Will Green Cars Make It to the Street?

This week at the annual cavalcade of cars that is the North American Auto show in the motor city, there were also some green options, including a new electric concept car from GM called the Volt. Bill Moore, editor and publisher of EVWOrld.com, a publication focusing on electric vehicle technology, talks about the viability of the newest electric autos.

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TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

OF THE NATION: Coming up on Monday, when Daniel Tammet thinks about numbers, each has a distinct, unique personality. He has a rare form of autism and some astonishing mental powers. Daniel Tammet tells Neal Conan about his memoir, "Born on a Blue Day." That's on Monday on TALK OF THE NATION.

OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY for the rest of the hour we're going to talk about is Detroit finally getting the itch to go green? This week at the annual cavalcade of cars that is the North American Auto show in the Motor City there were plenty of massive SUVs to go around, but there were also some greener options, including a new electric concept car from GM called, what else, the Volt. But will those greener concept cars ever make it to the street?

You may recall that GM pulled the plug on its EV1 electric car offering a few years ago. There was even a movie made about it - "Who Killed the Electric Car". Well, with the Volt be any better?

Joining me now to talk about it is Bill Moore. He's the editor and publisher of EVWorld.com. That's a publication focusing on electric vehicle technology. Welcome back to the program, Bill.

Bill, are you there? Oh, it looks like we've lost Bill. Bill, are you there? Hi there.

BILL MOORE: I'm Here.

: Yes. Go ahead. Welcome.

MOORE: Good to talk to you.

: Is GM going to pull the plug on this car?

MOORE: Oh, Ira, who knows? You know, it's hard to say. I think that they're probably fairly well committed to this from what I'm hearing on the inside at General Motors.

: Uh-huh.

MOORE: But, you know, Bob Lutz made a comment here recently to - I think it was Forbes was interviewing him. And he said - they asked him, you know, well what could kind of, in essence, pull the plug on this car?

He said, well, the first thing would be of course that the people with the battery technology come back and tell us we could do 20 miles but we can't do 40. So you've got issues like that where they still need to get, you know, some of their ducks in a row, so to speak, when it comes to battery technology.

: Well we've had the Prius out now for years. Why can Toyota do it but GM can't do it?

MOORE: Well there's a difference between the Prius - you know, if you drive a Prius, you can find that you'll drive maybe a mile or two on electric power only. Then the motor kicks in simply because that battery isn't big enough to power the car any further than a couple of miles.

What we're wanting to do is ask that battery now to drive it essentially 20 times that distance. So you're going to have to have a much more powerful and a larger battery to do that. And I think that's what their concerns are, is does that battery exist.

From what I'm hearing in the industry and the people I'm talking to it certainly does appear that the battery exists. I think that's why they're talking to Johnson Controls and why they're talking to A123 and Cobasys and some of those companies.

: Now the Volt concept car is basically a plug-in car, isn't it? It has a small gasoline engine. It might have a diesel engine if it ever gets to be made in production. And you plug this in overnight, right? That's the idea? You can drive it 40 miles during the day.

MOORE: Exactly. That's what - the plug-in hybrid that you've been hearing an awful lot about from - the president on down have been talking about that technology.

: And there are actually people who can do that with a Prius. They've changed their Prius' over to plug-in technology, too.

MOORE: Exactly. They've done it. I've lost count to be honest with you, Ira, how many people are doing that now. But there's companies springing up all over the country. I think the closest to me now there's a company in Denver doing it. You've got a couple of companies in California. You've got one on the West Coast. You've got one in the U.K. that's doing it.

So you're finding more - one in Canada. So you're finding more and more companies starting to do this with existing technology.

: Now Ford showed off its own green concept car, the Airstream, right?

MOORE: The Airstream, and that's a really interesting kind of an idea. I'm less enamored by that than I am with the Volt. I think a Volt is a much more immediate application that they could certainly, with a lot less effort than what Ford's talking about, bring that car to production.

What Ford's talking about is something that is significantly further out. You know, we're talking 2015, 2020, maybe 2025 timeframe to solve those problems with the hydrogen in the fuel cell, whereas what General Motors is talking about with the Volt is technology that they're very much experienced with and I think we're all familiar with.

So it's a much easier, much more doable - that's why I think they're talking about the possibility of offering technology like this within about six years' time, rather than 16 or 20 years.

: Right. Let's go to Paul in Santa Monica. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PAUL: Thank you very much, Ira. Yeah, I'm very excited about the Volt from GM. The one concern that I have is that they're saying 2010 or 2012 for the batteries to get up to where they need them to be. However, GM's chief engineer, Nick Zielinski, was quoted in MIT's technology review as saying that the batteries they're looking at are where they need them to be, they just need to be able to bundle them into packs. And I don't see why that would take three or five years.

