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The mass-market electric car challenge

Tara Baukus MelloThe U.S. Department of Energy awarded $2.4 billion in grants recently to companies developing electric vehicles and their associated technology to reduce our nation's dependence on foreign oil.

But despite the government's financial push, it remains to be seen whether the car of the not-too-distant future actually will be electric. Electric vehicles, or EVs, face numerous challenges, including driving range, length of time to recharge and availability of stations to recharge. Still, many automakers and suppliers are moving forward with EV technology, in part because of the government money.

Tesla Motors, a small electric-only automaker, has produced its Tesla Roadster since 2007, delivering more than 500 cars to customers thus far. Beginning in late 2011, it plans to mass-produce its new Model S, an all-electric sports sedan that will travel up to 300 miles per charge and recharge in as little as 45 minutes.

For its part, Chrysler is developing electric pickup trucks and minivans. BMW is leasing 450 of its Mini-E, an electric version of its Mini Cooper, to certain customers as part of a year-long test. And Mitsubishi Motors, Subaru and Volvo have EVs planned for the American market.

However, the first mass-produced EV will most likely be the Chevrolet Volt, which General Motors plans to introduce in late 2010 with a price of $40,000. The Volt is designed to run for 40 miles on a single charge before a small gasoline engine turns on to recharge the battery for a driving range of 300 miles.

The Volt also can be charged overnight by plugging into a standard wall outlet.

Earlier this month, Nissan unveiled its Leaf, an EV that it plans to introduce late next year for fleet use. In addition, Nissan will sell 5,000 Leafs to U.S. customers who must agree to be part of a test group that's recharging habits will be monitored for the first two years via an onboard black box. The Leaf, which has an expected starting price of $25,000, will have a 100-mile driving range before recharging and can be charged at home on either 110- or 220-volt power.

GM made the announcement recently that the Volt would get the gasoline equivalent of 230 mpg, but making such comparisons is sketchy at best. It is particularly misleading because it was based on a draft version of the EPA's fuel economy testing methodology for plug-in electric vehicles on a test vehicle that is still in development and over a year from production. In response, Nissan says its Leaf would achieve the equivalent of 367 mpg using the same methodology.

Still, it's hard to resist electric cars, since everybody's doing it. Ford had previously announced that it plans to bring an all-electric version to market next year of its new Transit Connect, a tall compact van that comes in passenger and cargo versions and gets 22 city/25 highway mpg. It also is working on an all-electric Focus for 2011 and a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle for 2012.

One of the challenges facing the widespread adoption of EVs is their relatively short driving range, which makes them impractical for many American drivers. Developing an advanced lithium-ion battery is the key to building an EV with a longer driving range. Gas-electric hybrid cars, which don't need to be plugged in, currently use nickel-metal hydride batteries. GM has said it will spend $43 million to build a factory to produce lithium-ion battery packs for its Volt and future EVs.

Perhaps the largest issue facing EVs in the mass market is how to recharge them. It has to be convenient and at least similar in cost to buying gasoline -- if not cheaper -- or consumers won't buy EVs. EV owners with garages will find it easiest to recharge because they'll be able to plug the car into a standard wall outlet. Ford has unveiled a system that uses a touch screen in the car that allows the vehicle owner to choose when to recharge the car, for how long and at what utility rate, and the system would communicate with the electric grid to fulfill the owner's desires.

While this technology is useful for owners with easy access to an outlet, it doesn't help those who live in apartments or need to park on streets, likely the group of people who would be best-suited to owning an EV. For those people, public recharging stations are essential.

One company moving in that direction is Electric Transportation Engineering of Phoenix. It has plans to place 7,750 public recharging stations in major metropolitan areas in the Southwest as the Nissan Leaf is rolled out in 2011.

While EVs are definitely well on their way to taking to the road, whether they will be bought and used by the general public remains a huge question.

Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories.

Tara Baukus Mello is a freelance writer who has written about automotive topics of interest to consumers since 1995. If you have a car question, e-mail it to us at Driving for Dollars

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