While not much of a murder, much less a mystery, the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” may fuel new interest in what is a very old idea, namely, electric vehicles or EVs.

The 2006 documentary, directed by Chris Paine, chronicles the life of General Motors’ EV1, which was available for lease from 1996 until 2001. But reports of the demise of electric cars have been greatly exaggerated. A handful of start-up companies have entered the market with vehicles like the lightning-fast Tesla Roadster and the Wrightspeed X1, the revolutionary Tango, the light trucks of Phoenix Motorcars and the low-speed GEM from DaimlerChrysler. And with rising fuel prices, many more may well be on the horizon.

Upstart Tesla Motors, based in San Carlos, Calif., raised $40 million from forwarding-thinking guys like eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll, PayPal founder Elon Musk and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. (Tesla was named for Nikola Tesla, the often-mysterious inventor of alternating current.) With a range of 225 miles on a 3.5 hour charge, the Tesla Roadster looks like a sleek Lotus and drives like one, too. The company is positioning the Roadster alongside the Porsche Boxster, Mercedes-Benz SLK55 and the BMW M. They carry price tags in the mid-$40,000 to mid-$60,000 range, and the Roadster will be higher than that, about $100,000. While congestion and short commutes are driving other business models, the Roadster is built for open roads and for those who like curve-hugging handling at high speed. This car ain’t a golf cart. Contributing to the Tesla Roadster’s creation was Ian Wright, another Silicon Valley-based “extreme performance” electric supercar maker.

A former data communications engineer, Wright gained notoriety when he tested his X1 electric car against a Ferrari 360 Spider and a Porsche Carrera GT. The electric upstart outpaced the competitors, going from zero to 60 mph in 3 seconds, and reaching the equivalent of 170 mph. Coincidentally, its energy consumption in urban use is the equivalent of 170 miles per gallon. Wright boasts it’s among the fastest cars ever made, and he founded Wrightspeed to custom-make the cars. As the X1 is a prototype only, customers can expect the production model to be quite different from the original, though they can rest assured that it’ll still pack a punch.

Everyday EVs

Clearly, the Tesla Roadster and the future production Wrightspeed X1 are aimed at well-heeled driving enthusiasts, but both vehicles challenge the perception that electric is dull. That perception is not something that bothers DaimlerChrysler, the only big automaker currently in the electric arena with the GEM low-speed vehicle. Back in July 2006, DaimlerChrysler got screen time when then-President Vladimir Putin bought 30 GEM vehicles for the G8 summit that was held in Russia that year.

Focusing on college campuses, gated-communities and resort markets, the GEM (an acronym for Global Electric Motorcars, based in Fargo, N.D.) is a fully street-legal and safety-tested “neighborhood” vehicle. With more than 36,000 currently in use worldwide, and a $7,000 to $12,500 sticker price, they are as functional as they are cheap to operate and maintain. While decidedly unglamorous, DaimlerChrysler’s GEM vehicles may be part of a corporate strategy.

Phoenix Motorcars Inc. in Ontario, Calif. is targeting another part of the workaday market: light pickups and SUVs that are capable of being used as taxis. Phoenix Motorcars first gained green attention when it showcased a nostalgia-provoking reproduction of a 1937 Ford Cabriolet. But under the hood it was strictly 21st century electric.

Phoenix chairman Daniel Riegert says that a fleet-market penetration of 5 percent to 10 percent would mean production of 12,000 to 24,000 electric vehicles. With a range of over 100 miles per charge and max speed of 95 mph, the light-duty Phoenix vehicles will be ideal for messenger, service and light delivery fleets. “Fleet sales will enable us to ramp up production capacity,” says Riegert.

GEM and Phoenix seem to be betting that wider use of electric vehicles will cause a mind shift to power up consumer demand and make large-scale production and lower costs a reality.

Dancing in the street

On the other hand, the recently introduced Tango has loftier ambitions: to make us rethink how we drive and how we use our roads and parking lots. And while we’re rethinking that, how about rethinking how a car actually looks? That’s what Rick Woodbury, president of Commuter Cars in Spokane, Wash., the maker of the quirky-looking Tango, is betting on.

Billed as a totally new transportation concept, the Tango is a two-person car no wider than a motorcycle in which the passenger sits behind the driver.

Woodbury conducted a thoroughly unscientific survey of area teenagers by showing up at a local high school with his decidedly odd-looking car. When the principal burned rubber driving the Tango, the crowd was wowed. The Tango got a little more buzz when George Clooney bought the first one made.

The Tango’s funky head-on silhouette appears to be top heavy and offer little crash protection, but Woodbury claims it’s actually safer than most cars and has a much lower center of gravity. Its design is based on a racing-car roll-bar frame and its battery weight serves as ballast. With acceleration of zero to 60 mph in about four seconds and handling that outperforms a Corvette, this is a car that might draw a crowd wherever you pull up — even if you’re not George Clooney.

But the Tango story really concerns improving the way we commute. Since lane splitting is legal in California, as well as in Asia and Europe, the Tango is designed to drive between cars stalled in traffic-clogged freeway lanes. Parking in congested city centers is just as easy as parking a motorcycle — four Tangos fit into a conventional car parking spot. In expensive parking cities like Los Angeles and New York, the savings might actually cover the leasing cost. The upbeat Woodbury says the Tango is “an investment that will change the world more in terms of pollution than any other investment.”

Charging into the future

With an initial asking price of around $100,000, the Tango, Tesla and other EVs still carry a hefty premium. But when consumers factor in what they won’t be spending on gasoline, it doesn’t seem so pricey anymore. And there are other savings: no tune-ups or oil changes, and no transmission to repair either.

Brake pads may not need to be replaced before, say, 100,000 miles, because electric cars can rely on what is called regenerative braking.  By using the electric motor to slow the vehicle, it actually generates electricity that in turn recharges the batteries, meaning stop-and-go traffic can actually extend the range 10 percent to 15 percent. With electricity usage costing one to four cents a mile, what’s not to like here?

Is there a market?

Lingering skepticism about electric cars mirrors what hybrids faced. Critics pooh-poohed hybrids as too complicated because they integrated two different power systems and said there was little consumer interest. But the success Toyota and Honda have found with hybrid cars has made people rethink the electric car. Toyota, which once showed little faith in plug-in hybrids (an electric with hybrid backup), has made a U-turn and is now heading in that direction, as is Ford. Both Nissan and Mitsubishi will be launching electric models by 2010.

In the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, actor and environmentalist Ed Begley, Jr., says, “The electric car is not for everybody. It only meets the needs of 90 percent of the population.”

Tesla founder Martin Eberhard seconded that thought in “Red Herring” magazine, saying, “Ten years from now, it’ll be obvious that electric cars are the way to go. They are more efficient than any other car on the road. They are the ultimate multifuel technology because you can make electricity with whatever comes along.”

Soaring gasoline prices, which topped $4 a gallon for the first time recently, could bring even more skeptics on board in the search for a cheaper alternative.

Comparison chart
Maker Model Top MPH Miles/Charge Cost
Tesla Roadster 130 250 $90,000
Wrightspeed X1 112 160 NA*
DaimlerChrysler GEM 25 30 $7,000-$12,500
Phoenix Motorcars Light trucks 95 120 text
Commuter cars Tango T100, T200, T600 150 80 $18,700-$108,000
* Vehicles not currently in production, so no price has been quoted

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