IRA FLATOW, host:

This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. The big three Detroit automakers flew back home in their private jets this week stunned and bewildered, as the price of their stock dropped below that of a cup of coffee. They had hoped to wring out of Washington lawmakers enough money to keep them going - money on the order of 25 billion perhaps 50, 75, who knows? But it became embarrassingly clear to Congress that the automakers who came had in hand - had no plan in their pockets.

This got us to thinking: why give all that money to people with no clear pathway to an electric-car future? Why not give that money to people who not only have a plan, but they have the cars on the road or ones that are ready to go? For example, General Motors has made a lot about the fact that in 2010 they will have their Chevy Volt car on the road, which can get 40 miles on a charge. That is, of course, if the company is still around. But Tesla Motors already has a car that can get over 200 miles on a battery charge, and more than one company is selling a modification to get to previous owners, which turns that car into a plug-in that they can charge overnight and get 100 miles per gallon today.

Why don't we take some of those billions, give them to Tesla, for example, and have them ramp a production of the cars and bring down their hefty price for a vehicle? Why not bailout GM by just selling it to Tesla? Let them take over the company. Turn those assembly lines into making greener plug-in cars that are made here in America with American autoworkers. If a small startup company can engineer these technologies, let's show them the money. Or if big auto companies can't say, yes, I can, let's help out the other car companies like the Mini, which will have a new electric car in the road next year, getting 150 miles on a charge. Why don't we help them expand build more factories in this country to make those cars, to take over the factories of the cars companies that go bankrupt? Mini took just 10 months to modify its car to get 150 miles. Detroit, well, you know, the story.

What do you think? Our number, 1-800-989-8255, if you like to get in on the conversation. If you're on Twitter, we have a new name. Yes, you can follow us at scifri. That's scifri. You can also tweet us your questions, just type the @ sign followed by scifri. Also on Second Life, we're also broadcasting it to Second Life and taking your questions on Science Friday Island. Let me introduce my guest. Sherry Boschert is the vice president of Plug In America, author of "Plug-In Hybrids: The Cars That Will Recharge America." She joined us from KQED in San Francisco. Welcome back to Science Friday.

Ms. SHERRY BOSCHERT (Vice President, Plug In America; Author, "Plug-In Hybrids: The Cars That Will Recharge America"): Hello, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi, there. Daniel Sperling is co-author of "Two Billion Cars: Driving Towards Sustainability, " a new book out in January. He is also professor of engineering and environmental science and policy at the Davis Campus at UC Davis and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies there. He joined us from Sacramento. Welcome to the show, Dr. Sperling.

Dr. DANIEL SPERLING (Director, Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California-Davis): Thank you. Pleasure to be with you.

FLATOW: Sherry, what do you think of this idea? Why not give the money to people like those other car companies like Tesla and they become the car companies of the future? They say they could make this stuff.

Ms. BOSCHERT: Well, I think it's certainly worth considering. Since I was last on your show a year and half ago, we've gone from one major car company, GM, saying that they're going to put a plug-in car on the road in the next few years, to 14 major car companies saying they're going to put plug-ins on the road. Not all of them for sale; some of them in test fleets. But that's a huge change. But we also have at least 11 small startup companies that are planning to put them on the road.

So, I think it's worth considering that the one thing that we in Plug In America insist on is that if the government gives any bailout money to the major car companies, they have to come with strings attached. I mean, right now, the car companies are lobbying to change the rules on $25 billion that already has been approved by Congress in September to retool the industry, to make clean plug-in cars. Well, they want to use that money just to plug the gaps, basically, no strings attached. Business as usual. So, even on the blink of bankruptcy, the resisting changed. It's really amazing.

FLATOW: We're actually going to have the chief technology officer of Tesla Motors, JB Straubel, come on later. We'll ask him that question whether he could take over GM or they could be sold and build those plug-in cars there. What's your reaction, Dan?

