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Electric Car Carries Clean-Energy Investors' Hopes

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Electric Car Carries Clean-Energy Investors' Hopes

Technology

Electric Car Carries Clean-Energy Investors' Hopes

Electric Car Carries Clean-Energy Investors' Hopes

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/97272628/97279899" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Second of two parts

Shai Agassi of Better Place displays Renault's electric car engine. i

Shai Agassi, CEO of Better Place, shows off the Renault electric car's engine in Tel Aviv, Israel, in May. The Silicon Valley startup has teamed up with Renault-Nissan to introduce all-electric vehicles and charging points in Israel. hide caption

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Shai Agassi of Better Place displays Renault's electric car engine.

Shai Agassi, CEO of Better Place, shows off the Renault electric car's engine in Tel Aviv, Israel, in May. The Silicon Valley startup has teamed up with Renault-Nissan to introduce all-electric vehicles and charging points in Israel.

The Chevrolet Volt can go up to 40 miles on an electric charge. i

The Chevrolet Volt can go up to 40 miles on an electric charge. Production is scheduled to begin in late 2010. Photo courtesy of Chevrolet hide caption

toggle caption Photo courtesy of Chevrolet
The Chevrolet Volt can go up to 40 miles on an electric charge.

The Chevrolet Volt can go up to 40 miles on an electric charge. Production is scheduled to begin in late 2010.

Photo courtesy of Chevrolet

Clean energy has become the mantra of Silicon Valley venture capitalists. The centerpiece has been the electric car, principally the Tesla Roadster, a sleek, expensive sports car out this year. While the economic meltdown has put a crimp in their plans for sales growth, electric-car manufacturers hope for a thin slice of the $25 billion auto industry bailout being considered by Congress.

Though Tesla Motor Inc.'s Roadster is quiet, it has not gone unnoticed by the automotive world. The Roadster has proved that electric cars don't have to be wimpy. It has a range of more than 200 miles and can seamlessly accelerate to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds – no shifting gears, no exhaust blast.

Electricity is a clean, renewable fuel source, and there are several ways to produce it. "You can't say that about gasoline," observes Dan Neil, who writes about the automotive industry for the Los Angeles Times. You can generate power "with wind or solar or hydro electric. The infrastructure for electricity is already established."

Still, widespread use of electric cars would require a new, additional infrastructure. For starters, you need a lot of charging spots, especially for people who don't have garages where they can recharge at night.

Places Needed To Power Up

The CEO of Better Place, a Silicon Valley startup, hopes to build a lot of that infrastructure.

"If you went to New York City and said, 'I'll just park the car and plug it in to home,' that means a cord from 23B dropping all the way down to the avenue downstairs," Shai Agassi says. That's "if you're lucky to find your spot. You need to move it every night."

Agassi envisions curbside charging meters, with his company taking care of billing. He says his car chargers will be designed not to overload the grid. The system will tell customers, "'OK, when I have power, I'll give it to you,' " Agassi says. "Then you're gonna start getting cars charging at 2 o'clock at night. Nobody needs to set it up like your VCR, but you'll get cars charged at night when there is power available.

Sound like pie in the sky? Well, the Israeli government has bought into Agassi's scheme in an attempt to replace gasoline in that country before 2020.

Now, nearly every car manufacturer is developing an electric car or a plug-in hybrid. GM is bringing out the Tesla-inspired Chevy Volt in limited numbers by 2010. And Renault-Nissan is ready to offer a lot more, says Neil of the Times. He says its vice chairman said the company "could build 40,000 electric cars by 2011 and by 2012 they could double that number. This is an astonishing assertion by a company as serious as Renault."

Small Carmakers Hope For Federal Help

The fact that foreign carmakers are leading the way in new technology is no surprise to critics of America's Big Three auto companies. While electric car enthusiasts aren't crazy about Congress giving $25 billion in loans to Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, they're pleased that 10 percent is earmarked for small manufacturers.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors Inc. in San Carlos, Calif., hopes startups like his will get "just a tiny sliver of that. We'd put it to extremely good use," he says. "I think Tesla's going to frankly put it to better use than the Big Three."

Auto industry analysts like Neil say that, at the very least, the U.S. government should not give new loans to Detroit so that it can simply continue the internal-combustion engine technology now burning down the town.

"I think there's a rich opportunity for the Obama administration to seize the moment and say, 'Yes, we will bail you out — but you have to provide the transformational transportation of the future, and we are not going to give you all this money just so you can make mid-size and full-size Buicks," Neil says.

What about those Silicon Valley startups that have reignited interest in the electric car?

Yes, Neil agrees, "Maybe Tesla needs a little federal help to get on the road. I honestly think that these companies will not make it out of the wilderness without some federal help."

That's because startups like Tesla seriously underestimated just how much capital it would take to mass produce a new car. Now, policymakers in Washington get to decide whether the insurgents as well as the incumbents should get a boost.

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