Makers of electric cars address shortage of recharging station

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

As their manufacturers see it, the electric cars entering U.S. showrooms as early as next year will be engineering marvels: stylish, battery-operated, zero-emission wonders.

Yet for all their technological prowess, there's one practical question that unsettles the green dreamers and entrepreneurs alike:

Where, oh, where, can you plug them in?

While most electric cars are expected to be recharged at home, the predicament of a driver who runs out of battery power on the road has yet to be settled, and the issue of "range anxiety" has set off an array of billion-dollar speculations.

On Monday, a coalition of companies that includes Nissan, FedEx, PG&E and NRG Energy issued a report calling for billions of dollars in government aid to support the transition of the U.S. vehicle fleet to cars that run on batteries.

The group is asking for $124 billion in government incentives over eight years including $13.5 billion for tax credits to build public charging stations.

"The public charging infrastructure is really important early on for getting drivers over range anxiety," said Sam Ori, one of the authors of Electrification Coalition report. "No one really knows how intense it will be. Everyone has pet theories. But consumers need to see that the whole thing works and feel confident in adopting this new technology."

Indeed, one of the main rivalries in the race to build mass-market electric cars, between the forthcoming Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt, turns on the different ways that each will address range anxiety.

Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn said in an interview Monday that he believes that range anxiety will afflict only a portion of the potential market. For plenty of people, trips of 100 miles or less will be fine.

Thus, the Nissan Leaf is a pure electric vehicle with a battery that will give it a range of approximately 100 miles.

If the Leaf were targeted for all drivers, "range anxiety would be a real issue," he said. But it only "exists for 30 percent or 40 percent of the market."

General Motors, meanwhile, has studied range anxiety and seems to have arrived at a different conclusion.

During the late '90s, it produced about 900 electric vehicles, known as EV1s.

"Our experience with EV1 told us that range anxiety is very real," company spokesman Rob Peterson said. "It was something the drivers experienced."

Accordingly, its forthcoming electric car runs on a battery for the first 40 miles, but when the charge runs low, a gasoline engine kicks in. With or without public charging stations, a Volt driver can motor on as long as there is a gas station nearby.

"For a long time, cars have represented a way to move around -- freedom," Peterson said. "Some people are unwilling to accept restrictions to that."

One critical distinction between the Leaf and the Volt will be price, though neither company has said what their vehicles will cost. Both are struggling to make the price comparable to a gas-powered car.

But Ghosn said that by forgoing the gas engine at the expense of a more limited range, Nissan will be better able to make its electric cars cheaply.

"We are not a maker of electric cars," Ghosn said. "We are a maker of affordable electric cars. That is the most important thing from the beginning."

Even so, Nissan and other companies exploring the market for electric cars say it would be very difficult to win over consumers without the benefit of the $7,500 tax credit for people who purchase electric cars.

Ghosn said Nissan plans to sell the Leaf only in countries such as the United States, Japan and France that offer consumer incentives.

Not surprisingly, the Electrification Coalition, of which Ghosn is a member, proposes that at least $75 billion in U.S. government money be used to fund the consumer incentives.

That's a lot of money to ask of government, the coalition's Ori said, but it "pales in comparison to the cost of U.S. oil dependence, which has huge environmental, economic and national-security costs."

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