By now, the charge is familiar: General Motors killed the electric car when it sent every last example of its EV1 electric car test fleet to the crusher, even over the objections of many EV1 owners who had come to love the cars. The decision, some said, killed the electric car in America.
But today, there are simply too many of them to kill.
This is somewhat counterintuitive. Automakers around the globe are accepting bailouts from their governments, and sinking companies are cutting obscure research and development projects left and right. It seems logical enough to assume that electric car research projects are all endangered. Gas is also relatively cheap right now, which could cut consumer demand for more fuel-efficient cars.
But so many companies are heavily invested in electric cars today that dozens of projects would have to be cancelled to slow the progress of battery-powered driving.
Some of the projects are high-end, expensive cars meant to attract the very wealthy.
For instance, there are already 250 Tesla Roadsters on American roads. The tiny California startup has built a two-seat electric sports car that rockets from 0 to 60 mph in a Ferrari-like 3.9 seconds. It costs upwards of $100,000, but has attracted high-profile buyers like George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Tesla believes that, if it can prove its technology and turn a profit on the high-end Roadster, it can afford to build less-expensive cars.
The company has already revealed one such project: the Model S, a sleek four-seat electric luxury sedan that it hopes to offer for under $50,000.
Tesla also has competition. The Fisker Karma is the brainchild of automotive design legend Henrik Fisker, the man credited with the look of the BMW Z8 and many of today's Aston Martins. The Karma is a Range-Extended Electric Vehicle. It has a small gasoline engine onboard, but it's used only to recharge the batteries. Fisker plans to start producing the car late in 2009, and claims to have more than a thousand orders for the $80,000 car.
Britain's Lightning Car Company has the same idea. Started by a former executive from Rolls Royce, the company claims its Lightning GT will offer sub-four-second 0-to-60 times, and recharge fully in just 10 minutes.
Traditional automotive powers aren't leaving the electric car field to the upstarts. So many major automakers now have an electric car project in the works that it's become difficult to track them. Their efforts tend to focus on more affordable cars.
General Motors, for instance, has made its upcoming Chevy Volt the centerpiece of its campaign to convince Americans that GM is worth saving from the current recession. The Volt, another range-extended electric, is reportedly very close to production. GM plans to have the first working models in testing by June. The Volt's architecture will underpin more than just one car. A two-door Cadillac version, the Converj, is currently making rounds on the auto show circuit. A European edition, the Opel Ampera, debuted in early March.
Cross-town rival Chrysler doesn't have just one electric vehicle project. It has three. The company has already built an electrified Jeep Wrangler, a battery-powered Chrysler Town & Country minivan, and a Lotus-inspired Dodge Circuit sports car.
American companies aren't alone in pursuing electric vehicles. By 2012, Toyota hopes to produce the iQ EV, a Smart Fortwo-sized urban runabout powered by lithium-ion batteries. An electric version of the Nissan Cube may reach dealerships well before that.
European automakers won't be left out, either. BMW's Mini division has already launched a test program involving 500 electric Mini Coopers in California.
The automakers themselves aren't the only ones putting research and development dollars into battery-powered cars. Several car companies have partnered with local governments and power utilities to develop the infrastructure needed to keep electric cars running. San Diego Gas & Electric, for instance, is currently building charging stations to help Nissan test its Cube EV. Ford is working with seven different electrical utilities nationwide to evaluate the impact of electric vehicles on local power grids. The company hopes to introduce a battery-powered commercial cargo car, the Transit Connect, in late 2010.
So can the electric car be killed again? Probably not. The current recession has had a drastic impact on automakers, and may still drive some out of business. But, as the laundry list of battery-powered projects shows, killing the electric car again would mean killing dozens of projects, some of which seem very close to production.
The biggest threat to the electric car could be other green technologies. Both BMW and Mazda have hydrogen-powered vehicles in their test fleets, while Honda has started leasing the FCX Clarity, which uses a hydrogen fuel cell, to select drivers in California. Still, an infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations would have to be built to make these cars practical. That may happen in the future, but in the short term, adapting the existing power grid to handle electric cars is a simpler challenge, and one far more stakeholders have invested in.
Consumers will be invested in it, too, assuming gas prices rise again. They've crested at $2 per gallon in many metro areas already, before the summer driving season begins. As demand for fuel in the developing world inevitably rises - especially with inexpensive new cars like the $2,000 Tata Nano putting many cars on the road in some countries -- -the price of gas will rise with it.
GM seemingly killed the electric car with one decision. Today, dozens of projects would have to fail to lead to the same result. Automakers, electric utilities and governments would have to abandon their work. While it is possible that the electric car could get killed again, at this point, it doesn't seem likely.