Dr. SPERLING: Well, you know, I generally agree there's - first of all, you know, the real point is there's great opportunity, lots of opportunity for improving our vehicles with electric-drive vehicles, battery-electric vehicles, plug-in, fuel-cell electric vehicles. All of these are far superior to what we have now. And most of the car companies, the CEOs themselves will say that this is the future. And so, the challenge really is how to get from where we are here to that future time where they are actually deploying a lot of this advanced technology, because most of these companies have pretty good experience with these technologies in the lab and demo vehicles. So, it's really a step of - I think the role for policy is, how do we get them to get these vehicles out of a lab and onto the street?

FLATOW: But we've had them out for awhile. Sherry, you drive an electric car, don't you?

Ms. BOSCHERT: Yeah, the idea that this technology is so new, we're not ready, or still needs to be tested in - it doesn't fit my scenario. I have not driven with gasoline for six years and 69,000 miles in a Toyota Rav4-EV. We have thousands of electric cars on the road when state regulators required clean cars and then they backed down in 2003. On the way to the studio this morning, I was privileged to stop by our local utility, PG&E, because they just took delivery of the first Mitsubishi iMiev electric vehicle in this country.

FLATOW: What is that? What car, describe that for us?

Ms. BOSCHERT: It's a little compact car. It's sort of a city car. It can go 80 miles in its current configuration. It's shaped sort of like a VW Beetle, that size, maybe seats four. I rode in the back with another passenger when we took a spin around the block, very comfortable and it has fast charging. You can charge it on your regular outlet at home, or it can charge in half an hour instead of five hours on the fast charging. The differences in Japan, the car companies and utilities have all agreed on a standardized fast-charging configuration. In this country, the society of automotive engineers is working on standardizing. But Mitsubishi says they're willing to bring it over here and sell it in 2010. They just want to know exactly what we want.

FLATOW: And I mentioned the many people, Mini Cooper people, are on buy Volkswagen, right? And they're having this Mini E coming out. Next year, they're going to be releasing some of them, and this car gets 150 miles on a charge. It seems like - it took them reading an article from the New York Times by Jerry Garrett, he said it just took them 10 months to bring this car to market.

Ms. BOSCHERT: Yeah, I don't think it's - the technology is not the issue. It's getting the car companies to do it; that's the issue. And you know, history shows us that the automotive companies have never made an improvement that is environmental or cleaner unless regulators force them to. And now, you know, they're behind the consumer demand, too. So, we've got consumers and government coming on board saying you've got to do something here.

FLATOW: Dan, you said, in an editorial in the New York Times, you argued for a $3.50-per-gallon minimum on gasoline. Would that help pay for these things?

Dr. SPERLING: Yeah, that's exactly right. You know, I think what we need to be thinking about is not government picking winners. You know, we've had enough mistakes in the past doing that. And so, we need to put in place these policies that provide a framework for a change that encourage these companies to move forward, and so, the idea of a price floor, which actually in reality would be probably connected to the world oil price - because if you did a gasoline price floor, the local gasoline stations and companies could just manipulate their prices. So, you'd link it to the world.

But their concept is, yes, that if you have that price floor, now the companies like Tesla that make electric cars, the battery companies, the advanced biofuel companies - all of these, these companies are now going broke. They're the ones that are going out of business now, and we need to support them. And so, if there's some certainty there that they know the price is going to stay at a certain level and not going to plummet, then it provides them an opportunity to compete better.

FLATOW: Let me bring in Tony Markel, senior engineer at Center for Transportation Technologies and Systems at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. Welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Markel.

Dr. TONY MARKEL (Senior Engineer, Center for Transportation Technologies and Systems, National Renewable Energy Laboratory): Hello. How are you?

FLATOW: Tell us about your 2006 Toyota Prius hybrid and what you did to it.

Dr. MARKEL: Sure. We've been working with the U.S. Department of Energy to research plug-in hybrid technology. And right now, we're working with a 2006 Toyota Prius that has a large battery pack in it. Basically, a battery pack from a company called High Motion has provided us with a large lithium-ion battery pack to allow that vehicle to be a plug-in hybrid vehicle.

FLATOW: And so you plug it in at night and charge it up?

Dr. MARKEL: We sure do.

FLATOW: And how many miles a gallon do you get?

Dr. MARKEL: Right now, when you're in the charge depleting mode, when you've got lots of energy in that battery pack, you are operating at somewhere around 85 to 100 miles a gallon. And then after that battery pack's depleted, you're back to about 50 miles a gallon like a normal Prius.

