JULY 2007 IN

In the Electric Car Era

The electric car era is here. Chrysler has quietly started selling street-legal car versions of its electric golf carts at selected dealerships. Other car makers are showing low-speed electric cars based on the smallest gasoline-powered car designs. The first Tesla is in its crash-testing phase, so it could be out in the fall. And this is just the beginning. By one count, at least nine car companies plan to make electric cars by 2008, with most of the rest to follow in 2009 or 2010.

I imagine many people are asking, are these electric cars really going to work? Often there are technical problems when a new product is rushed to market. But electric cars use little new technology. Most of it is the same stuff that has been used for decades in golf carts and in gasoline-powered cars. And electric cars are much simpler than gasoline-powered cars. They are made from about half as many parts, and most are off-the-shelf parts — the electric car industry hasn’t had the time or the budget to create more than a few custom parts for its cars. So it’s likely that the new electric cars will, right out of the gate, be more reliable than comparable gasoline-powered cars.

Not many people will rush out this month to buy an electric car. The electric approach has limitations that you have to get used to before you can commit to them. The first limitation you notice is speed. Some of the first electric cars max out at 25 or 30 miles per hour — you could never take them on an expressway. Others, to be sure, go as fast as any race car, but those are correspondingly more expensive. The average driver would probably settle for something in between, a car that can go maybe 50 or 60 miles per hour, but for that, you might have to wait another year or so.

The range of electric cars is considerably less than what you expect with a car. After a certain distance, 30 to 300 miles depending on the model and the battery, you will want to take the car home and recharge it. The popular Toyota Prius, by contrast, goes 480 miles — and then you only have to stop at a gas station to refuel it. A 300-mile range, or less, pretty well rules out electric cars for road trips, at least for now.

Yet there is a place for the low-range low-speed electric cars. A five-mile commute on streets would be considerably less expensive in an electric car than in a gasoline-powered car, and the car is less expensive too, around $7,000 at the low end. Chrysler suggests retirement communities and golf communities — areas with low speeds, low traffic, and short distances — as likely places for their electric cars. The faster electric cars could easily be the choice for a commuter car in a household that has another car for the longer trips.

One thing is clear: we can expect to see a wider range of cars in the electric car era. Gasoline-powered cars are all pretty much the same because of the limitations inherent in the internal combustion engine. Electric cars can easily be slower — or faster — than a gasoline-powered car. With no engine, they can be much smaller, and with no heavy engine block to stabilize, they can be made in very different shapes. With a bigger range of vehicles on the road, we may all need to learn to mix all over again. And if we soon see millions of commuter cars that can’t go faster than 60 miles per hour, rush hour could slow down in some spots where drivers are currently used to taking liberties with the speed limits.

Electric cars are much quieter, and that too takes some getting used to. It might be a good idea to add little noise-makers to the front corners of electric cars so that they don’t sneak up on anyone, but as far as I know, no one is working on that yet — so expect to be startled by cars you didn’t hear coming, the same way a cart can creep up behind you on a golf course.

The electric car has no exhaust pipe. This is good for the environment, and it may also change the way cars are sold. With zero emissions, you can show them and sell them indoors. Any store could sell them. A few years from now, will consumers be able to buy a Chinese-made electric car at Wal-Mart? With their traditional sources of revenue growth stalling, it’s something the retail giant might well want to try. For that matter, the lighter weight and simpler design mean more people could assemble their own electric cars. Would you buy a car from Ikea, “some assembly required,” and take it home and put it together?

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