• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Electric Car Road Test

Air Date: Week of

Honda and General Motors are driving forward with their plans to have new electric vehicles on the road this coming fall. Producer Matt Binder just took a spin in some of the test cars and reports from San Francisco where E.V. momentum continues despite wavering legislation.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Earlier this year California repealed what had been a ground breaking mandate that 2% of all new cars sold by 1998 run on electricity. There's still a mandate for 10% of cars to be electric by the year 2010, but in the meantime car makers can follow a more flexible plan that calls for more modest sales and more research and development. Many electric cars that will be tried on the road before then will merely be conversions of existing gas-powered models. But 2 major car makers, General Motors and Honda, have announced that they'll have all new electric cars in their showrooms, some as soon as this fall. From San Francisco, producer Matt Binder gives us a preview.

(Beach Boys music plays: Help me Rhonda, help, help me Rhonda...)

BINDER: Its a pleasant Saturday morning in the well-to-do San Francisco suburb of Pleasanton, and the town is holding its yearly Human Race, a charity 10-kilometer foot, bicycle, and wheelchair race.

(Announcer: Okay, we need everybody down to the starting line right now. Everybody to the starting line, as the race is about to begin.)

BINDER: The pace car for the Human Race is a General Motors EV-1, an electric car that GM says it will sell in California by the end of this year.

(Announcer: Get set .... Go! Cheers amidst music.)

BINDER: After the race I got a chance to ride in the EV-1 with GM's Steve Hass.

(A car door closes.)

HASS: Okay, lets hear it go. It's running right now.

BINDER: Oh. (Laughs)

(An electric motor whirrs up.)

BINDER: Eee -- like a rocket -- holy Bob. How many horsepower is it?

HASS: A hundred and thirty seven.

BINDER: Then he let me drive it. Okay. Im gonna floor it. (Hears motor whirring up) Wow. Zero to 60 in 8 seconds flat, pretty peppy even for a gas-powered car. But the EV-1 has some other features that take a bit of getting used to. It's just a 2-seater with a small trunk. The shift console is raised to about elbow level to make space for the huge battery pack underneath the car. There are a lot of clicking sounds because electrical switches rather than hydraulic valves control the brakes and steering. And there is an extra horn on board, a discrete little one used to warn bicyclists and pedestrians that the stealthy car is approaching.

(The horn beeps)

BINDER: Not as loud as ...

(The louder horn beeps, then the smaller one)

HASS: Its not as obnoxious. (Laughs)

BINDER: Initially the EV-1 will be sold only in southern California and Arizona. GM hasn't announced the price, but its expected to be about $35,000. And that's with relatively inexpensive lead-acid batteries, not much different from the ones in normal cars, though the EV- 1 has literally a ton of batteries on board. But even this much electrical capacity can power the EV-1 only 40 to 90 miles between charges, depending on how its driven and whether the lights, heat, or air conditioning are used.

(Sound of the car being driven on the road)

BINDER: To get more range Honda is planning to use a different type of battery in its electric car, which will be available in southern California at the end of 1997.

BEINENFELD: Looking under the hood of the electric vehicle you'll see very few things that are familiar.

BINDER: Robert Beinenfeld shows off a slightly dinged-up prototype of the Honda EV at the company's R&D center in Torrance, California. The car was rear-ended by a fellow journalist during a recent test drive. It's a 4-passenger hatchback with a tiny bit of storage space behind the rear seats. It has much slower acceleration than the GM EV-1, but because of its new type of batteries the Honda EV has a longer range.

BENENFELD: It is an advanced nickel-metal hydride battery. It will give you a range between charges on a test cycle of about 120 miles.

BINDER: But that 30 miles or so of additional range comes at a steep price. While the lead acid batteries in the GM car cost a few thousand dollars, the first generation of nickel-metal hydride batteries cost more than $15,000. Beinenfeld says it would be impossible to sell the car for what it cost to produce it right now, so the company plans to lease it for what it says will be a competitive rate and chalk up the loss to research and development.

(Electric car running on the road)

BINDER: The big question for both Honda and GM is now that they're producing electric cars, will people want them? Auto makers have been arguing for years that consumers won't buy electric vehicles with a limited range, but Dan Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis says his research shows that range won't be an issue if the price is right.

SPERLING: We find compelling evidence, overwhelming evidence, that there's a large number of households that would be willing to buy a vehicle with very limited range. With range even less than 100 miles. And that's because most households now have 2 or more cars. So its very easy for them to accommodate a second or third or fourth vehicle that has limited range.

GERRITY: UC Davis isn't in the business of earning a positive return on capital for

BINDER: David Gerrity, an auto industry analyst for Smith, Barney Investment Company in New York, believes the low range electric vehicle market is tiny.

GERRITY: I think consumers have shown by their choice of vehicle over the last several years and even in this year, that consumers want to have multi-purpose vehicles. That's why you have the popularities of vehicles like sport utility vehicles, why you have the popularity of vehicles like minivans. They don't want to spend a lot of money to buy a car that's only good for doing a small range of activities.

BINDER: Dan Sperling responds that electric cars have one big attraction that may lure people away from those jeeps and minivans. Electric vehicle owners will never have to drive into a gas station again. But even as electric vehicles begin to enter the marketplace, debate still rages over whether the technology is ready and whether it will continue to develop quickly enough to sell 110,000 electric vehicles in California in 2003. Dan Sperling.

SPERLING: The real key to what happens with the mandate is what happens with General Motors EV-1 car. If that car is successful, then there's going to be tremendous pressure on the industry to follow through and pursue and comply with the 10% requirement in 2003. If the EV-1 is successful, that in itself undermines any argument that the technology is not ready.

BINDER: Most car companies are betting that electric vehicle technology won't quickly improve, and they're letting GM and Honda take all the risks. Those two companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing all new electric vehicles, while the other auto makers are basically converting one of their gasoline powered cars to electric and selling the minimum number required in the agreements they made with the state. GM and Honda are betting the public will be impressed by their technological prowess and commitment to more environmentally safe vehicles. It could pay off big for GM and Honda, or they could end up driving their expensive new electric chariots of fire into a fiscal brick wall. For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Binder in San Francisco.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth