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BRING ON THE JUICE

Next time you’re filling up the cavernous fuel tank of the gas-gulping family jalopy, imagine getting 230 miles per gallon.

Better yet, how about never buying another gallon of gas?

After years of hope and hype, electron-powered driving finally appears to be on the verge of reality.

In the next three years, at least a dozen pure electric or plug-in hybrid cars are slated to hit the market in the U.S. Electricity-driven vehicles from giants such as General Motors Co. and Nissan Motor Co., as well as start-ups like Fisker Automotive Inc. in Irvine, will provide consumers with a wide variety of choices. These new vehicles promise to combine blinding fuel efficiency, radical new technology and futuristic styling that makes the hybrid Toyota Prius look downright staid.

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Battery makers and automakers alike are tooling up factories to produce big volumes of electric vehicles. Meanwhile, power utilities and regulators are scrambling to figure out just how big the market will be.

“This is happening and it’s happening soon,” said Mark Duvall, director of electric transportation at the Electric Power Research Institute, an independent, nonprofit research group. “By the end of 2011, consumers will have more choices in vehicles they can plug in than they currently do for hybrids.”

The electric vehicles will be arriving at a good time. With gasoline prices creeping up once again and federal regulations calling for huge fuel economy gains in the next half-decade, there’s increasing demand for cars that burn less fuel, make less noise and push automotive technology forward.

In August, President Obama set a national goal of getting 1 million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015. It took about twice as long to get a million hybrids rolling on U.S. streets and highways.

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But any new technology that involves high-voltage, exotic battery chemistries and 3,500-pound objects hurtling forward at high speed is bound to hit some potholes. Early adopters, experts say, will have to contend with charging infrastructure challenges and some pretty long waiting lists.

And did we mention price? Even the least expensive electric or plug-in car will cost more than $25,000, and most will come in closer to twice that.

“There will be some real challenges at first,” said Roland Hwang, vehicle policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “These are going to cost more than conventional cars. The infrastructure is not going to take care of itself. These issues will determine whether this is a trickle or a massive flood.”

For those willing to take the leap, however, there is plenty to be excited about.

Restarting electrics

Electric cars are hardly new. In fact, a century ago, around the time of the dawn of the automobile, there were as many electric as gasoline-powered cars.

But technological limitations eventually killed those early EVs, and electric cars didn’t truly raise their heads again until the late 1990s. That’s when a smattering of electrics, including the much-lamented GM EV1, were made available in California as part of a government-mandated test program.

Wildly popular among a select group of enthusiasts, they were officially declared unfeasible and unprofitable by automakers. Today, only a few hundred are still on the road, among them a Toyota RAV4 EV driven by Paul Scott, co-founder of electric vehicle activist group Plug In America.

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Nobody was happier than Scott when Tesla Motors Inc., a San Carlos, Calif., automaker, last year began selling its all-electric Roadster, a rocket of a two-seater that noiselessly goes from zero to 60 mph in less than four seconds. True, the Roadster costs $109,000. And it has a waiting list longer than Sunset Boulevard. But to people like Scott, its arrival signaled the coming of a new electric era.

“This time electric cars are here to stay,” said Scott, who envisions charging cars using solar power, making them essentially cost-free to operate.

Tesla and other nimble start-ups have helped jump-start the industry. Now big automakers are getting their electric programs in gear. That’s no minor development considering the titanic capital costs involved in developing high-volume-production vehicles.

For Ford Motor Co., better batteries were key. Previous technologies were just too heavy and inefficient, said Nancy Gioia, the automaker’s director of global electrification. “They weren’t ready for mass production,” she said.

But in the last couple of years, huge improvements and new battery chemistries “opened the opportunity” for ambitious product plans, she said. Gioia predicts that as many as a quarter of new vehicles sold by 2020 will be electrics, plug-in hybrids or traditional hybrids.

Challenges ahead

Yet even the fiercest electric advocates admit that battery reliability still has room for improvement.

