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Environment

Electric cars hit US streets although future still uncertain

The roll-out of electric cars by big automakers Nissan and GM has sparked discussion about their prospects and acceptance by the larger public. Big hurdles remain but many are confident about electrics' future.

Chevy Volt

Jeffrey Kaffee drives the first Volt sold to the public out of the showroom

Electric cars have had many false dawns over the years, but their proponents in the motor industry say now their time has come.

This December, two mass-market electric vehicles are hitting dealerships in selected markets around the world. The General Motors Volt and Nissan's Leaf are both aimed at delivering emissions-free driving at affordable prices.

Motor Trend magazine has called the Chevy Volt a "breakthrough" and a "game changer" and named it its 2011 Car of the Year.

A retiree in New Jersey became the owner of the first Volt, a gas-electric hybrid, to be sold to the public on December 15, while Nissan rolled out its Leaf in a handful of US cities earlier this month. Both are scheduled for sale in Europe in 2011.

The developments have some experts saying that a major change is underway in the automobile industry.

General Motors' Volt relies on a battery for the first 40 miles or 60 kilometers, after which a gas-powered engine kicks in to recharge the battery, which extends the range of the sedan by another 300 miles, or 480 kilometers.

In contrast, the Leaf is all-electric with a range of around 100 miles, and just like early gas-powered vehicles, it might be difficult to find fuel nearby. However, unlike the car's predecessors, the Leaf has a GPS system. Press a small blue button and it will search for the nearest charging station.

Still, many fear that 'range anxiety' will put drivers off the all-electrics and that electric cars will remain a niche product. But others say zero-emission vehicles will gain traction in the long term.

"We are the most bullish today by saying ten percent of the market 2020 will be zero emission," Nissan Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn told a Stanford University forum. "Frankly, I think the numbers will move up.”

Sticker shock

Nissan Leaf

The all-electric Nissan Leaf is more affordable

It all sounds promising, although the price tag could limit its popularity. Even with a federal tax credit, the Volt will set consumers back $33,500 (25,155 euros).

Nissan's Leaf will not collide with bank accounts with quite the same ferocity. Tax incentives from Washington and the state of California will bring the price of the four-door automobile down to just over $20,000, about the same price as a gas-powered sedan.

Still, that's almost where the similarities with its gasoline-dependent brethren end.

Starting up the Leaf is a quiet process – there's no traditional cranking sound of a starter. There's also no internal combustion engine.

Instead, the car relies on lithium-ion batteries. When it's running, it emits a faint hum which has been added to alert pedestrians that a car is nearby.

Nissan has spent $5 billion developing electric cars and Ghosn insists this is a safe bet. He says electric car sales will rise if oil prices go up and carbon dioxide restrictions get tougher.

Event without new CO2 rules, the International Energy Agency is promoting electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids as a way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, although the amount of the reduction depends on the electricity source.

While the cars themselves don't emit greenhouse gases, the electricity plants where they get their energy from may.

"As a US average, a battery electric car we think would reduce greenhouse gas emission by about 40 percent compared to a conventional vehicle," said Timothy Lipman of the University of California, Berkeley. "In California, because our grid is cleaner, it would probably be more like 60 percent reduction.”

electric car being charged

Charging issues will have to be solved before electrics gain a wide following

Out of juice

Charging is a real issue when it comes to the acceptance or rejection of electrics with the wider population.

According to a recent report by the National Research Council, the current US electric grid could provide enough electricity to power 80 percent of today's cars, if they were electric and provided that they were charged during off-peak hours, such as overnight.

However, some are looking at a different approach. A company called "A Better Place" plans on offering electric car battery swapping pans, similar to mobile phone plans, in which monthly payments are based on the amounts of swapping and charging drivers do.

But some, such as Berkeley's Lipman, doubt that such programs will be universally viable. He said it might make sense to run a battery swapping operation in Europe, where gas prices are relatively high, but in the US the system would probably not be able to compete with the relatively low price of gas.

Another battery-related worry has to do with a core component: lithium. Media reports say that Bolivia, which has almost half the world supply of lithium, is considering tighter control of its lithium reserves.

Other rare-earth resources, such as neodymium iron boron, could also pose problems. China has the biggest deposits of this material has begun withholding it from the world market, pushing up its price.

Future outlook

Government officials are already looking for substitutes for these materials.

One US government-funded research project is working on making electric cars easily affordable by radically redesigning their batteries, based on those used in hearing aids.

"We think that has the very distinct possibility of giving cars that now have a hundred mile range, a five hundred mile range at one third of the cost," said US Energy Secretary David Chu.

Even if this technological breakthrough is far off on the horizon, Lipman of Berkeley's Transportation Sustainability Research Center, says electric cars have a bright future. He says they will eventually be embraced by more than just environmentalists.

"Once people drive these cars, they see how they perform, how easy they are to operate, how quiet they are, the excellent acceleration and so forth," he said.

"A lot of people are going to like these cars, not because they're green, but because they're better cars."

Author: Laura Iiyama, Kyle James
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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