Recharging and other concerns keep electric cars far from mainstream

Timothy Gill juices up his Mini E. When it got cold, he found that the battery didn't last as long.
Timothy Gill juices up his Mini E. When it got cold, he found that the battery didn't last as long. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 2009

It was dark and rainy, and the battery on his nifty Mini E electric car was almost gone.

Paul Heitmann rolled quietly through the suburban New Jersey gloom, peering through the rain on the windshield, not sure what he was looking for, anxiety turning into panic. He needed juice. He spotted a Lukoil gas station, which was closed, and beside the point, anyway. But beyond the pumps, there was a Coke machine, and it was lit up.

"I thought 'Finally!' because I knew if there was light, there would be electricity," he said. "I managed to find the outlet behind the Coke machine and plugged in."

As many of the auto companies tell it, next year may be the year that the massive U.S. auto industry really begins to go electric.

The all-battery Leaf from Nissan is scheduled to go on sale in November. General Motors will begin selling the Chevy Volt, a primarily electric car (with a small auxiliary gasoline engine that kicks in to boost the car's range). Ford has plans to produce an electric commercial van. The Obama administration has doled out $2.4 billion to companies involved in producing batteries and other parts of electric cars.

"We have to get on with the electrification of our industry," William Clay Ford Jr., chairman of Ford, said during a visit to Washington on Monday.

"I know we have to have an electric car," GM Chairman Edward E. Whitacre Jr. told reporters last week.

But overshadowing prospects for the transition of the vast U.S. auto fleet to electric -- and the billions of dollars the automakers have invested in the switch -- is the question of whether anyone beyond a sliver of enthusiasts will soon embrace the newfangled cars, which force drivers to rethink their habits and expectations of convenience.

For now, the only major automaker with a fleet of new all-electric vehicles priced for mainstream consumers is BMW, with its 500 Mini E electrics in what the company describes as a test of the technology. To judge from interviews with drivers and more than a dozen of their blogs, it has also proved to be a test of consumer adaptability.

The electrics pose two primary challenges to convention: When fully charged, electric cars generally cannot travel even half the distance that a conventional car can go on a full tank. And once the battery is depleted, there are few places to recharge besides home, and the charging process can take hours.

Heitmann, for example, sat in the dark beside the Coke machine for one midnight hour to make sure he had enough charge to make it the four miles to his mother's house.

"I sat there looking at the gas pumps that said $2.45 a gallon," he recalled. "And I thought, 'What I wouldn't give to be able to use that.' Two and a half dollars, and I could have gotten another 25 miles."

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