Planet Gore

Will Electric Cars ‘Change the World?’

The question remains unanswered, but this Eric Pooley piece in Businessweek does a good job of laying out the challenges ahead for the electric car:

Most of the drivers on the 101 Freeway in Marin County, Calif., on this foggy December morning are oblivious to the black snub-nosed car gliding along beside them. Every so often, however, someone does a double take, gives a thumbs-up, or snaps a cell phone picture, because the car in the next lane is one they’ve never seen before: a Nissan Leaf, the world’s first affordable, mass-produced electric vehicle, or EV.

This particular Leaf happens to be No. 1: The very first sold anywhere. At the wheel is Olivier Chalouhi, who took delivery an hour before amid some impressive hoopla at a Nissan dealership in Petaluma. Now, driving south to San Francisco with Nissan (NSNAY) Americas Chairman Carlos Tavares riding shotgun, Chalouhi, a 31-year-old Web entrepreneur, is explaining how he came to be the first person to buy this car. His voice is soft but easy to hear from the backseat because, with no internal combustion engine, the Leaf (nationally about $25,000 after a $7,500 federal tax credit) is eerily quiet, almost as cocoon-like as Nissan’s $50,000-plus Infiniti M.

“It all started,” Chalouhi says, “when I saw an ad for the Chevy Volt.” The Volt, which started shipping to dealers in mid-December, is the Leaf’s chief competitor in the green-car sweepstakes. It runs for about 40 miles on an electric charge before a small gasoline engine kicks in to recharge the battery. That gives the Volt more than 350 miles of range—unlike the Leaf, which runs for 60 to 100 miles, varying with weather and terrain and driving style, before needing a recharge that can take 30 minutes to 7 hours, depending on the strength of the charger. The Volt’s gasoline engine makes it less attractive to some eco-minded consumers like Chalouhi. “In all the articles I read about the Volt, the Leaf was discussed as well,” he says. “As soon as I found out about the Leaf, I forgot about the Volt. The Volt wasn’t going to project the image I wanted. It has a tailpipe.”

“The Volt is a hybrid,” Tavares, 52, says happily from the passenger seat. “A very nice hybrid. But we see it as a transitional vehicle, and we were always of the opinion that we were providing the ultimate destination: 100 percent clean. No emissions. No gasoline. No tailpipe.”

The energy chain is more complicated than that—the electricity powering a Leaf may or may not come from low-emission sources—but right now it’s time to enjoy the ride. Chalouhi turns off the highway and guns the car up a steep, winding road in the Marin Headlands overlooking San Francisco Bay. The Leaf is surprisingly agile and sure-footed; its electric motor has plenty of pep, and 600 pounds of laminated lithium-ion batteries below the floorboards help it hug the road. Chalouhi is having fun with the tight turns heading into the hills, where Nissan has stationed a media team to capture the moment with some suitably dramatic images. Alas, the Golden Gate Bridge is hiding behind the fog, making the glamour shot impossible, so Chalouhi guides the car back down toward the 101 while a product manager, Paul Hawson, briefs him on the next photo op, at City Hall in San Francisco. “At the end of the ceremony,” Hawson says, “you and Mr. Tavares will go to the car and plug in the charger together.”

Chalouhi looks worried. “So I’m not going to be charging for long?”

“A short amount of time, yes.”

Chalouhi lives 35 miles to the south in Redwood City; the Leaf’s sophisticated NAV screen is telling him he has 37 miles left before his battery runs out of juice. The owner of the first mass-produced EV, in other words, is experiencing his very first twinge of what GM (GM) marketers have helpfully named “range anxiety.”

“So I won’t get much charge at City Hall,” Chalouhi says.

“You’ll get some,” Hawson assures him. “You’ll get home. We’ll make sure you get home.”

The rest here.

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