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Cars of the future are fast, economical and produce no emissions

Sunday, June 3, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — The car of the future is so fast it can snap your head back. It's so economical it costs as little as 3 cents per mile — with no emissions.

And it's so quiet the one car maker felt compelled to invent a new way to let pedestrians know it was coming.

It's the electric car, and maiden models now hitting metro roads are creating a buzz.

But there's a disconnect. Even as companies produce more of these cars and government and private businesses provide the charging stations to support them, they aren't electrifying consumers. Prices are high — starting between $30,000 and $40,000 — and sales are sluggish.

And the recent decline in gas prices only fuels America's comfort with the internal combustion engine.

Still, many experts insist electric cars are our future.

"We're not going to run out of oil, but we are going to run out of cheap oil," said Bill Moore, editor of evworld.com, a leading electric car site in Omaha. "So do you want to run a conventional car at European gas prices, or do you want to run an electric car at the equivalent of a dollar a gallon? That's really the choice."

So what's it like to own an electric car? And why have some people decided to plug in now?

We talked to early adopters to find out.

For Al Pugsley, it started after he watched "Who Killed the Electric Car?" a 2006 documentary about the demise of General Motors' EV1 in the 1990s.

"I made my mind up at that point to get an electric car," Pugsley said.

He joined the Mid-America Electric Auto Association, a group of car enthusiasts, and paid a man in Newton, Kan., $12,500 to convert a Chevy S-10 to electric power. Later he had his 2003 Kia Sorento converted in Kansas City.

And next month, he's expecting delivery on a Nissan Leaf, a four-door hatchback rated by the EPA at 99 miles per gallon equivalent. Until his car arrives, he often drives a dealer demo.

In the driver's seat, he pushes the start button. While the dashboard lights up like Las Vegas, the engine barely makes a whisper.

Even with only one forward gear, the Leaf is smooth and has enough instant torque to throw you back in your seat. And while it runs silently, drivers can switch on a beeping sound for safety under 30 mph to alert pedestrians.

A solar panel on the roof charges an "accessory battery" for the lights, radio and more. Swooping headlights improve aerodynamics while reducing road noise.

Instead of a gas gauge, the Leaf has a digital readout of how many miles you can go before recharging. The estimate updates instantly depending on how you drive. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates a range of 73 miles on one charge; Nissan says careful drivers can achieve 100 miles or more.

The Leaf can be fully charged overnight using 240-volt equipment sold separately. Newer chargers, not yet available in Kansas City, take the battery to 80 percent full in 30 minutes.

"We're sending 700 billion dollars overseas to buy oil, and some of that money is getting into the hands of people who want to kill us," said Pugsley, 72. "And at some point we're going to run out. We should be thinking about making the transition now. Additionally, it's going to clean up the environment."

Local governments and agencies aren't waiting.

In 2010 Roeland Park, Kan., became the first city in the area to install a charging station at its city hall. Kelly Gilbert, transportation director for the nonprofit Metropolitan Energy Center, said her environmental organization is busy educating businesses and policy makers on all aspects of electric cars, including charging stations, through a project called Electrify Heartland.

"We're not being cheerleaders for electric cars," Gilbert said. "We're doing real investigation to find the best way forward."

That includes studying how utilities will be affected.

"When there is an electric car in every garage, what happens to demand on the grid?" she said.

Personally, Gilbert likes electric cars.

"Even if we're using coal to create electricity, that's still better than using gasoline to power our cars," she said.

And they're bound to get cheaper.

"Analysts say the battery, which is the main cost of these cars, is going to drop by two-thirds by 2015 (compared to 2010 prices)," Gilbert said.

She doesn't even worry about slow sales.

"Both the Volt and the Leaf sold more in their first year of production than the Prius did in its first year," she said.

Oscar Williams, a 58-year-old federal auditor from Gladstone,Mo., got his Chevy Volt in April.

"The main thing I like about it is I can drive by gas stations and just keep going," he said.

His Volt, which has a gas engine to extend its range to nearly 400 miles, goes about 35 miles on electricity alone. That takes him 20 miles to work and back home on virtually no gas.

Starting at about $40,000, the Volt is smooth and futuristic, with two interactive LCD screens.

Criticisms?

Williams wishes he could use regular gas instead of premium and would like faster charging times. Currently he can get a full charge overnight. An optional 240-volt charging station could cut the time to four hours.

While Chevrolet says a full charge costs $1.50 on average, energy experts say the cost could be less than a dollar locally.

Elliot Sanders, a captain at Whiteman Air Force base near Knob Noster also drives a Volt. People think it's cool — and too expensive.

"It would be cheaper to buy a Honda Civic and drive that around," Sanders, 31, said. "But if you're in the market for a nice car, the Volt ranks pretty well against an entry-level BMW or Cadillac. It's got quality leather; the materials are nice. And it's so cheap to operate you do recoup most of the cost."