FLATOW: So, you can run it totally on the battery for awhile?

Dr. MARKEL: You have a mixture of mostly battery.

FLATOW: And...

Dr. MARKEL: Yeah, mostly battery and a little bit of engine during that charge-depleting mode.

FLATOW: So, when Chevy said its Vault is going to get 40 miles on a charge, you've already got that?

Dr. MARKEL: It's not quite the same as what they're working with, certainly.

FLATOW: Can anybody do this modification to their Prius?

Dr. MARKEL: Yeah, and this is actually a product that is available right now from that company. Several companies out there have done things like this. It's not a perfect implementation, but it's certainly one step closer to getting us - reducing how much oil we use.

FLATOW: What about using the batteries in long-haul trucks? Would that make sense?

Dr. MARKEL: That would definitely be a challenge to use batteries, at least, for the primary propulsion, but we can certainly use batteries in those vehicles to implement hybridization where we're using a variation in the driving profile to gain some efficiency.

FLATOW: And I'll ask all the three of you this. So, when T. Boone Pickens says we've got to have natural gas to those 18 wheelers, we really don't need to have that natural gas to drive those 18 wheelers.

Ms. BOSCHERT: Well, no. This is Sherry. And really, for long-distance freight shipment, we should be thinking of electric rail and rebuilding our rail system. I mean, T. Boone backed off. Originally, he was campaigning with the Pickens plan and here in California on one of our state battle initiatives. He was talking cars and now he's saying, oh, I really just meant trucks. That's because people saw through his smoke screen and saw that it doesn't make sense. On the Plug In America website, we have posted studies from Argonne National Laboratory and the American Council for Energy Efficient Economy showing that if you compare natural gas - compressed natural-gas vehicles to electric vehicles, electric vehicles are twice as efficient. So, we need to look at the big picture here if you look at the well-to-wheel scenario.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a quick break and come back and talk lots more. I want all my guests to hang on - Sherry Boschert, Daniel Sperling and Tony Markel. And your questions, 1-800-989-8255. Talking about plugging cars, future electronic cars and how to get them on the road. Why wait for Detroit? We'll be right back after this short break.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the future of plug-in cars and how you can (unintelligible) up the batteries of your hybrid plug-in. You can plug into the grid if you'd like to, with my guests Sherry Boschert, author of "Plug-In Hybrids: The Cars that Will Recharge America;" Daniel Sperling, co-author of "Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability;" Tony Markel, senior engineer at the Center for Transportation Technologies and Systems at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. And just a quick correction on my own part. I said that Volkswagen is owned by BMW. So, I did want to make sure I corrected that. Let's go to the phone, because we have lots of people with questions about this. Let's go to Jesse in Hartford. Hi, Jesse.

JESSE (Caller): How are you?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

JESSE: Good, good. I think there's this fantastic idea. I'm a big supporter. I just want to play devil's advocate for a second. Maybe your experts can tell us. What's going to happen, you know, if 10 or 20 million plugged their cars in at night? What's going to happen to the grid?

FLATOW: Are we going to melt the grid, Sherry?

JESSE: That's my question.

FLATOW: Good question.

Ms. BOSCHERT: Well, it's a very - it's an important question, and the Department of Energy looked at that in a 2007 study that, again, is on the Plug In America website. And if we magically created plug-in hybrids for everyone tomorrow, the existing capacity in the U.S. electrical grid at night - which is when people plug in, that's what's convenient; you go home, you plug in your car, you go to sleep, you wake up and it's charged - the existing capacity could already charge 73 percent of every car, truck, van and SUV in America in their commutes to and from work. That's over 170 million cars, and it takes a long time to get that many cars on the road. So, let's get them on the road and start planning for our future of greater energy efficiency and more renewables on the grid, but let's get the cars now.

FLATOW: Dan Sperling.

