Are We There Yet?

Jeez, can we just embrace the electric car already?

The Countyline Dragway sits on the western edge of civilization, on US 27, just south of the Broward/Miami-Dade line. The sky looks like it came from a Tim Burton movie: all black, no streetlights, an orange moon illuminating a sheet of fog. It's midnight — drag racing time.

This night is unusual, though. The Dragway is hosting a special event, the Battery Beach Burnout, sponsored by the Florida Electric Auto Association. In addition to the regular gas-powered cars that show up to race every week, a small contingent of electric cars has rolled out to test their mettle.

Asked where the electric cars are, the guy staffing the entrance gate points and chuckles. "Pull over there to the right. You'll see a bunch of funny-lookin' little cars."

This is the kind of grief electric car enthusiasts have had to put up with for years.

Electric cars look goofy, detractors say. They're not economically viable yet, others cry. And, oh yeah, they're about as souped up as your granddad's golf cart. Could this all be about to change? Can the cars — finally — be environmentally sound and high-performing?

For decades, millions of drivers blissfully tooled around in petroleum-powered cars, inadvertently making Exxon, Shell, and various oil-producing nations very rich and undermining our national security. Electric vehicle (EV) enthusiasts, meanwhile, toiled in underappreciated anonymity. With every technological innovation came a flicker of hope. With every financial setback came heartbreak. But now, in a post-Inconvenient Truth America, EV lovers dare to wonder: Is the mainstream ready to come around now? Dreamers, experimenters, established car companies, and research outfits — some right here in South Florida — are rushing to make it happen.

As the demand for alternative vehicles heats up, there are many options in development: Cars that run on alternative fuels like biodiesel. Cars that use fuel cells. Some crafty inventors are even trying to get cars to run on water. Electric-powered vehicles wouldn't solve all the world's problems — electricity still needs to be generated at the power plant by burning coal or with nuclear reactors. But until electric grids are powered by wind, geothermal, or solar energy, getting the world's fleet of 60 million cars to put out zero emissions would be a move in the right direction.

Truth be told, there are only three funny-lookin' little cars at the Burnout: one that looks like an orange peanut M&M, a triangular blue thing that resembles a tent, and a go-kart-like contraption that looks like the Wright Brothers' first airplane (and to be fair, that one's solar-powered, not straight electric). To pick out the other 20 or so electric cars from among their gas-powered brethren takes a tour guide.

Sixteen-year-old EV enthusiast James Loriol navigates through the cars that are lined up to drag race. He waves his hand in front of his face to fan away exhaust fumes and diesel smoke. "This is what I hate about these events," he says. Electric cars make no such offensive emissions.

They also make hardly any sound. And because EVs don't need to rev up their rpm's to achieve full-powered torque, they can get 100 percent acceleration immediately. One guy's Nissan 240 SX goes from 0 to 60 in four seconds. Fully electric vehicles can plug into 110 or 220-volt wall outlets — like ones you'd use for a hair dryer or a refrigerator — so their owners never, ever have to stop at the gas station.

Loriol points out some of the cars that are lined up to race: That white Scion? It's electric, converted by an EV- and battery-building company called AC Propulsion. The Porsche 911? It was converted by kids at Miramar High School. And the teal-colored Subaru Impreza? Ah, that's a well-known ride called The Electric Imp.

The Imp's driver, Miami-based Cliff Rassweiler, is not messing around. He wears a fireproof headsock and a racing helmet. He was a professional race car driver — and still is. After competing in various pro classes — Formula Four, Formula 2000, and Formula Continental — he switched to an electric vehicle because he thought the technology was exciting. Unfortunately, he says, "There isn't a place in the pro ranks allowing for electric vehicles. The amateur league is the only place we can race." Still, he has proudly beat gas-powered, internal-combustion cars in various championship races. His car can go more than 100 miles per hour. (The world-record-holding EV, called White Lightning, has been clocked going 247.)

"Battery developments are getting to the point we always dreamed about," adds Rassweiler, whose Imp, in endurance runs, can travel 180 miles at 60 mph. "The first batteries used for EVs were lead-acid batteries — the same as you'd find in a regular car," he explains. "What's hot now is nickel-metal hydride — the kind used in most hybrid vehicles on the road today. Then there's lithium-ion batteries, like what's in a computer, or lithium-polymer batteries, like what's in a cell phone." The Imp runs on 95 of the latter.

Lithium batteries have been hailed as the battery of the future — but until recently, car enthusiasts say, they had been known to overheat. ("Thermal runaway" is the industry term for the problem.) Lately, though, most battery manufacturers claim to have corrected that glitch.

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.

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.

As for the cars, the little red electric pickup truck takes the turns respectably. A Ford Probe edges around the cones at a nice clip, but no one would say the driver's in danger of getting whiplash. The solar car? Cute as it may be, it takes more than a minute to limp around the course.

But when the Electric Imp pulls up to the line, Cliff Rassmueller slips on his helmet. He hits the pedal; his tires squeal. And the audience swears it smells the future in a collective whiff of burnt rubber.

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