Making the Shift To Electric Vehicles

Though the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf entered the market to fanfare, the battery-powered cars haven't been selling as quickly as hybrid models such as the Toyota Prius. Industry experts discuss electric car technology, from batteries to charging stations, and what it might take to encourage drivers to make the shift.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. When you fill up, is it regular, premium or high-voltage? When you bought your electric car or hybrid, people laughed at you as a tree-hugger, didn't they? But with the price of gasoline approaching five bucks a gallon, who's laughing now?

In fact, even my local parking garage now has a charging station in it. Still, electric cars have barely made a dent in the total car population. There are several big players in the electric car market now, like the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf, and more EVs from lots of carmakers are on the way. But so far, the Volt and the Leaf haven't really been flying off the lot.

A new smaller version of the Prius sold more vehicles in a couple of days than the Volt and the Leaf did all last month combined. So what would it take to get Americans to shift to electric? Is the time finally right now? How about the new Tesla Model S and the CODA? We'll talk to somebody from the CODA later.

Do you drive an electric car? Are you thinking about it? What's holding you back? Maybe you're ready to give it a try. Give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK, and you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. And you can go to our website at sciencefriday.com and our Facebook page, /scifri.

Seth Fletcher is a senior editor at Popular Science. He's also author of the book "Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy." He joins us here in New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

SETH FLETCHER: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Don Karner is the chief innovation officer at ECOtality. That's a company that makes charging stations and other infrastructure for electric vehicles. He joins us from KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DON KARNER: Thanks, Ira, it's great to be here talking to you from sunny Phoenix.

FLATOW: Sunny Phoenix. Seth, the idea of an electric car, reading your book, is really not a new idea, is it?

FLETCHER: No. In fact, you know, at the turn of the 20th century, electric cars competed for space on the road with gas-powered cars and steam-powered cars, and eventually - well, and in fact, electric cars had an early advantage because they were much cleaner, and gas cars in those days were actually quite dangerous and dirty.

But gas cars got better, and then electric cars have been traditionally limited by the range problem, which is just the fact that you can only drive so far on a charge of the batteries, and then it takes a really long time to recharge.

And that has been the - that's been the limiting factor for electric cars ever since, and that's just beginning to be overcome by advances in battery technology.

FLATOW: Well, like what? What is happening to make them go farther?

FLETCHER: It's really the advent of the lithium-ion battery that opened up the possibility of electric cars with performance that would be suitable for sort of mainstream American drivers. And it's just an adaptation of the same battery technology that's in our laptops and cell phones.

And this has been happening for about the past five years, moving into the automotive industry, and the first cars that really fully used these batteries were the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt, which went on sale about, well, about six months ago now.

FLATOW: Doesn't the Tesla have, like, 7,000 little laptop batteries in it, lithium batteries in it?

FLETCHER: Yeah - just under 6,000, and they are almost exactly the same thing that are bundled together in your laptop.

FLATOW: So you can just - what makes lithium such a good substance for a battery?

FLETCHER: It's just the properties of the element itself. It's the lightest metal. It's the third element on the periodic table, and it's also highly reactive. It doesn't even exist in nature in its pure form because it's so reactive. And what that means is that you can build a light chemical system that contains a lot of energy, and that's what you want with batteries.

You want them to be small. You want them to be light. You want them to be as highly energetic as possible. And so, just the nature of the lithium atom makes it the perfect - well, you know, there are challenges with it, but it makes it about the best charge carrier we can possibly get for batteries.

FLATOW: Don Karner, I was - I drive into New York every now and then, and I was shocked to see that there was a spot in the garage that said charging station, right here in midtown Manhattan. You're not shocked, I'll bet.

KARNER: No, no, not at all. In fact, I'm very happy to see that. We're about - at ECOtality, we're about putting those charging stations in and making electric vehicles mainstream, being able to have you charge where you lead the rest of your life, where you work and where you're entertained, where you shop, where you eat and also where you sleep overnight at your home.