Arthur Krieger, a retired police officer in Los Angeles, drives a Prius powered by a relatively small nickel metal hydride battery to assist the gasoline engine. The battery needed replacement after nine years on the road. That’s when Krieger got a nasty surprise: A new one would cost more than $4,800.

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“That cost will wipe out the entire cost savings of having a hybrid in the first place,” Krieger said.

The price would be even higher on an all-electric vehicle using the latest chemistry: lithium ion.

Already widely used in cellphones, watches and laptops, those batteries have storage, charging and weight characteristics that make them superior to previous technologies -- with premium prices to match. A replacement battery for a Tesla Roadster costs $30,000, and it can move the car only 200 or so miles before it needs to be recharged. That’s a 3 1/2 -hour process on a high-powered charger, 30 hours on regular household current.

Then there is the matter of exactly where to re-juice all those electrics.

Some experts believe that public charging stations will be the best solution, either those put up by state and local governments or, perhaps, private for-profit companies. At present there is almost no such infrastructure. Building a nationwide network would cost tens of billions of dollars.

That means most electric owners will be charging at home initially. Plug-in hybrids, which primarily run on batteries but also have gasoline-powered engines to supplement range and power, can get by on standard household current. They’re ready to roll in five or six hours.

All-electric cars, however, can take well over a day to charge unless owners invest thousands of dollars in home electrical upgrades.

That’s because a fully electric vehicle calls for a 240-volt, 40-amp circuit, far above the limits of the socket in a typical garage, said Ed Kjaer, director of electric transportation at Southern California Edison.

Another issue, he added, is that “not everyone has access to a garage or other place to plug into,” including apartment dwellers or people in urban areas that depend on street parking.

“Plug-in cars are not for everybody at this point,” said Kjaer, who expects that infrastructure such as public charging stations will eventually help level the playing field.

A rewarding experience

For those willing (and able) to take the plunge, however, the rewards of owning electrified cars could include the financial kind.

Thanks to a provision in last year’s $700-billion Wall Street bailout legislation, buyers of electric or plug-in hybrid cars can qualify for a tax credit of as much as $7,500.

Routine maintenance could be a bargain too. Since these vehicles use simple electric motors rather than complex gasoline or diesel engines, as well as pared-down or in some cases nonexistent transmissions, they are far easier to service than conventional vehicles. There’s no oil to change, no radiator to flush.

There are other perks as well. In California, electric vehicles still qualify for special stickers that permit their drivers to travel solo in the state’s carpool lanes. The stickers expire in 2011, but lawmakers are considering extending the privilege until 2016. It’s unclear whether plug-in hybrids will qualify.

With all the excitement brewing over electric vehicles, it’s easy to forget that 98% of the cars sold in America still have traditional drivetrains.

Simply put, the gasoline engine isn’t going to disappear overnight. Even the most vociferous boosters of plug-in vehicles admit that the greater range and lower cost of internal combustion-powered cars and trucks mean they’ll dominate vehicle sales for at least another decade or two. And for some applications, like hauling a trailer over the Rockies, they may never go away.

But for people like Chelsea Sexton, who drove an EV1 and now advises Silicon Valley firm VantagePoint Venture Partners on electric transportation, the next few years offer a tantalizing glimpse of a future with a lot less internal combustion.

“I really relate to the pure electric experience,” said Sexton, who has test-driven the Chevy Volt, due out late next year, and liked it. “If I had a magic wand, we’d have four different configurations of electric cars and plug-ins to choose from tomorrow.”

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ken.bensinger@latimes.com

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Fisker Karma

Drivetrain: Plug-in hybrid

When available: Summer 2010

Price: $87,900

Range: 50 miles on battery, 300 miles total

The juice: Vying to be the first plug-in hybrid on the market, this luxury sedan will have a top speed of 125 mph. A solar roof will help power the air conditioning and electronics and charge the battery.

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Nissan Leaf

Drivetrain: All-electric

When available: Late 2010

Price: between $25,000 and to $33,000

Range: 100 miles

The juice: Although Nissan will start mainly with fleet sales, a few Leafs (Leaves?) will be available to regular drivers before a larger rollout in 2012. Nissan hopes to eventually build this relatively low-cost entrant in Tennessee.

