The dream of flying cars is still a ways off, but electric cars that need no petroleum fuel to run is a reality, and automotive makers are finally getting close to bringing that reality to a showroom near you.
Perhaps the car creating the most buzz recently is the Chevrolet Volt, a sporty-looking four-door sedan that will run up to 40 miles solely on electric power before a gas engine kicks in to charge the battery, giving an additional 310 miles of range. The ability to fill up at any gas station and the 350-mile total range should help allay the single biggest fear of just about anyone considering an electric vehicle - range anxiety.
The thought of being stranded on the side of the road with a dead battery and no way to charge it has probably made many economically-minded people think twice about whether they really want an electric car. Chevrolet is hoping the ability to charge the battery with an onboard gas engine generator will put customers at ease so they have no worries about having to scurry back home when the battery starts running low.
Vic Sharma, new car manager of Ryan Chevrolet, said the Volt takes about 10 hours to completely charge using a standard household 120V outlet. An optional 240V charging station cuts down that time to four hours.
Gas-electric hybrids have become increasingly popular over the past few years because unlike regular gasoline-powered cars, hybrids get their best mileage during city driving when the electric motor can kick in to supplement the normal engine.
"The one neat thing about the Volt is, unlike the hybrids where it's mostly powered by gas and it kicks the electric motor in back and forth, the Volt, if you're travelling under 40 miles at a time, your gas never kicks in," Sharma said. "So theoretically if you're just going from work to home to work to home, and if it's less than 40 miles per commute, you'll never use a drop of gas."
To prevent gas in the fuel tank from going stale and to keep the engine parts in good working order, the Volt has a maintenance mode that will briefly run the engine after a set period of time if the battery is never completely drained. Another noteworthy aspect about the engine is that it must use premium-grade fuel.
Figuring out what kind of mileage the Volt gets with its gas engine is a tricky proposition. Doing some quick calculations, Sharma said it would get just over 37 mpg if the battery and gas tank were both run dry on a 350-mile trip. However, if the car is charged up again, that adds another 40 miles to the range, and the more the car is charged, the higher the mileage becomes. So it really does depend on the driving habits of each individual.
It still costs money to run the Volt, of course, because electricity isn't free. In North Dakota, however, it is relatively cheap compared to the national average. According to a report from the United States Energy Information Administration, North Dakota had the second-cheapest electricity in the nation in 2010. Idaho had the cheapest rates last year with an average of 7.98 cents per kilowatt-hour, followed by North Dakota at 8.15.
While Sharma doesn't know the exact price it would be for a typical North Dakotan to charge up his new Volt, he did say the cost to fully charge the car for 10 hours is about the same as leaving a single lightbulb on for 24 hours.
The Volt is already on the market in the West Coast, but Sharma said it probably won't get to North Dakota until late summer this year, maybe around July. Buyers will have to pay a little more for all the new technology in the Volt, as it retails for right around $40,000. There is up to a $7,500 government tax credit for purchasing electric cars like the Volt, but buyers would have to wait until tax time to see any of that money. It isn't a rebate, however, and would only go toward whatever taxes were owed the government that year.
The government is contemplating turning the tax credit into an actual rebate that would instantly drop the price of the electric car by the given amount when it's purchased, but nothing has come of that idea yet.
So far only a few customers have been asking about the Volt, but that will probably change once it gets closer to its release in North Dakota. As for what questions those customers have been asking, the answer is pretty simple.
"Basically, when are we going to get them," Sharma said with a laugh, noting he already has a couple of customers who will be ordering one the second Chevrolet allows them to do so.
Of course owning an electric car does have some downsides beyond range anxiety. Anyone who's forgotten to plug in their car overnight knows North Dakota winters can take a toll on batteries. The efficiency of electric cars will take a hit in extremely hot or cold conditions, but it's not as bad as one might think.
"The cold and hot (weather) is going to affect the charge of the battery. From the tests that they've done, they're saying it's not going to affect it by more than about five percent as far as from extreme hot to extreme cold," Sharma said. "Now if you live in, not so much here, but if you live in hilly areas it does take a little bit more juice to get up the hills."
Doing some more quick calculations, Sharma said the five percent loss in mileage during extreme hot or cold weather will equate to only two miles, meaning the Volt will last 38 miles on the battery instead of 40.
"They've tested it in cold conditions, they've tested it in hot conditions, the battery ... for hotter conditions it's air-cooled, for colder conditions it's heated," Sharma added. "The battery is actually warrantied for up to eight years or 100,000 miles if there was something to go wrong with it."
Chevrolet isn't the only company jumping on the electric car bandwagon.
Ford will be introducing an electric version of its Focus sedan, which its Web site states is coming in late 2011. Nissan has already started shipping the Leaf, although in very limited quantities. Unlike the Volt, the Focus and Leaf are both all-electric cars that each have a range of around 100 miles.
While they don't use a drop of gas, drivers do have to remember to plug the cars in every night or risk being stranded on the road with a dead battery the next morning. The Leaf takes around seven hours to charge at 240V, and around 20 hours using 120V. The Focus will take about three to four hours using 240V, while 120V charging times were not available.
Toyota will also be making an electric plug-in version of its popular Prius hybrid, although it will rely on a gas engine for all but the shortest trips. The Prius Plug-in Hybrid, or PHV, will go 13 miles on a single charge before a gas engine takes over and turns the car into a regular hybrid like a standard Prius. The Toyota Web site states the plug-in Prius should be available early next year.
Toyota has opted for a smaller battery to give the car a lower cost than an all-electric vehicle as well as better greenhouse gas emissions than a standard hybrid vehicle. In addition, Toyota states the Prius PHV will only take 3 hours to fully charge with a standard 120V outlet, while using a 220V outlet cuts that time down to 1 1/2 hours.
Jerry Leiss, general sales manager for Minot Chrysler and Toyota Center, said he hasn't fielded too many questions about electric cars as of yet. This might be due partly to how popular the Prius hybrid is, and also partly to the many unknowns about how electric cars will handle a North Dakota winter. He said people don't need to worry about cold weather performance, however.
"People up here are scared because of the cold, they think they might have problems with it because it gets 10, 20 below," Leiss said. "We haven't had any problems with our Prius. They test the thing up in the north country, the cold.
"Years ago they actually tested them up here in the Minot area, seeing how the battery would last through the harsh winters."
While electric cars make up only a small portion of the market at present, Sharma believes that number will go up over time as the technology gets better and the price gets lower.
"They're eco friendly, if they're pure electric you get zero emissions, if it uses a little gas your emissions are way low compared to some of the other cars," Sharma said. "I think electric cars are the wave of the future."