FLATOW: But is America, which wants to get out, get up and go quickly, I mean, the charging stations take a half-an-hour to charge your car. Are they willing to hang out wherever they are for a half-an-hour?

KARNER: Well, I think that's part of why we want you to be able to integrate charging your car in with the rest of your lifestyle. Rather than taking your car someplace specifically to charge, we want you to be able to charge where you lead the rest of your life. So if you go to work, and there's a place where you can charge at work, the time that it takes is really irrelevant as long as that vehicle is charged when you're done with work.

If you go to the store, if you go to the restaurant, that type of thing, you're really just dropping your car off. You happen to charge it at the same place that you're leading the rest of your life. We call that leading a Blink lifestyle. Blink is the product name for our chargers, and we really encourage people to learn how to integrate charging their electric vehicle in with the rest of the things they do in their life, much like you did with your cell phone when you first got a cell phone.

You rapidly learned how to integrate that charging in with the rest of the things you do during the day, whether you charge it at night, you charge it on your desk during the day. But everybody started out with a little anxiety about is my cell phone going to die before the end of the day, I'm going to miss a call. But very rapidly you learned how to integrate that in with your life so that you didn't have an issue. We want...

FLATOW: You know, if you go to cold states like Alaska, Minnesota, places like that, where people have, they have warming elements in their cars for the winter, you plug your car in while - overnight. And they're in the parking lots of some universities. Why can't we have something like that, a little charger, wherever - right in the supermarket, you know, in the parking lot there. While you go in and shop, you plug your car in.

KARNER: Well, Ira, I think you'll see exactly that. You're going to see chargers deploy into commercial space: shopping centers, grocery stores, barbershops. Again, where people lead their lives, where they congregate and where there's a concentration of electric vehicles.

Our objective is to create a business model for electric vehicle charging such that those businesses are going to want chargers in their parking lots. Workplaces will want chargers there to support their employees, universities to support their students and that an infrastructure deploys virally to support electric vehicles in the United States.

FLETCHER: You know, Iran, I just wanted to follow up on one thing you said, that it takes a half-hour to charger the car. If only it took a half-hour to charge the cars from a normal wall outlet. This is actually one challenge. And there are three primary different types of charging. There's 110, 220 and 440. 440 volts are the fast-charging stations that can recharge a battery in about a half-hour.

Those are expensive and require more electricity. So from the 220 volt, you know, 220 outlet in your garage when you charge overnight, a car like the Leaf takes about eight hours, which is why most people are going to be charging overnight.

FLATOW: But if you only used up a few, you know, kilowatt hours, whatever we want to call them, of charge when you went to the grocery store, you could sort of top-off your battery.

FLETCHER: Yeah, you could top-off, yeah.

FLATOW: You could sort of top it off while you're going in to, you know, buying some broccoli or something.

FLETCHER: Opportunity charging.

KARNER: And that's precisely why you would want an infrastructure available to people so that they have that choice. Yes, they can charge overnight at home, and that is kind of the preferred place to charge your vehicle, but at times you'll want to top-off at the grocery store using 220, level two charging.

Other times you may want to go to a fast charger and get a much faster charge, to where in 15 minutes, you might be able to get 40 miles or so of additional range on your vehicle.

FLATOW: But, you know, as Edison, who invented the American light bulb - what made him successful is not only did he have a light bulb, but he invented the whole system of delivering the electricity to that light bulb. We now have electric cars. How fast can we get the system to deliver the electricity to them? I mean, that's going to take some sort of statewide or local effort, is it not, Don?

KARNER: Well, again, it goes back to the objective of creating a business model for charger hosts, those businesses, those people that will put chargers in. If there's a return on their investment, then there's a natural tendency, as electric vehicles begin to concentrate in an area, for these chargers to appear, much like any other business appears. Fast food pops up, grocery stores pop up as population builds.

