There are growing signs that the electric car, once on the road to extinction, may jolt back to life.
Several small, independent automakers are juicing up electric cars as an environmental statement amid renewed concern about global warming and dependence on imported oil.
The latest is a Silicon Valley start-up called Tesla Motors, which is taking orders for a $100,000 electric high-performance sports car that it hopes to deliver by next spring.
Tesla unveiled its roadster, billed as capable of a Ferrari-like zero to 60 mph in four seconds, last week in a converted aircraft hanger here. The cocktail-swilling crowd featured an odd coalition of environmentalists and sports car enthusiasts. Even California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Hummer-loving Republican, took a spin.
Observers say the varied assortment of vehicles in the new electric-power generation — from racing-style cars to around-town jalopies — have a shot at success if they can create some excitement.
“There’s no question” that success is within reach, says Dick Messer, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, which has chronicled the attempts at electric car production through the years. “Nobody has connected the dots.”
The winner will be the company that ties together the finances, engineering, battery range and other assorted technical features to make a sustainable business, Messer adds.
Among the companies trying to lead the charge:
•Tesla. The car was designed in California but will be built by Lotus in Great Britain, which is basing it on its two-seat Elise model.
The company says its sophisticated lithium-ion battery will allow a range of 250 miles on a single charge and a top speed of 130 mph.
Tesla is largely bankrolled by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, who says he kicked in about half the $60 million capitalization, so far. Musk, Tesla’s chairman, also has a rocket company called SpaceX.
By producing expensive cars in a small quantity to start, the company hopes to bankroll future production of more-affordable, mass-produced electric cars. Musk compares next-generation electric cars with the personal computer industry in its infant stage in the early 1970s.
“Our goal is to become one of the great car companies of the 21st century,” producing a car that’s competitive against Porsche and Ferrari. And “by the way,” Musk adds, “it’s electric.”
•Wrightspeed. Another Silicon-Valley-based start-up hopes to produce its own, $100,000 high-performance car within two years. It will have about a 200-mile range.
Ian Wright, who heads Wrightspeed, is a former computer-industry engineer and amateur racer. He says electric cars promise “extreme performance” through advanced electronics and software.
He says the new breed of electric cars could have three times the energy efficiency of gas-electric hybrids.
“You can build something that’s seriously fast and a lot of fun to drive,” he says. “We’re building different cars aimed at different people.”
•Zap. At the other end of the performance spectrum, specialized-auto importer Zap last month started selling a three-wheel electric “city car” imported from China that it says is capable of a top speed of 40 mph.
Priced at $9,000, the Xebra has a range of about 40 miles using a conventional lead-acid battery. So far, it’s being delivered to five dealers on the West Coast and Florida.
Xebra seats four — and even has four doors — although it is classified by regulators as a motorcycle because of its three wheels. It comes in four colors, including a zebra-striped version.
•Tomberlin Group. An Augusta, Ga.-based company plans to sell three versions of electric cars.
The E-Merge E-2, a two-passenger car, is expected to be on sale early fall, followed by E-Merge E-4, a four passenger, and Anvil early next year. Prices will range from $5,000 for E-Merge E-2 to $8,000 for the four-seat Anvil.
Anvil’s speed will be limited to 25 miles an hour, and because of that, it must be driven on streets with speed limits less than 35 mph. But “it handles like a Corvette,” says Tomberlin Vice President David Hamilton. “It pulls a corner that will blow your mind.”
Marketed as an “aggressive neighborhood vehicle,” Anvil will go about 50 miles between charges. It will be sold through a network of about 450 dealers, Hamilton says.
The electric revival comes as an opinionated new documentary film, Who Killed the Electric Car?, has started playing in theaters in selected cities around the country.
The movie alleges that big automakers, oil companies and the government sank promising electric-car technology that was taking root in California in the mid-1990s.
At the time, the state was mandating that automakers make zero-pollution cars available for sale — and electricity was the only technology at the time that filled the bill.
The film singles out General Motors for special grief for having created a futuristic electric car that became a Hollywood enviro-darling despite its limited driving range and other drawbacks. When leases ran out, GM collected its Saturn EV1s and sent them to the crusher.
Fighting back, GM has bought a paid-search link on Google.com that shows up whenever the name of the movie or one its stars is typed into the search engine. The blog item says the EV1 was a commercial flop and that its engineering advances are being incorporated into GM’s next wave of hybrid and other advanced vehicles.
Buyers were passionate, “but there were never enough of them,” GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss said in an interview.
“They were forced to make too many tradeoffs” in convenience and range.
So far, major automakers are showing limited interest in a new round of electric cars. DaimlerChrysler has a fleet of vans converted to run on electricity.
Toyota’s U.S. chief, Jim Press, says the Japanese automaker is “pursuing” a plug-in hybrid, which can be charged overnight to extend the range of the electric motor part of its gas/electric powertrain.
But Micky Bly, engineering director of GM’s hybrid programs, says the lithium-ion batteries required by the plug-ins drive up costs, making them difficult to market.
For the most part, automakers are showing more interest in other gas-saving technologies, such as ethanol and fuel cells.
But guests at Tesla’s unveiling were enthusiastic about the possibilities of a new round of electric vehicles, especially the high-performance ones.
“I love it,” says Bradley Ross, a Los Angeles business manager who drives a turbo-charged Porsche. Going electric “is not a big compromise.”
And Alexandra Paul, a former Baywatch star who has become an electric-car activist, says performance electrics will change minds, blowing the notion “to smithereens that an electric car is pokey or doesn’t have range.”