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Aptera 2e

Drivetrain: All-electric or plug-in hybrid :: When available: First vehicles by year’s end, but not widely available until mid-2010 :: Price: $25,000 to $40,000 :: Range: 100 miles electric version, 600 miles hybrid :: The juice: Nearly 4,000 people have put down a $500 deposit for this strange-looking three-wheeler. But the Carlsbad company was recently denied a big federal loan, which may set back production.

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Tesla Roadster

Drivetrain: All-electric :: When available: 2008 :: Price: $109,000 ::

Range: 220 miles :: The juice: The first highway-legal electric car in years is also quite possibly the quickest -- zero to 60 mph acceleration in less than four seconds; that beats nearly any gasoline vehicle. Long waiting list.

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Tesla Model S

Drivetrain: All-electric :: When available: 2012 :: Price: $57,400 ::

Range: 160, 230 or 300 miles, depending on battery :: The juice: Tesla plans to build its second vehicle in California. The sedan will carry as many as five adults and two children, and still get race car-like acceleration.

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Coda

Drivetrain: All-electric :: When available: Late 2010 :: Price: $45,000 but may come down, the company says :: Range: 90-120 miles :: The juice: Coda is based in Santa Monica, but its electric sedan is essentially a Chinese car, using batteries and a platform made in the Middle Kingdom. Coda hopes to sell nearly 2,000 next year and an additional 20,000 in 2011. If it delivers, it could be the first highway-legal Chinese car for sale in the U.S.

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BYD e6

Drivetrain: All-electric :: When available: 2010 :: Price: $40,000 :: Range: 185 miles :: The juice: Chinese battery giant BYD says it will sell several hundred of the e6 five-seaters in the U.S. in 2010. BYD is backed by Warren Buffett, which is good news. The bad news is that BYD’s first venture into alternative vehicles, a plug-in hybrid for sale in China now, has been a disaster, with fewer than 100 sold.

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Toyota Prius Plug-in

Drivetrain: Plug-in hybrid :: When available: 2012 :: Price: Unknown :: Range: 12.5 miles on battery; total range unknown :: The juice: Toyota, reluctantly entering the electron race, will put out a test fleet of plug-ins by year’s end. But a mass-market version won’t be available for several years, and the design of the Prius drivetrain means that it probably will never be able to run for sustained periods on battery power alone.

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Chevrolet Volt

Drivetrain: Plug-in hybrid ::

When available: late 2010 :: Price: Rumored at $40,000 :: Range: 40 miles on battery, 300 miles total :: The juice: The most hyped plug-in of all. GM is making a huge bet on the Volt’s success, promising large production volume almost immediately. The price tag, plus the fact that it seats only four passengers, could hurt widespread adoption.

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Think City

Drivetrain: All-electric ::

When available: 2010 in Europe; U.S. arrival unknown :: Price: About $30,000 :: Range: 110 miles :: The juice: Norway-based Think Global, Ford’s former electric vehicle unit, was spun off, went bankrupt, emerged, then went bankrupt again. On its feet once more, Think hopes to build a factory in the U.S. Until then, the 63-mph two-seater is unlikely to appear on this side of the Atlantic.

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Mitsubishi iMiEV

Drivetrain: All-electric ::

When available: 2009 in Japan; unknown in the U.S. :: Price: $50,000 in Japan; U.S. price undetermined :: Range: 100 miles :: The juice: Mitsubishi began selling this diminutive car to commercial and government fleets this summer and will deliver it to individuals next spring. Because it’s so small and light, it can use a quick-to-charge battery yet still reach speeds over 80 mph.

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Ford Focus EV

Drivetrain: All-electric ::

When available: 2011 :: Price: Unknown :: Range: 75 miles :: The juice: Ford revealed a prototype of the vehicle in Frankfurt, Germany, last month with a drivetrain built by Canadian supplier Magna. The production version, for which final specs have not been revealed, will be built in Michigan alongside gasoline-powered siblings.

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Compiled by Ken Bensinger


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