At ECOtality, we're about building that business model and creating a return on investment for the charger hosts so that when they make that investment in a charger, whether it's dollar return, it's people across the threshold of their brick-and-mortar business, it's branding, advertising, that there's value that's returned to them because I don't think we can count on state or federal government to roll out an infrastructure for electric vehicles.

It has to be rolled out on a viral basis because it makes good business sense.

FLATOW: Here's a tweet that came in from Tim Beauchamp(ph), who says: why not inductive chargers under parking spaces and parking lots so that you don't even have to plug in?

KARNER: And certainly that's an option, Ira. It's going to be more expensive because it's a more complicated system, and a decade ago, the General Motors EV-1 and the Toyota RAV-4s used an inductive charger, and that was used very successfully.

Currently, the standard is for what we call a conductive charger, one that you actually plug in. And of course we've been plugging in electrical loads ever since Edison created the first power plant. It works very, very well. It's very safe, and it's inexpensive.

Inductive charging may well be more convenient, And there are a number of companies in both the U.S. and Europe that are looking at coming out with inductive charging that can bring that convenience to the marketplace. And of course, as that rolls out, and if people want that convenience and they're willing to pay for it, certainly ECOtality will, and I'm sure other companies will provide that to them.

FLETCHER: Yeah, I would say, just to follow up on that, in the '90s, the lack of a charging standard was a pretty big mess and a pretty big obstacle to getting these cars deployed, you know, on a large scale. And so the standardization that's happening this time around is a good thing.

FLATOW: Just having - which - we were all going to agree on the plug shape, things like that.

FLETCHER: Exactly.

FLATOW: One will fit into the other. And before we go to the break, battery technology, is it really getting better?

FLETCHER: It is getting better. It is steadily and slowly getting better and cheaper. You know, I think that it wouldn't be wise to wait for a miracle battery to come out of nowhere, but, you know, one hears interesting breakthroughs all the time.

Something interesting recently has come from this company INVIA Systems, which is using two different types of electrodes, which is a steady advance. They say they can double the capacity of batteries today. That may be tall, but it's promising.

FLATOW: All right, 1-800-989-8255 if you want to talk about electric cars, talking with Seth Fletcher, senior editor of Popular Science. "Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy." Don Karner of ECOtality. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the future of the electric car. Lots of tweets are coming in. Let me just read a few of them. I park across the street, Travis Polling(ph), says, from my house. So I can't run a cord from my house to my car. What if a passerby unplugs it?

This is something interesting. EVs don't work for me, says Vincent Russell(ph), because I live in an apartment complex, no garage to charge the car while I sleep. So what about renters? And other people, you know, other people talking about the impact. And let me go to one call here on the phone from Ed(ph) in Shasta County, California. Hi, Ed.

ED: Good morning, how you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

ED: Hey, my main point would be, I guess, that I think - I own a Leaf. I've been driving it pretty much exclusively, my only driving for the last 10 months. And my perception is that there's a lot of confusion between the use and different charging needs of electric cars and hybrid or PHEV cars like the Volt.

And my main point is that for electric cars, slow public charging, which is the vast majority of public - of chargers out there, aren't very useful, to contradict what your guest from Blink said. What you need for an electric car, because to have a significant amount of range from your home at night, from wherever you charge it at night, you just have to be able to charge it occasionally on highways and freeways at a fast rate of speed to use it as your everyday driving vehicle. Completely different than a hybrid.

FLATOW: But if you had a - is this your only car that you have?

ED: I actually have another car, and I've only driven it once to go to town to fill up the gas tank, literally. But yeah, to do longer trips, you need a car if there are no charge stations on the freeways.

FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling. An interesting point there...

KARNER: And Ira, I wouldn't disagree with that. There's a combination of both, really, fast charge and the level two charging that's required to support battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles like the Volt, to support those in commercial space.

And again, some people are going to be perfectly fine with level two charging, charging at work, charging at movie theaters, that type of thing. Others are going to require a faster charge, particularly along transportation routes, where you may be going from one city to another and people like Ed that are really dedicated to using their electric vehicle almost exclusively.

