This is the year that American drivers will plug in, charge up, and commute. Late in 2010, the all-electric Nissan Leaf and the battery-powered Chevrolet Volt, with a gasoline auxiliary engine for recharging, will go on sale.
Previously, hybrids like the Toyota Prius have been powered by both electric and gasoline engines—sometimes alternating, sometimes together. Hybrid batteries recharged while the car was in motion. Starting next year, the Prius and some other hybrids will add the option of plugging in to recharge the batteries.
Until now, only low-volume, specialty plug-in electric cars have been for sale in the U.S. The Tesla Roadster, starting at $109,000, is lots of fun with its sleek styling and rocket-like acceleration, but is neither practical nor affordable for most drivers. This year's entries—the Volt (available in November) and the Leaf (available in December)—aim at volume sales. And in coming years, more plug-ins will go on the market. Both Ford and Chrysler, for instance, are working on plug-in electric sedans.
The production of plug-in electrics—and Toyota's plug-in hybrid—is enabled by a new generation of batteries. Known as lithium ion batteries, they already power laptop computers and cell phones. They're both lighter and longer-lasting than the nickel metal hydride batteries that have been used in hybrid cars previously.
In cars like the Prius, those older batteries recharge from a combination of a generator powered by the gasoline engine and friction from the brake system when the car is braking. Adopting the new lithium ion option allows the plug-in option and eventually may prove to be cheaper.
For all their promise, plug-in vehicles will play only a limited role in auto companies' push to meet new, tougher federal mileage standards that call for a nearly 40% improvement by 2016 to an average of 35.5 miles per gallon for a company's entire fleet.
Research firm J.D. Power and Associates, Westlake Village, Calif., estimates that plug-in electrics will make up only 1% of the nation's cars by 2016 and perhaps 5% by 2020. An even more pessimistic report from the National Research Council, Washington, D.C., puts the plug-in share at just 4% even in 2030.
Several barriers are likely to limit higher plug-in sales. Prices for plug-ins often are higher than for gasoline-powered cars in the same class. The Chevy Volt will be priced at about $40,000 and the Nissan Leaf in the more affordable $25,000 range. A $7,500 federal tax credit (a deduction straight off your tax bill, not your income) may encourage consumers to consider purchasing a plug-in vehicle. "The federal tax credit will help, but battery-based vehicles can be expected to be more expensive for years in the future," says Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and market analyst for Kelley Blue Book and its auto research Web site kbb.com.
Another hurdle for plug-in electrics is their suitability only as commuter cars. The Chevy Volt can go about 40 miles on one charge, and then its auxiliary gasoline engine kicks in for recharging. With this add-on, the range becomes about 400 miles. The Nissan Leaf has no gasoline engine, but can go 100 miles on one charge. After that, it must be plugged in for at least two hours before driving again.
Analysts expect that, as more electrics are sold, some businesses will set up charging stations for their employees. And the U.S. may undertake projects, as Denmark already has, to establish charging stations along roadways. If these stations featured new fast-charge technology, the Leaf could recharge to 80% capacity in just 30 minutes.
Chances are, initial buyers of plug-ins will be people motivated either by environmental principles or a fascination with new technology. "Green buyers will be the early adopters, but we also expect some people to want electric vehicles as commuter cars," says Michael Omotoso, senior manager for global power train research at J.D. Power and Associates.
For environmentally minded buyers, the case is not always simple. If the electricity for recharging your plug-in car is generated by a coal-fired power plant, you may not be generating fewer greenhouse gases that affect climate change than if you drove a gasoline-powered vehicle.
Nonetheless, if you are tempted by the notion of buying a plug-in electric car, here are some questions to ask:
To meet those upcoming tighter mileage standards, auto companies will be relying on a combination of high-tech improvements to the traditional gasoline engine, producing more high-mileage diesels and maybe even some cars powered by hydrogen and natural gas. But if you need a commuter car with cool technology that also cuts your week-to-week fuel bills, maybe you'll want to plug in.
Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."
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