So we suspect that maybe these cars are going to come out sooner, and what we as EV activists would suggest is that people just tell GM that you're not going to buy a new car until it does have a plug on it.

: Are you an EV activist?

PAUL: Excuse me?

: Are you an EV activist?

PAUL: Yes. I was featured in "Who Killed the Electric Car?" and I'm part of Plug-in America, and we advocate plug-in cars for Americans to use: cheaper, cleaner domestic electricity instead of dirty, expensive foreign oil.

: So you...

MOORE: I should point - Ira, can I point out that...

: Sure, Bill, go ahead.

MOORE: Paul Scott, with whom I think you're talking with, a good friend of mine, happens to drive a Toyota RAV4 that he powers with solar panels on the roof of his home there in Santa Monica. So you can't get any cleaner than that, an electric car that runs on sunshine.

PAUL: And we also, Ira, we took a survey in California. There are several hundred people who drive electric cars, and 48 percent of them use solar energy as their electricity source. So as people buy electric cars, they'll realize that the cost-efficiency of buying solar is much better than just offsetting regular electricity because you're offsetting very expensive gasoline. So the payback period for solar is really short.

: Paul, but let me understand what you were calling for. Were you calling for a boycott of these cars until something better comes up, or what?

PAUL: I don't know if I'd use the term boycott, but what we want is to put public pressure on GM and the other car companies, particularly Toyota because they're very close. And as long as people continue to buy the Prius, that's a full gas car. They could make a plug-in Prius very easily. They could bring it to market this year. But as long as people continue to buy the gas cars, then they'll continue making them and delay the implementation of the plug-in cars.

And for the United States to get off of oil, we need to move to domestic electricity much quicker than that.

: But the Volt is a plug-in car. Wouldn't that be something you'd want to see?

PAUL: And we do want it, but they're saying they're not going to implement it, they're not going to bring it to market until 2010 or 2012. And we're suggesting that they could do it much sooner, say, next year or the year after, and not have to wait three or five years but maybe one to two years.

: What about other - the Europeans, they seem to be, you know, the Toyota soon will be the number-one car company it looks like, and they've got the Prius. And there are other concept cars that - we've seen BMW have a hydrogen car. Other - seen talk of other cars running on, you know, hydrogen. Are our friends across the pond working any faster than we are on alternate cars?

MOORE: Well, what you take a look at what's being done over there and you talk to people, the answer at this point is no, actually; they're not quite going as fast as we are. There are some interesting projects that have been done over there.

These plug-in cars are not necessarily - plug-in hybrids are not necessarily a brand-new thing. With the Chevy Volt, as you pointed out, there are a lot of people that are already driving around - and a lot, we mean, you know, several dozen people at least - driving around in plug-in hybrid Toyotas.

There's a company over in Switzerland that has converted - again, expensively, but it's converted a Mini Cooper to plug-in. There's a company called Zitech(ph) in the U.K. that's taken what's called a (unintelligible), which is the smart car that's been extended instead of a two-passenger car to a four- passenger car. That is a diesel/plug-in hybrid.

So you've got companies. There's another company called CleanNova over there in France that's developing a plug-in range-extended version of the Renault Kangoo, which is kind of a, oh, like a panel-type vehicle.

So you've got a lot of activity. Daimler Chrysler has been working fairly, you know, with - feverishly I guess is the best way maybe to describe it - on a Sprinter van that's a plug-in hybrid.

So you've got a lot of ferment and activity going on. But at least in terms of, you know, car company commitments to doing this, the first people to really step up, you know, step up to the plate and say we're going to do this in terms of a major OEM is General Motors and Ford. And the most doable, the most immediate, is going to be that Volt vehicle, or maybe even before the Volt sees the light of day we may actually see some of the Saturn brand end up with a plug-in hybrid.

: Let's go to the phone. Bill(ph) in Holland, Michigan. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MOORE: Hi, Ira. Thank you for having my call.

: You're welcome. I was kind of curious about Tesla Motors. I haven't heard any mention of them. I know they've got a straight-out electric car that can do 250 miles on a charge. Has there been any discussion on that one?

: Bill Moore?

MOORE: Yeah, Tesla is actually - the latest story I heard is that Tesla's kind of leaked a little bit more information on their next car. They've taken 250 orders on the current, the Roadster model, which is, you know, a $100,000 vehicle, and I think that they're still in the middle of various certifications.

Before they actually begin to sell that car to consumers, they want to make sure that it's met all the various crash-test certifications, so I think that's what they're in the middle of at this point. But they're also, I gather, beginning to start thinking about and doing some preliminary work on their follow-on car, which is going to be a sedan, a multi-passenger, I assume probably five-passenger sedan, again all electric, based on this same general concept.

: Hopefully cheaper in price.