And we are, at ECOtality, rolling out fast charging infrastructure, as well as the level two infrastructure so that we can support both those kinds of drivers.

FLATOW: Let me bring on Chris Paulson, he's senior vice president, corporate strategy and business development at CODA Automotive. That's a start-up EV manufacturer based in L.A., and today marks one week since the launch of their electric sedan. Welcome to the program.

CHRIS PAULSON: Thanks, Ira, it's great to be here.

FLATOW: How have sales been going?

PAULSON: Well, since we just launched last week, we're just starting, but we have a lot of excitement. Our customers have lined up. We have reservations on the (unintelligible) right now, and we're working to fill them.

FLATOW: And describe your car for us. What makes your car different than the other electric cars?

PAULSON: We're a five-passenger sedan. So we're the only all-electric sedan on the market today. We have a range of up to 125 miles. So that's quite a bit farther than some of the other cars on the road. That's an 88 mile EPA range. The EPA range is the standard that the Environmental Protection Agency uses to define how far a car goes.

The - in our case, we expect that most drivers will exceed that 88 miles on a charge.

FLATOW: And how many cars do you expect to sell in a year?

PAULSON: Well, you know, it depends a lot on our ability to ramp-up and our demand. We, in the long term, want to be a 10,000-unit-plus car company, which makes us a very small car company in the grand scheme of things. But because of the way that we've designed our company, we can sell cars profitably at a much lower number than some of the other car companies out there.

FLATOW: Do you have a lot experience making electric cars?

PAULSON: Well, we are filled with EV people. One of our - the head of our battery division actually worked on the EV-1, GM's EV-1 program, and we've been working on EVs ever since. We have now - we're a small company, only 325 people, but the majority of those people are engineers and have been working on our EV now for four years and EVs in general for decades.

FLATOW: And how long does it take to charge your car, and will your car charge at a normal quote-unquote charge station?

PAULSON: Yes, the - we, actually, along with the car, for most consumers will install what we call an EVSC similar to the product that ECOtality makes, in each garage. And in that charger, you'll be able to recharge your car from empty to full in just under six hours.

But for the average 40-mile commute, you can do that in just two hours.

FLATOW: How are you going to compete with the other car companies, such a small company, 325 employees, especially with the GMs of the world?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAULSON: First, we're going to continue to grow. So, 325 is where we are today, but we'll have to be bigger to be able to compete in the long term. We have technology at our core. We're really a clean-tech battery company first and a car company second. We understand how batteries work, how they integrate with electric vehicles in a way that, honestly, the big car companies are still developing in the capabilities to do.

We will be able to launch cars quicker that are more efficient and work better with longer range. We think that is a real differentiator in the market. And once we have cars out there, and people realize, hey, these cars are great, they're fun to drive, it's a totally different experience from an internal combustion engine car, and it's from a cool new brand called CODA Automotive, we think we can compete in the market.

FLATOW: Oh yeah, and much - many parts of your car are made in China, and then you assemble them in California?

PAULSON: Yeah, the parts of the car are built all over the world. Our final assembly is in Northern California, by the Port of Oakland. We have partners in China that help us develop the battery system. We have joint venture there for the battery. And we also have a contract manufacturing relationship with a car company to do a lot of the assembly and then final assembly in the U.S.

FLATOW: But do you need a new kind of battery? I mean, or we're talking about lithium batteries with Seth Fletcher, and that seems to be the state of the art now.

ED: That's right, and as Seth would tell you, it takes a really long time to develop batteries and get them into cars. The lithium batteries have been in consumer electronics for 10 years or more, and now we're just starting to see them come into play for - in vehicles. It takes, you know, five to seven years to get a product from a consumer product to an auto grade, lots of validation and proving that the batteries are safe and that they'll last the life of the car.

FLATOW: Now, electric cars cost more than gasoline-powered cars. How do you talk somebody into saying, you know, this is better for you in the long run?

