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Plug-In 2011: Rising Tide for Electric Cars

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Concerned about global warming?

Worried about environmental pollution?

Even in these days of global economic recession, billions of people still care deeply about the environment. Millions of people want to do something tangible -- right now -- to preserve the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the land we cultivate and the natural world that restores and replenishes our fragile biosphere.

The electrification of the car and the transportation system provides an intelligent technological response to environmental degradation and global warming. Even in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s, the trend to electric cars and plug-in hybrids (cars with both electric and small conventional motors) is growing stronger. While the market is not yet flooded with plug-in electric cars, manufacturers are accelerating their design, development and production. A new group of consumers, the Early Adopters, are plunking down substantial sums to lead the green revolution by driving plug-in hybrids and electric cars. The cutting edge of the clean technology movement spearheads this burgeoning trend toward the plug-in electric car.

At the Raleigh Convention Center, Plug-In 2011 brought together hundreds of manufacturers, engineers, vendors, media and the general public to see many of the leading plug-in hybrids and pure electric cars. The day of plugging in your car instead of filling it was gasoline seems to be rapidly approaching. Organized by the Electric Power Research Institute, (EPRI) the annual Plug-In conference is one of the industry's major exhibitions that indicates the progress rapidly unfurling in the realm of the electric car.

The market leaders of plug-in hybrids, cars with both electric and conventional motors, are the highly successful Toyota Prius and its major US competitor, the Chevrolet Volt.

Both the Prius and the Volt combine electric motors with conventional engines to deliver seamless long-range capabilities for their owners. At forty miles on its electric motors alone, the Volt has a longer range than the Prius that has a pure electric range of thirteen miles. While both cars appear to be similar, they are actually quite different. The Prius uses a conventional engine to drive its front wheels just like the majority of cars in production today, but the Volt's wheels are constantly driven by electric motors. When the Volt's batteries need recharging, the conventional engine starts to charge the batteries while the car is on the go providing for journeys as long as 300 miles.

In the pure electric car category, the Mitsubishi I and the Nissan Leaf have more limited ranges of circa 60-100 miles before they need battery charges that can take four to eight hours. Ford exhibited their Focus Electric, but the packaging of the car on display at Plug-In 2011 made it clear that it was still a pre-production/prototype. Ford does produce a range of hybrids similar in engineering to the Toyota Prius, but none were on display at Plug-In 2011.

At Plug-In 2011, charging stations became the rage. The electric car industry is now experiencing a massive surge of growth in manufacturers of plug-in charging stations. Many manufacturers from GE to Siemans to Eaton exhibited convenient plug-in charging stations for the home, the office or the general public demonstrating just how swiftly the electric car is moving toward majority acceptance.

In fact, many attending Plug-In 2011 were impressed with the latest development of the plug-in concept: hands free charging by wireless connection. Plugless Power is a start-up firm that featured an exhibit with a Chevrolet Volt poised over a wireless charging station that permits drivers to park their cars over the charge point and walk away without dealing with heavy cables and multi-pronged plugs. One passerby muttered, "What will they think of next?"

The stand where the Chevrolet Volt was displayed was constantly over-run with people attracted to the car and its smart custom carport with solar panels in the roof and plug-in charging station. It struck me that manufacturers were not only selling cars -- but also the charging stations to go with them. This development seems like the beginning of the end for the now outmoded gas station.

Oddly, two American manufacturers who have received massive federal financial support: Tesla and Fisker did not exhibit their wares at Plug-In 2011. Tesla sent executives to serve as spokesmen, but Fisker was either totally absent or operating in full stealth mode. Tesla manufacturers a range of pure electric cars, while Fisker will manufacture luxurious plug-in hybrids led by the Fisker Karma.

The US market awareness of electric cars definitely seems to be crystallizing. While Tesla executives said that their initial high-end two-seat sports car sold, "500-600 units per year," their next model -- the Model S -- will be built in far higher quantities of 20,000 units beginning in early 2012.

Both the pure electric Nissan Leaf and the hybrid Chevrolet Volt have sold 15-20,000 units in their first year of commercial operations, and both manufacturers plan to expand production to more than 50,000 units in calendar 2012.

Driving the electric car is a totally new automotive experience. Turn the key, push the button or move the lever into position and depress the accelerator to produce a silent and seamless surge of forward propulsion -- just like the Starship Enterprise. All the cars that I drove at Plug-In 2011 were competent in urban traffic around the Raleigh Convention Center. The Nissan Leaf is the clear leader in the pure electric category. The car is light, nimble and fun to drive on city streets.

Mitsubishi and Nissan executives told me that they are developing more electric cars and plug-in hybrids. I am looking forward to the plug-in electric equivalents of the Mitsubishi Evo and the sumptuous Infiniti said to be rapidly approaching the horizon.

The Chevrolet Volt is a larger vehicle than the pure electrics with a longer range thanks to its on-board conventional power plant that serves as a generator to keep the batteries charged for 300-mile journeys.

Now in its fourteenth year of production, the Toyota Prius has sold amazingly well. Over one million Priuses have been sold globally with circa five hundred thousand in the US market alone.

Everywhere you turned at Plug-In 2011, someone was talking about the, "Ten Millionth Electric Car" -- a metaphor for the general acceptance of the electric car by the majority of consumers. Judging from the range of interest from the general public in Raleigh, North Carolina, the tide lifting the electric car is rolling in, and the surf is definitely rising.

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