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Another reason why corn prices are at new highs: ethanol. The low-carbon fuel is added to gasoline to power cars. But increasingly, electric cars seem like the future of the industry, and it's not clear what that means for Detroit. The city has been at the center of the American auto industry ever since Henry Ford rolled his first Model T off the assembly line in 1908. Now some high-tech companies in Silicon Valley want their region to become the hub of the emerging electric car industry.
From member station KQED in San Francisco, Andrea Kissack has more.
ANDREA KISSACK: I'm walking through the battery factory of Tesla Motors in Palo Alto. This is the cleanest factory I've ever seen. It looks more like a sterile biotech lab.
Mr. JB STRAUBEL (Chief technical officer, Tesla): There's a lot of secret stuff going in here. Generally, we restrict access pretty carefully.
KISSACK: That's JB Straubel. He's the chief technical officer at Tesla and one of the founders. The company is best known for its Roadster sports car, which does 0 to 60 in less than four seconds, and has made electric cars seem, well, sexy. A top range of 240 miles has made Tesla's batteries the benchmark for electric vehicles. But it all comes at a price. A stripped-down Tesla Roadster starts at $109,000.
Straubel points out one of Tesla's battery packs at a nearby work station.
Mr. STRAUBEL: Looks like a big black box. It's not very exciting on the outside, but that's what powers the Roadster.
KISSACK: It's big. How heavy is it?
Mr. STRAUBEL: It's about 1,000 pounds. And we better get out of the way here. We're going to get run over by a forklift.
KISSACK: Tesla is not only building battery packs for its own cars, but selling them worldwide.
Mr. STRAUBEL: Kind of neat to be doing manufacturing here in California and then exporting overseas.
KISSACK: And the company has plans to ramp up its manufacturing. Tesla Motors has just taken over a shuttered GM Toyota plant about 20 miles from here, where it will build a more affordable EV - the cheaper, longer range Model S Sedan.
In the midst of high unemployment in Silicon Valley, the company is hiring, hoping to expand from 800 to 2,000 employees over the next few years. Tesla has received an infusion of cash from cofounder and CEO Elon Musk. He made his fortune helping to start PayPal. Other venture capitalists are chipping in, including Google.
Dan Reicher is one of the leaders of Google's Green Energy Team.
Mr. DAN REICHER (Director, Google's Green Energy Team): We think EVs offer so many advantages in terms of environment, economy and security that we thought we should put some of our investor dollars into those kinds of companies.
KISSACK: I met up with Reicher at the company's EV charging docks on the sprawling Google campus in Mountain View.
Mr. REICHER: We've built a fleet of plug-in cars. These are Toyota Priuses, and we converted them after market.
KISSACK: Google has essentially turned the hybrid Prius into a plug-in so that employees can charge at work. It's this kind of garage startup mentality that has given Silicon Valley its innovator reputation.
Mr. REICHER: What's exciting here at Google is just some very, very smart engineers who say, well, we can do that. You got a problem? We'll figure out a way to solve it. You got an opportunity? We'll engineer a way to take advantage of it.
KISSACK: It's not just venture capital that's flowing into EV-related companies. The Obama administration is spending $2.4 billion to revitalize electric cars. The company ECOtality has received 100 million federal dollars to help invigorate the market by giving away free chargers in major cities.
Mr. JONATHAN READ (CEO, ECOtality): These are no longer your father's chargers, so to speak.
KISSACK: Jonathan Read is CEO of ECOtality. He just moved his company headquarters from Arizona to San Francisco to be closer to the action.
Mr. READ: These chargers are very intelligent. They have all the telecommunication capability in them. And all of this is based on a big network of chargers being interconnected, talking to each other and being able to talk to the utilities.
KISSACK: Like many other companies in this sector, ECOtality is hiring. In fact, the company just announced a deal to install its charging docks at some of BP's gas stations. Of course, plenty is happening outside of Silicon Valley, including advanced battery research out of Boston and Wisconsin. But the new automobile of the 21st century is likely to benefit from the culture of Silicon Valley, where people are used to taking a chip, a cell, an idea and working on it until it becomes something big.
For NPR News, I'm Andrea Kissack.
WERTHEIMER: You can find out more about electric cars at our website, npr.org.
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