PAULSON: Well, the - the first thing I would say is most of the consumers that are buying cars this year or next year and the year after have been wanting EVs for years, just like our caller a few minutes ago. He was waiting in line for his Leaf. The - that will sustain the launch of the industry.

Then what we have to do is drive down price to get it closer to the cost of an internal combustion engine car. Our car, after the federal tax subsidies, is under $30,000. It's $37,000 MSRP, remove the $7,500 federal tax credit gives you an under-$30,000 car. And that car is at cost parity with equivalent IC cars in three years.

We think to really go from the early adopters to the mass adopters that we need to be able to get to that total cost of ownership point within one year. When that happens, and consumers are deciding should I buy this IC car that costs me about 20 cents a mile to drive, or should buy an EV which is close to the same price that costs me 2 cents a mile to drive and is quiet and clean, and guess what, it's actually a lot of fun.

Driving EV is a different experience. It has instant torque off the line. So, you know, when you get into the car, and you hit the accelerator pedal, you feel like you're driving, in a lot of ways, a sports car.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Eric(ph) in San Francisco. Hi Eric.

ERIC: Hi. I'm on the air?

FLATOW: Yes, you are.

ERIC: Yeah, I work for a Northern California utility, in the service planning department, and I see that we're getting a lot of information with new EV vehicles. And so my question to you is: How are the car companies working with the local utilities to develop rates to help incentivize people to buy electric vehicles?

FLATOW: Yeah, can you get - in other words, can you get a cheaper rate charging it overnight, if you plug your car in? And actually your car, if you have enough of them, becomes storage for electricity for around the country, you get enough electric cars with batteries in them.

KARNER: So, Ira...

FLATOW: Yes, go ahead.

KARNER: Definitely, as an infrastructure provider, ECOtality is working with utilities to try to figure out the best way to make electric transportation an asset to the grid rather than any kind of a liability. We generate a great deal of data from our chargers, which are all network-connected, and gather data on 15-minute intervals on power and energy that's being used to charge.

That information is available to utilities. In fact, we print quarterly reports that are posted to our website, TheEVProject.com. And it shows the low-duration curves and how these chargers are being used and how much energy they're using, how much power they're using. And we are participating with the investor-owned utilities in California and the California Public Utilities Commission looking at a number of aspects of charging, including charger ownership, charger rates, how to meter charging energy and how to do that at the lowest possible cost for the ratepayers and the EV owners. So, it is a very active topic with the utilities, with their rate commissions and with infrastructure providers, like ECOtality.

FLATOW: Ronda(ph) in Hendry County, Florida. Hi, Ronda.

RONDA: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I have a 5.2 kilowatt rooftop PV system. And we have lots more roof space. And I want to know how much more do I need in order to plug a car in and charge it during the day? I sell back about 10 kilowatt hours every day. I don't really know the magnitude. I do worry about transferring the pollution from my tailpipe to the power plant. Our power is actually generated by coal where I live. And I don't want to transfer that pollution to where the coal plant has to make the power to charge my car. So I'd like to do it off my rooftop. But I'd like to know how much power do I need to do that?

FLATOW: Let me ask our guy from CODA. Chris, can he do that?

PAULSON: Yeah. The - our car is a 31-kilowatt hour battery car. The - some of the other cars in the market go as low as 24-kilowatt hours, Ronda. The - one thing I would say about EVs versus internal-combustion-engine cars is they're actually a much more efficient usage of the power. So although you are transferring some of your emissions from the tailpipe to the source of coal, an electric motor is 95 percent-plus efficient. So even if you do do that, your overall emission is lower, and it gives the utilities a chance to put renewable energy in place over time and slowly shift the mix to a better mix. In California, we have a very high proportion of renewable energy and the - your - immediately, your emissions are significantly better.

FLATOW: Good luck to you, Ronda.

RONDA: So what capacity do I need on my house in order to do it, though?

FLATOW: Does she have enough excess?

RONDA: As long as I have 24?

PAULSON: So the...

