Electric Cars Still Years Away From Paying Off

After years of producing gas guzzlers, automakers are focusing more on electric vehicles. At auto shows across the country, the companies are rolling out a variety of electric vehicles. They may pay off one day, but making electric vehicles affordable and practical will take years.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Even as they eliminate jobs and car models, General Motors and Chrysler are trying to come up with new products for a new era. And right now, all they want to talk about are electric vehicles.

Unidentified Woman: We have a Ford Escape plug-in Hybrid…

Unidentified Man #1: The Chevrolet Volt is a very real example of how General Motors is committed…

Unidentified Man #2: The Dodge Circuit helps define a completely new driving experience.

INSKEEP: That's some of what you hear at auto shows around the country where the companies are rolling out a variety of electric vehicles. And one day, those vehicles may pay off. But as NPR's Frank Langfitt found, making electric vehicles affordable and practical will take years.

(Soundbite of doors closing)

FRANK LANGFITT: I'm knocking around a battery-powered Ford Focus. My guide is Bob Stork(ph). He's an engineer at Magna International, an auto supply company, and he built this prototype.

Where are the batteries?

Mr. BOB STORK (Engineer, Magna International): I'll show you. Somewhere underneath the car, which you won't see, where the fuel tank is.

LANGFITT: And the rest are in a container that takes up much of the trunk.

(Soundbite of knocking)

Mr. STORK: It's an aluminum box.

LANGFITT: It's an aluminum box.

That's the thing you notice about electric cars, they need lots of batteries -and in the case of this Focus, 400 pounds of them. That's because it takes a lot of electricity to move all that steel. And the batteries cost a lot of money - so much that Bob really doesn't want to tell me. I'll get an answer later, but right now, we're taking the Focus on a test drive. It's a bit slow off the line, but otherwise, it handles like a regular car.

Obviously, we're just going to drive a few blocks around Washington, but let's say I wanted to just keep going.

Mr. STORK: Yep.

LANGFITT: How far could I get?

Mr. STORK: Our target range is 100 miles. We are not quite there yet.

LANGFITT: So the farther you drive, the less practical the vehicle becomes. Short commute? No problem. Long drive to the beach? Forget it. Bob anticipates my next question.

Mr. STORK: Recharge time?

LANGFITT: Yeah.

Mr. STORK: Recharge time at 220 volts would be five to six hours.

LANGFITT: At 110 volts - that's what you get out of most wall sockets - it'll take up to a dozen hours. But at least it won't cost much to operate the vehicle.

Mr. STORK: Yes, it uses plug-in at about a buck and a quarter a night.

LANGFITT: You mean that's the cost if I plug this in at my house over night?

Mr. STORK: Somewhere in that neighborhood. Maybe a buck and a half, depending on where you're at.

LANGFITT: Ford plans introduce a battery electric car in 2011. It'll join the General Motors Volt, scheduled for production late next year. The Volt only goes 40 miles on a charge, but it has something the Focus doesn't: a gas engine. The engine charges the battery on the road, and can extend the car's range to hundreds of miles.

The Volt and the Focus were among a dozen electric prototypes on display at this year's Washington Auto Show. One of the big questions surrounding electric cars is how many people will actually buy them? So we've come over here to the Chevy Volt exhibit. It's a sleek, silver car sedan with four doors, and actually an electric cord hanging out of the side of it. It's spinning around on a podium, and we're going to talk to people about what they think.

Jay Franklin is snapping a photo of the Volt. He's a software engineer who lives in rural Virginia. I ask him what he would pay for the car.

Mr. JAY FRANKLIN (Software Engineer): I'm guessing, starting range I'm looking at 25, maybe 30. But you get beyond the 30 mark, I'm like going no, no, no. It's too expensive.

LANGFITT: The answer is typical, and it's not good news for GM. The company has avoided putting a price on the Volt, but it won't be cheap.

Ms. BRITTA GROSS (General Motors): A lot has been reported in the press, you know, maybe it's a 30 to $50,000 vehicle, and I wouldn't argue with that.

LANGFITT: That's Britta Gross. She works on GM's electrification efforts, and Gross says even in that price range, GM will lose money.

Ms. GROSS: We are completely going to subsidize the cost of this vehicle. There's no way we can recover the cost of making this vehicle for many, many years to come.

LANGFITT: Gross insists the Volt will make sense for many drivers. Plug it in at night in your garage, and it's ready to go in the morning. But what if you don't have a garage?

If I'm in an apartment building and I'm parking somewhere and there isn't a plug nearby, which I think would be typical, can I actually run this car?

Ms. GROSS: If you can find an outlet, you can run this car. If there aren't any outlets, appeal to communities. Incentives should be applied to apartment owners, condo owners, employers and retailers to be motivated to put in the charging site, simply little plugs that you can plug in this vehicle with the standard cable that comes with the vehicle.

LANGFITT: Essentially, that was a no. Gross says electric vehicles will need a new infrastructure of public charging stations. That will require support from government, businesses and utilities. And it'll take time.

(Soundbite of car doors chimes, slamming)

LANGFITT: If you want to appreciate the potential and the problem surrounding electric vehicles, check out the Ford Escape plug-in hybrid. I went for a spin in one with Jas Dhillon, a Ford engineer. The Escape has a gas engine and lithium ion batteries. I pressed Dhillon on the cost of those batteries. Finally, he relented.

Mr. JAS DHILLON (Engineer, Ford Motor Company): Let me say it is in tens of thousands.

LANGFITT: There it is: the biggest single challenge. The critical component costs a ton of money. One reason is research and development, another is volume. In the beginning, electric vehicles will be a niche market at best, and companies won't be able to spread their expenses over many vehicles. But if they can bring those costs down, there could be big savings on fuel. During our drive, the vehicle ran entirely on electricity, not a drop of gas.

Now we just probably drive a mile. How much did that cost us in terms of electricity?

Mr. DHILLON: Well, a mile drive here, probably two to three cents.

LANGFITT: Not bad. And the Detroit companies are betting that if oil prices rise in the coming years, these vehicles could have a real future.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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