Are We There Yet?

Jeez, can we just embrace the electric car already?

Still, Rassweiler keeps his batteries hooked up to two laptops which constantly monitor their temperature and voltage. He designed his own computer software and the car's battery management system, essentially doing the work of an engineer. But his actual job is to drive the car around and get attention. Rassweiler works for the car design company ProEV, and he's sponsored by Korean battery maker Kokam.

There are currently about four major American companies, and perhaps a dozen worldwide, developing lithium-based batteries. They all share the same dream: to get a contract with a mass auto maker. The challenge is not just technologically exciting but financially so. Who can mass-produce their product, do it safely, and keep it cost efficient? A serious jackpot awaits the winners. The market for batteries is expected to hit $50 billion by 2015.

One of the U.S. lithium battery makers, Ener1, is based right in Fort Lauderdale (although its manufacturing plant is in Indiana). In a recent TV news segment, CEO Charles Gassenheimer said that most of the nickel-metal hydride batteries used for hybrids now retail for $5,000 to $8,000. He says he plans to produce lithium batteries for hybrids for a cheap $1,500 apiece in 18 to 24 months.

Cliff Rassweiler says: Don't underestimate the Imp.
c. stiles
Cliff Rassweiler says: Don't underestimate the Imp.

Gassenheimer says the company has already inked a $70 million contract to provide batteries to Norway-based carmaker Think EV, which makes fully electric cars, not hybrids. (Batteries for these cars cost more like $10,000 apiece.) That's a long-awaited payday for Ener1, which took in just $100,000 in revenue in 2006 and has invested $150 million in development so far.

If the technology catches on, the future looks bright. "Multiply the numbers," says Ener1 CEO Jerry Herlihy. There are about 250 million cars in the United States. "If we can [bring the price down to] a $1,000 battery..." Herlihy says that Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse have been major investors, and he notes that his stock can currently be scooped up for a bargain 74 cents a share.

These days, you can buy a low-speed electric vehicle from Champion Motors in Miramar, or rent a 25-mph electric Hummer from Beach Scooters in South Beach. But to get a powerful, fully electric vehicle for regular commuting, you'd pretty much have to convert one yourself (although the Electric Auto Association can help you with that, and a few are for sale through a Fort Pierce company, Grassroots EV).

For now, the only mass-made, 100 percent electric car (if 900 of them counts as mass) is a Tesla Roadster — a sexy sportscar that goes 125 miles an hour and is based on the Lotus Elise. The Roadster can run for 220 miles per charge, at a cost of less than two cents a mile — it's even iPod-ready. The 2008 models, set to be delivered to buyers — including celebrities like George Clooney — on March 17, are all sold out at $98,000 a pop. There's a wait list for the 2009s.

But Ron Cogan, founder of the Green Car Journal, delivers a shot of buzz kill. "We're not there yet," he says matter-of-factly. "I've witnessed [the evolution] for 16 years — my magazine launched in 1992. It's not a question of desire. It's not an issue that we can make great electric cars." He's still waiting for that affordable battery, and he'll believe companies like Ener1 when he sees it. " There are lots of claims out there, but all these years, I haven't seen that breakthrough."

Asked what he'd place his bets on, Cogan wouldn't say. "Clearly there will be winners. But I don't even know which ones they are."

Some savvy investors suggest bypassing the companies that make batteries and banking on companies that produce lithium. And other investors are still gun-shy — especially considering what has happened in the past.

It was nothing short of industrial warfare, EV enthusiasts say, when General Motors invented a prototype electric car called the EV-1 in the 1990s. GM allowed people to lease but not purchase the vehicle. Then, abruptly, the company recalled and then physically crushed the entire fleet — even cars that people offered to buy. Their reason is still the subject of speculation: Was it because of pressure by the oil industry? The Bush administration? Or simply — as GM said — lack of economic feasibility? The question is explored in the 2006 cult-hit documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car?

Still, it's hard to keep an EV diehard down, and if they have their way, they'll be resurrecting the electric car. Back at the Burnout, people remain cautiously optimistic as they return the Saturday after the drag race for a daytime show 'n' shine event and autocross challenge.

The race itself takes on a surreal quality as the string of electric cars queues up at the starting line. Just when they're expected to rev their engines, the cars silently motor up to the start line. When the starting gun sounds, there are no diesel fumes — just some fresh, clean air in the cars' wakes! There's a sorry lack of half-naked trophy girls among the spectators in the crowd; instead, just a bunch of tech freaks. Fan gear? They wear signs that say "Look Ma, no tailpipe!" or campaign buttons with pictures of windmills. Nobody's going to splash the winning driver with foaming champagne.

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