Dr. SPERLING: Well, in theory, that's correct that if you charge the vehicles off peak, there's tremendous capacity for them. The challenge we have is to make sure people do charge off peak, and there's going to be a tendency from people to charge during the day. And there's going to be - you drive somewhere, you light your electrical vehicle or your plug-in hybrid vehicle, you want to use electricity, so there's going to be a tendency to want to plug in. There's going to be a tendency - you know, the Wal-Marts or Costcos and employers are going to want to provide this as a fringe benefit to their customers and their drivers to provide that during the day, during peak times in the afternoon. And so what we need to do is come up with pricing and other strategies to encourage people to charge off peak, because if they charge on peak, then we lose much of the advantage.

Ms. BOSCHERT: I agree with Dan on that for sure. I mean, here in California, anyone with an electric car can have time of use metering, and I do that also because I have solar panels on my home. So, during the day, I'm feeding electricity to the utility at a premium, and at night, I charge for about a fifth of that cost. So, those price points are very important.

FLATOW: Tony, how do you feel about it?

Dr. MARKEL: Oh, I think the best thing we can do is provide the infrastructure so that folks can recharge those vehicles. Our best opportunity for displacing fuel is to be charging those vehicles with electricity. And with just a tiny bit of control in the system, we can charge those vehicles throughout the day without a whole lot of infringement on the utilities' operations. And we looked at that with studies with the local utility, and also I know that other utilities have duplicated some of this work to see that even just a curtailment on a couple of days of charging those vehicles during the middle of the day gets us to large displacements of petroleum with little need for extension of our natural resources.

FLATOW: Let's say you parked at Wal-Mart, which now has its flat roof covered with solar panels and uses that huge area of solar panels to trickle charge all those cars there in the parking lot.

Dr. MARKEL: The ultimate goal is to get to where we have renewable resources on the grid that are then feeding into these vehicles and we get the best CO2 emissions reduction as we can.

Ms. BOSCHERT: But Ira, even today, it's cleaner to drive on electricity than on gasoline - even with 52 percent coal in our grid. So, there's no downside to start to get those cars on the road now.

FLATOW: Dan?

Dr. SPERLING: And the other dream and - you know, for the future here is to connect the vehicles into the grid - into the household and into the grid, because if you can use all of this capacity in all of these vehicles to make it available to utilities, they don't need to build more capacity at peak times. They can, at those few hours of the day when they need extra electricity, they can get it and you can provide this especially from the battery-electric vehicles, but also the fuel-cell electric vehicles, because they will have a tremendous amount of energy on board.

Ms. BOSCHERT: I want to go back to something Mr. Sperling said earlier, that it's not the role of government to pick winners. Well, I actually disagree. I think it is the role of our elected and appointed representatives to pick winners, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are a perfect example. I mean, this is pie in the sky dreaming that's been (unintelligible) by the federal government and the California state government for years at the expense of plug-in vehicles. It's topsy-turvy. I mean, hydrogen vehicles aren't going to be around for decades, if ever, to the average consumer. The technology is not ready and plug-ins are.

So, the encouraging thing is that some governments are catching on to this. I mean, the City of Portland and its utility, Portland Gas & Electric, held a conference earlier this week - a press conference - saying that they're collaborating to get the cars there. Nissan will put its first electric cars in Oregon, and they're building up the electric-charging infrastructure. And yesterday in San Francisco, the mayors of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose held a press conference saying they, too, want the Bay Area to be plug-in car central and they will help to build up the infrastructure. So, people are catching on to this.

FLATOW: Is the battery technology ripe enough? We keep hearing, well, the batteries aren't good enough. We've heard that from Detroit for years that we're seeing these cars with batteries. And your car, Sherry, has a battery that seems to be working well. Do we need new batteries - new battery technology? I'm not saying...

Dr. SPERLING: Yes.

FLATOW: Of course, you don't want to stop it. But of course, it can hurt. Was that you, Tony?

Dr. MARKEL: That was Dan.

Dr. SPERLING: It was Dan.

FLATOW: I'm sorry, Dan. Go ahead.

Dr. SPERLING: Yeah. We definitely need better batteries. I mean, I agree that the batteries are good enough for some applications right now, especially some of the plug-in hybrids where you have a small battery. But these batteries - these advanced batteries- first of all, the lithium-ion batteries which everyone is looking to as for all of these vehicles; they're not even commercial yet. They're not - they will be coming available soon, but they're not. And the early costs of those are something like about $1,000 per kilowatt hour and the Vault, for instance, has 15 kilowatt hours. So, you're talking about a cost premium of $15,000.

