal; however, studies show that even so, EVs charged from the average grid-mix in the US still achieve a 30-50 percent CO2 emissions improvement over today’s vehicles. As the grid becomes cleaner, so will emissions associated with electric cars. Charge an EV or PHEV with 100 percent renewable energy, and emissions drop to zero.

We wouldn’t need any new power plants to make the switch to electric cars tomorrow. According to the National Renewable Energy Lab, since electric vehicles charge at night, we already have the electricity to charge 73 percent of today’s cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs—and renewables can supply the rest. With the smart grid technology that experts say is on the near horizon, cars could be plugged back in at the office to help supply power from their batteries to the grid at peak usage times; or charged with solar energy during the day and then used to power your evening activities at home.

Most all-electric cars are expected to go about 100 miles on one charge. This would provide almost 80 percent of commuters in the US with an all-electric trip to work. (Check out our “Frequently Asked Questions” for more about EVs or PHEVs.)

A look at what’s to come

Even though the industry is finally moving on this important issue, it will likely still be a while before you see EVs or PHEVs dominating local showrooms. Most manufacturers plan to release the first wave of new electric cars in the Japanese market, where consumers have a demonstrated willingness to try new, clean technologies. In the US, many of the new cars will first be sold to government fleets.

But there are a few EVs and PHEVs that are available now or will be in 2010, and many companies have promised to release EVs and PHEVs by 2012. Here’s a little taste of what is out there now and what we have to look forward to as the automotive world finally moves into the 21st century.


1. Neighborhood Electric Vehicles 
A range of neighborhood electric vehicles, or NEVs, are available for purchase now. These small all-electric cars go about 25 mph and have a range of about 30 miles for every charge. They are ideal for running errands in a close radius around your home—the kind of stop-and-go driving that is the most inefficient in a combustion engine car. NEVs range in price from $10,000-$20,000. Photo: GEM E4, by General Electric Motorcars (owned by Chrysler)


2. Tessla Roadster
Electric car manufacturer Tessla has so far cornered the market on electric vehicle sales. Their Tessla Roadster, a sleek two-seater sportscar, can go over 200 miles on one charge. But the Roadster isn’t for those on a tight budget—it sells for a little over $100,000. Tessla is expected to release an electric sedan, the Tessla Model S, in 2012; the Model S is expected to start at about $50,000.


3. Nissan Leaf 
Nissan recently announced the planned release of its all electric vehicle, the Leaf, in late 2010, just in time to compete with the Chevy Volt. The Leaf will be able to travel about 100 miles on a single charge, and the initial release of the car will be accompanied by the largest single roll-out of electric-charging stations in the US (keep checking www.evauthority.com/ev-charging stations to see if there’s one near you). The Leaf will cost between $25,000–$35,000.


4. GM Chevy Volt
The Chevy Volt, the first PHEV prototype to come out of Detroit, made waves when it hit the scene in 2007 as a futuristic-looking concept car. Chevy calls the Volt an Extended-Range Electric Vehicle, meaning that it runs on an electric battery but will switch to using a gas tank when the battery is drained. However, unlike the plug-in conversion of the Toyota Prius, the Volt does not use gasoline to drive the engine; instead, energy from burning gas charges the battery, so the car continues to run on electricity. The Volt will go about 40 miles on one charge before starting to use gasoline. Chevy will release the Volt in late 2010, and it is expected to cost around $40,000, though the company has not released a firm price.


5. Coda Sedan 
Coda Automotive has been making slow-speed neighborhood electric vehicles for years, and has developed its first highway-ready car, to be rolled out in late 2010. The Coda will be an all-electric car with a range of about 100 miles, and is expected to sell for about $45,000.

Beyond 2010

The EVs and PHEVs on this page are all slated for 2010. Many auto companies have plans for such cars beyond that: Toyota and Ford are both planning plug-in hybrids for 2012; Mitsubishi will introduce a small EV by 2012, and Ford has promised to put out four electric vehicles (including an electric Focus) by 2012. Right now these cars are little more than promises, but if enough US consumers convey their interest to Detroit and Tokyo, tomorrow’s EVs and PHEVs could be crowding Hummers and SUVs out of American showrooms sooner rather than later.


Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist and Tracy Fernandez Rysavy