RONDA: OK. Thank you very much.

PAULSON: Ronda, yeah, OK.

FLATOW: All right. She's ahead of the curve. She's off the grid and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAULSON: That's right.

FLATOW: ...ahead of the curve. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Chris Paulson, Seth Fletcher, Don Karner. Seth is author of the book "Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy." In the few minutes left, Seth, let me ask you about the conspiracy-type theories rumbling around that, you know, you hear that, oh, there aren't electric vehicles everywhere because the oil industry is stamping them out. But you write that one of the early innovators in lithium battery technology was at Exxon.

FLETCHER: That's correct. You know, in the late-'60s and '70s, faced with the smog crisis in L.A. and then the various oil crises, everybody was into alternative energy, including Exxon. Exxon was diversifying. They were going into office equipment and all kinds of things. And a guy named Stan Whittingham working at an Exxon lab in New Jersey actually developed the first usable rechargeable lithium battery, and that kind of set the, you know, a bunch of other researchers on course to make it practical. So, you know, I don't think that the conspiracy theories are correct. I...

FLATOW: Do you think that it's good that gasoline is going up to $5 a gallon to get more people thinking about electric vehicles?

FLETCHER: Well, I mean, let me put it this way, I think this is - successive electric vehicles depends on two things. One is the cost of batteries, and one is the price of oil. The higher the price of oil and the lower the cost of batteries, the more likely electric vehicles are to become attractive to a lot of people. And where those two numbers cross, I'm not exactly sure. But I don't really see oil getting any cheaper. Every time this year, we seemed shock that oil prices go up anew, as if it's never happened before. And now, we actually have the technology that should allow us to displace some oil if we can get the price of the batteries down.

FLATOW: Don, you agree?

KARNER: Yes, I do. There's obviously a number of other positive benefits from electric transportation, you know, pollution, energy security, that type of thing. But I don't think anyone likes the fact that the price of oil is going up. Certainly, it puts more of a focus on trying to provide alternatives to that. But, you know, we believe that electric transportation provides a whole variety of benefits that will provide that market pull that's going to make them successful.

FLATOW: Chris Paulson, you must be rooting for gas prices to be going up?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAULSON: Well, I'm actually, you know, I think that gas prices are an important part of the economy and really do affect people. So it's hard for me to root for gas prices to go up too high.

FLATOW: Yeah.

PAULSON: But, you know, the reality of that - long term, the price of oil will only go up. And we believe that even creating a - call it a hybrid garage, where you have an EV in your garage, and you have a car that you use for longer trips - will substantially reduce the oil usage in America. And we - our goal is to have an EV in every garage in America.

FLATOW: Do you think that's practical? Do you think that's actually - that actually might happen, Seth?

PAULSON: Oh, I'm convinced it will.

FLATOW: Yeah.

PAULSON: It's not a - this is not a next-year thing. And, you know, the - it seems like there's been a small number of EVs sold so far. And compared to the overall - the economy, that's true. But if you compare it to the launch of hybrids 10 years ago, it's right on line with that. And I think you'll see slowly that growth expand. And at a point in the future, I believe that EVs will be a common decision that people make.

FLATOW: Seth, will the batteries we have now make that possible, or are we going to need newer batteries?

FLETCHER: We're going to need better batteries. But, you know, one important thing to note here is that the term lithium ion battery or lithium battery, that's a big umbrella covering a lot of different substrains of batteries. And so, what scientists are working on right now in addition to coming up with new blue-sky breakthroughs is to just squeeze every bit of capability out of the basic lithium battery configuration we can.

FLATOW: Well, we've ran out of time. We'll always keep following this topic. Chris Paulson is senior vice president of corporate strategy and business development at CODA Automotive. Seth Fletcher, senior editor of Popular Science, author of "Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy." Don Karner, chief innovation officer at ECOtality. Thank you, gentlemen...

FLETCHER: Thank you.

FLATOW: ...taking time to be with us today.

KARNER: Thank you, Ira.

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