Now, that cost will come down over time, but we need a better battery - at least we need to get the lithium-ion batteries out there and make them safe. The reason that they're being delayed is there are some safety concerns about them. And learn to manufacture them better, bring the cost down, get to scale economies. So, we are not - the only way we can do battery-electric vehicles right now in a way that's available to the mass market is if you have it in a smaller vehicle with a little less performance. And those are the kinds of vehicles you're seeing now - the Smart, the BMW Mini, the Nissan and Mitsubishi are all smaller, city-car type vehicles.

Ms. BOSCHERT: But the prices Dan is talking about, you know, what we need is battery factories. We need a commitment from a major car company or a big order from a small company so that the battery manufacturers are guaranteed that it's worth their investment to produce that many batteries. I mean, the price will come down as we make more. There is a number of good chemistries out there. We've had good batteries. Heck, we could be doing it with lead-acid batteries. Yes, it wouldn't go as far ,but people are hungry for these cars. They're buying little golf carts to get off the gasoline.

FLATOW: And you would think that if we actually did what we call a moon shot, in comparison, that in ten years, we could come up with the right kind of batteries. With all these, we pour money into the research on this, is this what you think?

Ms. BOSCHERT: Batteries will continue to improve, but they're already good enough.

FLATOW: Tony.

Dr. MARKEL: Yeah. I was just going to say that both Dan and Sherry are correct, that we have battery technology that's available and ready to go. It's also very promising that we've had so many developments and improvements in the battery technology. We're definitely on the road for improvement, and those costs are coming down. We're working on lots of technology that will bring those costs down. As we go forward, one of the greatest things we can do to make sure that we have the industries growing and developing is strong, consistent energy policy and consistent prices. And I think you were talking about that earlier. That will help certainly keep these industries alive. The battery manufacturers need that to be able to sustain themselves.

FLATOW: Here's a question from Ash Forana(ph) coming in on SciFri Twitter. What about the environmental impact of having all these batteries which typically expire - the batteries expire after a few years? Where will we put them all, I guess, if this goes on?

Dr. MARKEL: We actually - there's actually discussion about using some of these batteries for secondary use. They're - even after they're finished in their vehicle application or vehicle life, there's secondary use for those. And we also have recycling industries that are set and ready to go to recycle ultima(ph) on battery technology.

FLATOW: Tony, I understand that you have to go.

Dr. MARKEL: Sure.

FLATOW: Thank you for taking time to be with us. Tony Markel, senior engineer at the Center for Transportation Technologies and Systems at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden. One question before you go, Tony. Anything new - anything else you want to do on Prius, soup it up at all?

Dr. MARKEL: Sure. It leads into what Dan was talking about, about being able to connect these vehicles to the renewables on the grid. We have the potential to sort of work electricity in both directions with something called vehicle de-grid, where you can connect that energy storage to renewable resources - it might be somewhat intermittent. So, that's the next step with the vehicles, working with - using energy storage and intermittent resources together.

FLATOW: Thank you, Tony. Good luck to you.

Dr. MARKEL: You're welcome. Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Dan, do you want to jump in with something there?

Dr. SPERLING: Well, I would support the - reinforce that. I don't think the environmental concerns with the batteries are what many people would think, and that's partly because these batteries are big and heavy. You don't just take these batteries and throw them in trash. You know, they have value. You know, they have a set value for a secondary market. They have value, some of the batteries and materials. And, so you know, the - this is not something like from your laptop where you can just, you know, these are hundreds of pounds they weigh.

FLATOW: Well, I was thinking, you know, you were talking about $15,000 batteries. And if you take - if you get a million people at $15,000 batteries, that's $15 billion. Is it, are my zeroes right or wrong on that? That's all good - that's the kind of money you could take from a bailout and give it to people to buy a battery-powered car.

Ms. BOSCHERT: Uh-huh.

FLATOW: Instead of giving it into the car companies and then, you know, we keep you hearing in the car companies that 25 billion may not be enough. They may come back for 50 and 75 or more. I mean, why not give it to the people to buy the cars?

