MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The electric car has been a dream of environmentalists and automakers for decades - an elusive and recurring dream. Remember the L car of the 1970's or the city car? Probably not. But with growing concerns about global warming, the idea is attracting a new generation of entrepreneurs. They're hoping that technology - namely, better batteries - will make electric cars practical this time around. Today, we'll meet one of those entrepreneurs: Miles Rubin.
NPR's Elizabeth Shogren went on a test drive with Rubin in one of his new cars.
Mr. MILES RUBIN (Entrepreneur): Hey, you take your seat belt. Now, what you want to do is you will release the emergency break. Yeah. You got that right again.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: We're in the driveway of Rubin's Washington, D.C. house, in a cute, red, boxy, four-door hatchback. I turn the key and step on the gas -well, the accelerator pedal, since there is no gas. Here we go.
Mr. RUBIN: Yeah. And it's got a lot of electric motors that have great initial torque. And so as you start the car, you're moving along right from the outset almost at full torque.
SHOGREN: In a few seconds, we're moving through Rubin's ritzy neighborhood at the car's top speed, 25-miles-per-hour. It won't replace the family mini van, but Rubin hopes it will finally help him jumpstart the electric car market. Rubin's a mega millionaire who made his money trading Chinese silks and medical devices. In the 1990's, he ran Ralph Lauren's Polo jeans. Now, he's nearly 80, and putting gobs of his own money into a new company, Miles Automotive. It's his way of fighting global warming.
Mr. RUBIN: I think everybody has to do something. We can't just depend on governments. Yes, it will take government action to really make a change, but we can't sit back and wait for the Congress.
SHOGREN: He's making the cars in China. Several months ago, he started bringing low-speed cars like this ZX40 to the U.S. Low speed is bright. I figured that out quickly when we're on a steep hill.
When I'm going uphill and I'm trying to go a little faster, it doesn't want to go.
Mr. RUBIN: It's no way. It's not going to go.
SHOGREN: I pulled aside to let other cars pass. Still, this is a car, not a golf cart. It has leather seats, serious tires and loads of safety features. It costs about $15,000. One like this, but with more oomph to take the hills is a couple thousand more. The really cool thing about the car is how you fuel it.
Mr. RUBIN: You just plug it in to any wall socket or you can bring an extension cord out.
SHOGREN: So far, Rubin sold about 300 of them. They're best suited for college campuses, military bases and corporate parks with low-speed limits. NASA bought some, so did the Navy and several universities. The idea to build these cars took root four years ago when Rubin visited a Chinese factory that makes lithium ion batteries, the ones used for laptops and cell phones. Soon, he was urging the Chinese company to scale up the batteries for cars. Rubin's passion for the environment dates back to the 1970s, when he worked with actor Paul Newman to get Congress to promote new sources of energy. But when the oil crisis lifted, interest waned. He hopes this time around, the threat of global warming will keep people focused.
Mr. RUBIN: I mentioned by grandchildren. I - we'd not like to think of them saying to themselves that we were so uncaring and so greedy and so unwilling to change our lives that we ruined everything for them and for future generations.
SHOGREN: Rubin says he spent $35 million of his own money and expects to double that to get his new highway speed car to market, hopefully in early 2009. That one will go 80-miles-per-hour with a range of 120 miles. It'll cost about $30,000. Of course, Rubin's not the only one trying to build electric cars, but most of the other vehicles in the works would be expensive. One of them, the Tesla Roadster, is due out later this year with a price tag of $100,000. Rubin admits he's faced some skepticism, even from his wife.
Mr. RUBIN: She said, Miles what do you know that the auto industry doesn't know? And I said, Nancy, very little. In fact, now that I think of it, almost nothing.
Mr. DAVID COLE (Automotive Research, University of Michigan): This is an enormously difficult industry to break into for an outsider.
SHOGREN: David Cole heads the center for Automotive Research at the University of Michigan.
Mr. COLE: Great many people have tried, have had very optimistic ideas about bringing a product to market, and it just hasn't worked out.
SHOGREN: Cole predicts it will take several years before the lithium ion batteries are ready. Toyota recently backed away from one version. A big challenge is preventing the batteries from overheating. Nevertheless, Miles Automotive has already signed dozens of dealers around the country.
Mr. SCOTT SANDLER (Owner, E-Car Auto dealership): We do believe in the Miles product. And we believe that this will give us the best opportunity to get our message out there, partnering up with somebody that we feel is steps ahead of everybody else.
SHOGREN: Scott Sandler owns E-Car Auto dealership in Chicago. He has sold 30 of the low-speed cars already. He says Rubin personally won him over.
Mr. SANDLER: He was the reason I was sold on his versus other people's. And we could have went to many other distributors of electric vehicles, but I just felt that that Miles cared about what happens with the world, the economy and global warming.
SHOGREN: At 78, Rubin said he's made more than enough money. Now, he's hoping to make a difference.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.
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