While Americans have always loved the freedom of the open road, concerns about the environment have caused many of us to curtail our driving – or even cut the cord that ties us to the gas pump completely. Electric and hybrid vehicles, first introduced in the early 90s, offer the promise of guilt-free road trips and noise-free commutes. But they’ve had to travel a rough road to get here.
At a recent Climate One event, Sherry Boschert of Plug In America took the audience through a brief history of the electric car. In the 1990s, she recounted, California state regulators issued a requirement to the top seven automakers to reach a goal of 10% zero emission vehicles by 2003, which “freaked out the car companies completely.” Nineteen other states followed California’s lead with their own emissions standards. “So now you’ve got a movement that really is pushing car companies,” Boschert continued. “The big three, GM, Ford and Chrysler, sued New York and Massachusetts to fight the zero emission vehicle mandates.”
More lawsuits followed, with the oil companies getting involved and the Bush administration backing them. This ultimately led to a watering-down of the zero-emission requirements – and the virtual “death” of the electric car.
But now, the zero-emission vehicle is back with a vengeance. Today there are around 160,000 EVs driving California’s roads, according to Eileen Tutt of the California Electric Transportation Coalition (CalETC). The California Energy Commission sees an “optimistic scenario” of a million EV’s by 2020.
The challenge? Cheap gas. Last year car sales were at an all-time high, while sales of electric and hybrid cars fell 5% from the year before. “The fact that you can get gas at two dollars a gallon is really, really hurting this market,” says Tutt. “And I don't see that changing anytime soon, but I guess I'm still hopeful that we’ll get close to a million.”
To help us reach that finish line, there are very tempting incentives – both state and federal – for going electric. Utility rebates and “cash for clunker” programs are just a couple of the carrots offered to EV owners. Even more thrilling is the chance to speed past the gas-guzzlers in HOV lanes. And one more thing:
“Consumers still don't understand plug-in cars and how much they save,” Boschert reminds us. With gas averaging around $2.50 a gallon, driving a mile costs about thirteen cents. On the average rate of electricity, she says, it costs between two and four cents.
Most people assume electric cars are just shiny toys for the well-heeled Greenies in Silicon Valley. Not true, says Eileen Tutt – thanks to rebates offered by California and the federal government, EVs are becoming more affordable to buy or lease. In addition, California has a number of programs that are specifically designed to get these vehicles into the hands of low income people living in very heavily polluted and impacted communities. Even so, Tutt reminds us, “Poor people in general don’t buy a new car. So what we need to do is get as many new cars out there as fast as possible so they move into the used car market, which is where lower income people shop for their cars.”
One thing many people may not know about electric cars: “It’s a great driving experience,” says Charlie Vogelheim. He should know – as the host of the Motor Trend Audio podcast, he drives on average one new car every week. And he’s excited about the range of models in the pipeline to choose from. In addition to the Bolt and Leaf, luxury models from Porsche and Audi are in the works. And those who love the zip and handling of a sports car, says Vogelheim, will not be disappointed. “The Tesla S…it's a fabulous sports car,” he enthuses. “It’s got a lot of technology, but it's a fast – I mean, it’s a roller coaster not on rails.”
Not only will drivers save on fuel, Vogelheim adds, but maintenance costs can be much lower with an EV. “Owning an electric car can be trouble-free, to the extent of a lot of the mechanical issues you have with engines internal combustion aren't there in an all-electric car.
“You don't really ever have an engine light go on, because there isn’t the engine.”
Today’s EV’s are more reliable, more affordable, and more fun to drive than ever. With only 840,000 more to go, could California be on track to reach its goal of a million electric cars by 2020?
Written by: Anny Celsi
Photography by: Sony Abrams