Dr. SPERLING: Yes, and exactly right, and that's why I say, you know, why - let's not pick the winners. Let's provide incentives for people to buy low-carbon vehicles, fuel-efficient vehicles. Provide these incentives. You know, we're already starting - the recent energy act provides some incentives. But that's exactly right. Let's create the market for it. And in fact, this would help all of the car companies. It would support companies like Honda and Toyota and Nissan that are actually doing something and making good progress. That would support them as well.

Ms. BOSCHERT: But meanwhile, let's not pretend that all options are equal. I mean, the federal government lopsidedly gives way much more money to hydrogen fuel-cell research than to plug-in-vehicle and battery research. The state of California lopsidedly incentivizes car companies to put a handful of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles on the road, so that they don't have to build plug-in cars. I mean, let's - let's not pretend corn ethanol is as good as some other kind of ethanol environmentally. I mean, let's talk reality here.

Dr. SPERLING: OK. This is where Sherry and I differ. We agree on the corn ethanol. And that's - is an example of government picking winners, and that's why it's in the stake. And you know, what we need to be looking to in the future is somehow, making our transportations system more efficient, lower oil use, less carbon. And to sit here now, I don't think anyone can predict or forecast what exactly is going to be the winner technology. And in fact, I would argue, it's probably going to be a mix of a number of these. There's going to be a mix of biofuels; it's going to be mix of electricity and hydrogen. In some places, electricity will be more dominant. In other places, the bio-fuels, in other places, the hydrogen. So, that what we need to be doing is encouraging all of them. You know, this sectarian strife between, you know, the EV people that say hydrogen is the devil, as I heard at a recent conference. It's just not productive, and is just wrong.

Ms. BOSCHERT: So, then, let's have...

FLATOW: We're talking with - wait, wait Sherry, let me just interrupt to...

Ms. BOSCHERT: OK, go ahead.

FLATOW: To pay some of the bills. Talking about the plug-in cars this hour on Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. Talking with Sherry and Tony, go ahead. Why don't you go ahead and finish up?

Ms. BOSCHERT: Just, you know, if we're going to play that game, that all options are equal, then let's at least give equal funding to battery research and development and plug-in car research in development. Put it on a par with hydrogen; I would be happy with that.

FLATOW: Would you, Dan?

Dr. SPERLING: I support - yes, I agree. We do need more. I agree we need more research in batteries. But I'd say we need more research for all of these options where you know, we spend much of federal money. We spent much less on our energy R&D than we did 20 years ago. It's, you know, and given that, now is the time we were - we really understand that we need to move to a clean energy and low-carbon future. This is the time we should be investing.

FLATOW: And we - go ahead, Sherry.

Ms. BOSCHERT: Well, just one last point. I mean, we can talk research, but really climate experts tell us we have 10 years to try and turn around what we're doing in terms of carbon emissions. If we have any hope of stopping global warming or avoiding the worst effects, we're not going to stop all of it. Ten years, well, hydrogen's not going to be ready in that timeframe. You know, I'm not saying it will never be ready. I'm saying, what can we do now? Right now we can do plug-in cars.

FLATOW: Let's go to Greg in Burlington, North Carolina. Hi, Greg.

GREG (Caller): Hi. Couple of quick comments here and a question. Speaking about the oil companies, it would be good if President Obama has a windfall profit tax on the oil companies and uses it for alternative energy. That's one suggestion. Another suggestion is just, why don't oil companies bail out the real markets since they are linked together? And I would like to see someone like Rush Holt, congressman from New Jersey, be either transportation secretary, secretary of energy, or EPA administrator. And my question is - I was reading New York Times about Chile, where they have a vast field of lithium; they're like the Saudi Arabia of lithium. And I'd like to hear your comments from your guests.

FLATOW: OK. I'm sure they must be underground, fields of lithium. That waves of lithium growing. Sherry, you have any comment on that?

