The Revival of the Electric Car?

EV1 Sony Picture’s new film, Who Killed the Electric Car, details the birth, short life, and controversy over the demise of General Motors’ all-electric vehicle, the EV1. Launched in 1996, the EV1 was pulled off the market after six years because, according to the filmmakers,  the electric car threatened the status quo of the auto and oil industry. General Motors, however, says it discontinued the car for economic reasons and lack of interest—over a four-year period, just 800 vehicles were leased. An initial waiting list of 5,000 interested consumers materialized into only 50 actual customers. And once suppliers stopped manufacturing replacement parts because of low demand, GM decided that ensuring the future safety and repairs of the vehicles would be impossible.

But now, a Silicon Valley start-up, Tesla Motors, aims to bring back the electric car. The new Tesla Roadster premiered July 19 in Santa Monica, California, and is expected to ship to consumers in summer 2007. The two-seater sports car has a 250-mile (400-kilometer) range, tops out at over 130 miles (210 kilometers) per hour, and goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour (96 kilometers per hour) in four seconds. It can fully charge in three-and-a-half hours. It incorporates all the latest technologies, including a regenerative braking system and LEDs in the taillights to further enhance battery life. And there’s no lack of interest—less than a week after the world premiere of the Roadster (and a year before it will be released), Tesla’s reservation list for buyers interested in owning one of the Signature One Hundred Collector’s Editions is almost full.

The catch? The Roadster costs between $85,000 and $100,000. However, according to Martin Eberhard, co-founder of Tesla Motors, targeting rich consumers is the best way to start production. “Cellphones, refrigerators, color TV’s, they didn’t start off by making a low-end product for masses,” he says. The company hopes to sell 4,000–5,000 Roadsters over the next three years. Tesla then plans to move on to its product for the masses; the company has already started working on a sedan, which could be released as early as 2008.

Other options for electric vehicles are also available. Converting a standard hybrid car to a plug-in hybrid/electric vehicle by adding batteries and an extension cord can increase mileage to upwards of 100 miles per gallon of gasoline (2.35 liters per 100 kilometers). A plug-in vehicle can run on just gasoline, but after it is plugged in and charged up, it is essentially an all-electric vehicle; the gasoline-hybrid engine only kicks in when the charge runs out or the car reaches a speed of about 35 miles (56 kilometers) per hour. Jim Press, president of Toyota North America, announced on July 18 that the company plans to pursue development of a plug-in hybrid vehicle, although it is not likely to be released in the near future. Until then, CalCars, a nonprofit start-up based in California, offers information on how consumers can add the plug-in feature to their existing hybrids.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.