MOORE: Well, one would hope. You know, I mean with anything, you know, if you look at the cost of building a one-off vehicle, it's in the millions. You know, these custom concept cars that they roll out at these auto shows are, you know, multi-million dollar vehicles. So the more they build, obviously, the cheaper it ultimately becomes, and that's certainly what we're all hoping for.

: Mike(ph) in San Francisco, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MIKE: Yeah, hi. Bill and Paul made most of my points. My question would be why is this is a concept car, and why is it not in production today? General Motors had, by most accounts, the perfect car built 10 years ago. As late as six years ago, they were making EV1.

Re-engineering that car, if they needed people to be calm about having the range, that endless battery charge - put in - small gas-engine technology is perfected, the software to tell it when to turn on to charge the batteries is perfected. It just seems disingenuous. Good for General Motors for coming out with the Volt, but the 40-mile range is laughable. Their EV1 went more than 100 miles without breathing hard.

And Rick Wagoner was on - the CEO for GM - was on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED the other day, and he said well, you know, the battery technology, it just hasn't come along, and in 10 years it's gotten a lot better.

They had the perfect car 10 years ago, and they probably - they certainly have the plans in their computers and they've probably got the tool and die sets in their factories. And this is a thing they could be producing in a year, and it just - it sounds like more disingenuousness that this is a concept car, not a production car. They're not even really coming out with a good date for it.

MOORE: Yeah, Ira...

: Let me just remind everybody first, Bill, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow with Bill Moore, editor of EVWorld. Go ahead, Bill.

MOORE: Yeah, what I was going to say is you're getting a lot of kind of mixed - this is what I'm reading - a lot of mixed reactions, and you're getting a good sampling of that here from the people that are calling in.

I think people are kind of excited by the concept, but boy, they're also very jaded. They've very skeptical. You know, they've seen programs like this kind of announced, you hear comments from people saying well, it was really great for General Motors' stock price to not only announce the Volt but to also get selected as the car of the year and the truck of the year at the Detroit auto show this week.

It's good for that, you know, it's good for PR, but there's no serious intention on their part. So you see this kind of ecstatic kind of interest and excitement that General Motors is able to create at these auto shows much like it did with its sequel, you know, its skateboard concept the previous years.

But everybody sort of says, OK, well, General Motors is really good at building concept cars, but why don't we ever see those cars hit the road. And I think that's what everybody's waiting for. They really want to see the company actually have a program where I can go and I can buy that car.

: Well, you know, the federal government used to be able to - and I'm sure it still does - able to inspire people, if that's the word, or to spur on corporations by its own buying power. You know, it could buy a lot of things. In the early days of transistors and whatever, it bought up semiconductors to bring the price down for those sorts of devices, and in (unintelligible) circuits for military applications.

If it went in and said, you know, for all our - we need a couple million cars for all our vehicles. Let's make them plug-in electrics. Don't you think something like that might work?

MOORE: Well, it would. But, you know, the thing is is that the Energy Policy Act of 1990 actually has a provision in that where the federal fleets are supposed to be buying alternative-fuel cars, and they have fallen miserably short over the years. And I think a lot of that has to do just simply with a lack of, first of all, the vehicles, a lack of the fuels and skepticism on the part of the fleet, you know, local fleet managers, and also just simply the - their, you know, just the inertia that you get in government.

: Well, if you had the post office buying, you know, the little cars that deliver the mail, if they were all electric cars, imagine how many cars you'd have there.

MOORE: Yes, and there was an effort to do that by Ford Motor Company, and that thing failed miserably. I don't understand all the reasons why. I've heard various reasons. But no, that's a very good example. I think that has to do - and I understand, actually, that there are a couple of efforts being made to talk to the post office to get them to take a look at this again, but you're right. That's a perfect example.

: You know, Bill, if you don't understand it, and I'm not saying you should...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: That's why none of us understand it or, you know, why some of us are very skeptical about these reasons.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: Yup. Well, believe me, I've been in this long - it's been almost 10 years I've been doing this now, and I've seen many promises come and go. I'm a little bit more, I think, optimistic about this Volt project just simply because there are too many converging forces.

I think when you take a look what's happened with, you know, the attitude of people towards the war in Iraq, the realization that, you know, we're spending a lot of money, you know, to defend the supply of oil - money and lives - that people are getting kind of tired and frustrated with that, and they're really looking for some other answers.

You look at the concerns over global warming. I think all these factors are coming together. I think Detroit's finally starting to realize that, if you will, the old paradigm is really starting to shift and they need to come up with some serious product.

: Well, Bill Moore, thank you for joining us this hour.

MOORE: My pleasure.

: Very informative. Bill Moore, publisher of EVWorld.com, a publication dealing with electric vehicles and other green car technology.

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