Ms. BOSCHERT: Yeah, actually, Plug In America gets that question commonly. And so we had a Ph.D. candidate do a white-paper for us on lithium supplies in the world. That's up on our website for people to see, and it's very detailed actually, and his conclusion is there are adequate lithium supplies in the world for the foreseeable future for lithium-ion batteries. And you know, like Dan and all of us say, battery technology will continue to improve. I mean, today's flavor of batteries has not necessarily tomorrow's, but it's certainly good enough to get us going on either lithium batteries, the nickel metal hydride batteries, zebra batteries, lead batteries, you name it. Let's get going.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is the number. We're going to take a quick break in just a second. But TDMC, it's - twittering says: How could we convert our gas-powered cars into electrical vehicles? Can it be done today? Can you two think of that?

Ms. BOSCHERT: Yeah, I can, but it's expensive. I mean, it's time-consuming. And if you paid someone to do it, you know, it will cost you $15, $20,000. So, we really need to get the major companies to do it, because they have the economies of scale to make it much more efficient.

FLATOW: Unless you had one of the hybrids like the Prius, which can be done a lot cheaper than that.

Ms. BOSCHERT: Yeah, plug-in hybrid. That's a lot simpler. And there was at least six companies I know about that will do it for you. One of them is National, High Motion, HY Motion, and they are operating now in five cities.

FLATOW: All right, let's take a break there. We're going to take a break. When we come back, we have to talk to the chief technology officer to talk about can you take over General Motors. We'll be right back after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. this is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about electric vehicles, plug-in cars, the best way of developing them, with my guest Sherry Boschert, who is vice president of Plug In America, author of "Plug-In Hybrids: The Cars that Will Recharge America;" Daniel Sperling, coauthor of "Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability." That's coming out in January.

And my next guest has spent his share of time mulling over batteries and plugs. He is chief technology officer at Tesla Motors, a startup company in Silicon Valley that is designing very sleek and sexy cars that run just on electricity. In fact, they have signed up behind the big three Detroit makers hoping to get some of the bailout money for the auto industry just get a - get some of it coming their way if the - if it ever comes. But Tesla CEO Elon Musk says he's optimistic, and the company's churning out 15 of their high-priced sports cars a week. That's about 100 of the Roadsters are now navigating the highways; maybe you've seen one. And joining me to talk about these Roadsters and the company's vision for a plugged-in future is JB Straubel. He is the chief technology officer at Tesla Motors in San Carlos, California. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JB STRAUBEL (Chief Technology Officer, Tesla Motors): Hi, Ira. Great to be here.

FLATOW: Give us a little thumbnail of how far can more - the Roadsters go on one charge?

Mr. STRAUBEL: Well, in recent testing, we drove on the EPA test cycles to about 244 miles. And it's really the first production certified electric vehicle that's broken in the 200-mile barrier. So, that's something we're pretty proud of.

FLATOW: Wow. Let me ask and maybe you can answer a question from somebody in Second Life, TJ asked - wrote - writes, please make one concession to the engineering illiterate, and tell me how many kilowatts does it take to run a typical car at 50 miles per hour on flat dry route?

Mr. STRAUBEL: Well, it depends a lot on what kind of car it is. There's a big difference in the aerodynamics and the weights, but it can vary anywhere from, I would say, around 10 kilowatts of - to maybe as much as 20 kilowatts for an SUV or a truck or something like that.

FLATOW: Now, how are you able to get such terrific, you know, mileage like that?

Mr. STRAUBEL: Well, a lot of that is in the battery pack. We're storing more energy onboard the car than any other electric vehicle has done. A battery pack is about 53 kilowatt-hours, and, you know, the Volt, the Chevy Volt, is around 15. So, we just have a much, much bigger battery pack along with a fairly efficient car, and together, those can give you the very long driving range.

FLATOW: So, you've optimized the battery to go for a long range versus power? Or how do you change those dynamics?

Mr. STRAUBEL: Oh, we have done that. Our focus has been on getting very long range and very high energy. And because it's a pure EV, we don't have a - any gasoline engine at all, no sort of fuel whatsoever. Energy density in the battery is a critical metric for us. But because the battery is so big, it actually has a lot of power along with it. We don't have to focus on extremely high power battery cells in order to get these, you know, very quick accelerations and good driving just like another sports car.

FLATOW: Now, your car is very expensive for my, you know, price range. It's over $100,000.

