You drive home from work, bypassing the gas stations with their ever-increasing price boards. You pull into the garage, cut the motor, plug in the car to recharge and head inside.
Sound like a futuristic fantasy?
Not quite. In fact, there are electric cars available today, and in a few short years, there may be a dozen or more models on the road. Small start-ups and major automakers have all come to the same conclusion -- the future of transportation isn't in high-mpg cars; it's in zero-gallons-per-mile cars. Consequently, manufacturers are developing vehicles that plug in instead of fueling up.
Here's a selection of the EVs (get used to the term now -- it's geek shorthand for Electric Vehicles) you're most likely to see on the road by 2011:
The 800-pound gorilla of the EV world is GM. They were once famous for killing the electric car. Today, they're trying to save it. The Volt is an "extended range electric vehicle" -- like a hybrid, it has both an electric motor and a gasoline engine. Unlike a hybrid, it can use its electric motor alone all the way up to highway speed. Its gasoline engine starts only to recharge the batteries -- and if you drive less than 40 miles between plug-ins, it will never even do that.
How real is it? It's just a question of when. GM has invested a fortune in the Volt, and already uses the car in advertising. GM hopes to sell it as a 2010 model.
MINI Cooper EV
The MINI Cooper has been an undeniable sales smash in the U.S., in part because it sits near the top of its class in fuel economy. So how well would a Cooper that didn't need fuel at all sell? BMW (which owns MINI) wants to find out. It's building 500 electric Coopers, which it plans to lease to California customers in 2009 to test whether Americans would buy them.
How real is it? Very. If the test goes well, the technology already exists to build these in fairly large numbers.
Nissan Cube EV
The Holy Grail for electric car engineers is the Lithium-ion battery. Li-ion cells are lighter, charge more quickly and hold more power than the batteries in today's hybrids, but it has proven difficult to build one large enough to power a car -- they tend to overheat. Several car companies claim to have solved this problem, but most won't let reporters actually see their batteries, so we can't be sure. Nissan, however, has allowed test drives of a Li-ion powered prototype car. The EV they demonstrated was a version of the Cube small car Nissan sells overseas.
How real is it? Though Nissan says it wants to sell electrics here by 2010, engineers admitted they hadn't even designed the car that would carry their electric powertrain when it hits market -- it might not be the Cube. But with a functioning Li-ion cell they're willing to subject to scrutiny, they may have the jump on all of their competitors.
Smart Fortwo ED
The tiny Smart Fortwo city car has been in hit in the U.S. It's inexpensive, can fit in half a parking space, and has a quirky appeal that turns heads. The Fortwo's main problem is its fuel economy -- at 33/41 mpg, it's not bad...but it barely beats out a Honda Fit or a MINI Cooper, and those cars give you twice the space. Smart, however, is testing a fleet of electric Fortwos in England. British government agencies are driving them now. The Smart EV can travel up to 72 miles on an eight-hour charge -- more driving than a city car normally does in a day...
How real is it? Since there's a waiting list a year long to buy a conventionally-powered Smart in the U.S., you can bet the electric Smart is coming here when those tests are complete.
The i is a microcar Mitsubishi sells in Asia. The cute, egg-shaped, mid-engine four-seater has been a huge success there. Now, an electric version has been spotted testing on the streets of New York City and southern California. The i-MiEV (Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle) supplements its electric motor with power from roof-mounted solar panels, and even a turbine driven by the air passing through the grille. Mitsubishi claims a range of over 100 miles per charge. At the 2008 New York Auto Show, reporters were allowed to test drive the i-MiEV -- and most were impressed with the strange little car's zip.
How real is it? The company will launch the i-MiEV in Japan in 2009, with a goal of selling it to American consumers a year or two later -- if it can meet tough American side-impact requirements.
Most people think of EVs as low-performance cars. California-based Tesla Motors has turned that expectation on its head, building a high-performance two-seater that goes from 0 to 60 as fast as a Ferrari F430 -- and costs almost as much. The company has already sold out of 2008 Roadsters. The Tesla Roadster shatters the image of nerdy green machines that scream "I'm protecting the earth...you can tell by my slow, tiny, unappealing car."
How real is it? Ask George Clooney. Or Brad Pitt. Or Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brinn. Or musician Will.I.Am. They've all bought Tesla roadsters. The first few models are being delivered to customers this summer.
The Karma is a four-door exotic supercar meant to compete with Italy's finest, designed by a former Aston Martin designer. Like the Chevy Volt, it uses battery power exclusively, but starts a small gasoline engine to recharge the batteries when they are low. Unlike the Volt, it's expected to cost $80,000 or more.
How real is it? Fisker is taking orders, and has signed a contract to build the cars at a Finnish factory that also builds Porches...but it hasn't started building Karmas yet.
This British-built electric supercar doesn't squeeze its 700 horsepower from one electric motor -- it uses four. Separate motors housed inside each wheel drive the car to sub-four-second zero-to-sixty times. The manufacturer claims its unique Lithium-titanate batteries can be recharged from a standard household outlet in about ten minutes.
How real is it? It's off the drawing board, but not by far. The GT is making the rounds of the auto show circuit. Its British manufacturer is taking orders as if it plans to produce the car, but no production plans have been announced.