Sanders and his wife, Vicki, used to pay between $400 and $500 a month on gas driving a Mustang and an SUV. In their first three weeks driving the Volt?

Ten bucks.

Not all electric cars have a gas engine for extended range. That makes public charging stations all the more important.

The Kansas City area has more than two dozen such stations in locations including Union Station, Black & Veatch, Roeland Park and Lee's Summit city halls, UMKC, Boulevard Brewing Co., Commerce Bank at 134th and State Line, Johnson County Community College and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

But Larry Kinder, CEO of LilyPad EV, a Lenexa distributor of charging stations, says we should have several thousand in the next few years.

"They'll be like light poles," he said. "Eventually people will simply expect to see them."

Commercial charging stations cost from $3,200 to $7,100. Businesses could either offer free charges to attract customers or use the stations to make money.

Kinder would love to see more people buying electric cars. After all, some models never need oil changes and tune ups and don't even have those pesky water pumps, timing belts or mufflers.

So what's the hold up?

"Their biggest competitor is the status quo," he said. "People understand gas and how to use it. Eventually, it will become part of the fabric of life to pull into some place and plug in."


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Comments

Corey Parks June 3, 2012 | 7:31 a.m.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/05/busine...

"The Volt, which cost nearly $40,000 before a $7,500 federal tax credit, could take up to 27 years to pay off versus a Chevrolet Cruze, assuming it was regularly driven farther than its battery-only range allows. The payback time could drop to about eight years if gas cost $5 a gallon and the driver remained exclusively on battery power. "

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 3, 2012 | 11:01 a.m.

That sales of electric cars aren't rampant may be a blessing in disguise. Each electric vehicle, particularly if heavily used, increases the overall demand for electric power, and power demand increases annually even without electrical vehicles.

If power needs for electric vehicles phase in gradually it's less of a system problem versus a sudden spike in demand.

PS: The vehicle may not produce carbon dioxide, but if the electricity it runs on is generated using fuel combustion there's still carbon dioxide involved.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 3, 2012 | 3:12 p.m.

For the average family, the car is the greatest single use of energy. So electrifying it will increase the use of electricity per household by 50 to 100%.

"Fill-ups" are a tremendous issue. The Leaf has a 24 KWH battery (my whole house can run for three days on half of a 35 KWH battery, for perspective. The average house can run for 18 hr). To recharge a 24 KWH battery in 1 hr requires about 30 KW for an hour, or the power draw of six electric dryers. Few people's houses, or other common commercial facilites, are set up to provide that amount of current.

The main problem is not what we run the car on. The problem is that we drag tons of steel around to move 150-200 pound people, and that makes any solution far larger and more expensive than it need be. Focusing on lightweight and largely muscle, with energy assist, powered vehicles are a far better way to go generally. Planning our cities for walkability and bikeability helps also.

DK

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks June 3, 2012 | 6:16 p.m.

Cars used to get better mileage until they started throwing in all the extra features and all that extra steel. Thanks to the lobbyist and politicians "concerned for everyone's safety" it is only going to get worse.

I would be curious to take an engine of today and put it in a car from the 80's and see the mpg of that.

For comparison Mark ball park figure how much would it take to convert and supply half a household's energy use on your system?

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum June 3, 2012 | 6:36 p.m.

Buy a bike -- use transit (when you can). Result -- you are no longer fat, you saved money, you loved the Earth. If you're going on a long trip -- rent a car. Bye.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 3, 2012 | 10:05 p.m.

If you're going on a long trip you might want to explore use of commercial aviation, possibly combined with renting a car at your destination(s). Trying to drive a rental car from Columbia to London, Cusco (The Pan American Highway still isn't finished in part of Panama) or Hawaii could prove a difficult situation.

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum June 3, 2012 | 11:41 p.m.

Yes, yes, commercial aviation / train / bus are all wonderful options. I was speaking more in terms of long domestic car-rides, rather than exotic vacation destinations. The bus system and cab fares in Peru render a car useless!

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 4, 2012 | 5:12 a.m.

Corey Parks wrote:

"For comparison Mark ball park figure how much would it take to convert and supply half a household's energy use on your system?"

For just the panels, it would be between $4,000 and $10,000 depending on panel quality. Grid tie hardware and installation would add another $5,000 or so.

"I would be curious to take an engine of today and put it in a car from the 80's and see the mpg of that."

What I've heard of people doing is to take a common-rail diesel (like a 1.9 L VW PD diesel) and putting it into a different car or pickup (like a Ranger). The truck takes a hit as far as horsepower, but the extra torque makes up for that. Mileage gains of 40% are not uncommon.

DK

(Report Comment)

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