Mr. STRAUBEL: Yeah. The price base starts at about $109,000. But if you look at comparable gasoline sports cars in the same performance class, that - you know, surprisingly that's actually very competitive with vehicles that accelerate in the same range and handle at the same way.

FLATOW: If you could more - mass market your car, if I gave you the GM plants to work in and scale-up, could you bring down the price of that car?

Mr. STRAUBEL: Absolutely. And that's what we're really spending most of our engineering time on. Now that the Roadster is done and shipping, we're in development right now on a pure electric sedan that will be about half the price of that, and that's still in relatively small volumes compared to what many, you know, high-production vehicles were built at, about 10 to 20,000 a year.

FLATOW: Wow. So, you know, with the price of GM stock, like, worth less than a cup of Starbucks, couldn't you get enough money together or go into Congress and say, give us the part of that bailout money? We can take over these factories, we can put American workers back, and we could build these plug-in hybrids, for plugging - just battery cars that you make.

Mr. STRAUBEL: In fact, we have filed an application for part of the 25 billion in deal with loan guarantees. And 25 billion is such a huge amount of money. I think it gets lost to how large that sum is. And Sherry mentioned at the beginning of the program, there's over 25 companies now there, you know, experimenting or have announced electric fuels - vehicles in one way or the other. And I think what's critical is that that money gets spread around to a broad group of people so that we're not just betting on one company to try and do this. Now, you - that's one billion each to all those 25 companies.

FLATOW: Now, you're talking real money.

Mr. STRAUBEL: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And do you think that within 10 years, given the right amount of money spread around that we could have all the cars in America, plug-in cars, plug-in electric vehicles?

Mr. STRAUBEL: Well, I think all the cars would be a bit of a stretch in 10 years, but we can be well on our way to a significant fraction of the new vehicles sold. I think, you know, well over a quarter of new vehicles sold could easily be plug-in vehicles of one form or other within 10 years.

FLATOW: And what about the big heavy trucks? I asked this question before, but Tibble(ph) and Pickens questions about him insisting that we have to have natural gas to run them.

Mr. STRAUBEL: Well, I mean, natural gas could be one solution for those. That'll be a bit tough to make electric just because of the fact that, you know, they're in use for such a large fraction of time and there's really not a down period to recharge. Passenger cars, you know, end up sitting idle for 22 to 23 hours per day, but large, long-haul trucks are in use for much larger fraction.

FLATOW: GM talks about its Volt coming out in 2010. What's your take on it?

Mr. STRAUBEL: Well, I think it's a great program. It's going a long way to really prove to people that this is - is not just some sort of niche fringe technology and it's a - you know, large car companies are really diving into plug-in vehicles. I think it's going to face some stiff competition though from other plug-in vehicles. When and if Toyota launches a plug-in Prius, I think that'll be a very difficult competitor for the Volt. And a lot of this - it depends on where the final price point to the Volt lands. I think there's some definitely - it's tricky to know where that will be, whether it's 30,000 or 40,000 or higher.

Dr. SPERLING: What Ira, could I...

FLATOW: Dan, go ahead. Sure.

Dr. SPERLING: Add a touch of reality to this discussion?. You know, I've driven JB's car and it's a fabulous - the Tesla, you know, it is, I would say, it is worth - if I had the money, it is worth $109,000. But there's not many people that can afford it, and as we look to the future, you know, if you think about the gasoline hybrid car, which is a much simpler version of what we're talking about - it doesn't take any electricity from the grid, much smaller battery, much cheaper premium - it's taken us eight years to get to two and a half percent of the national market, two and a half percent with the gasoline hybrid, and when you go to a plug-in hybrid, you're adding more cost, it's more complex and more difficulties. And so, there is - this is not something that's going to happen today or tomorrow.

Nissan just announced that they anticipate or they hope to have 10 percent of their cars being battery electrics in 2020. And I think that's probably the upper level of what we can expect in that timeframe. And so, you know, we need to be thinking about, you know, the economics, unfortunately, get in the way here. And we talked about how batteries are expensive and so - but probably the kind of vehicle that's really going to be mass marketed in the next 10 years are these what we call blended plug-in hybrids, where they have small batteries that you do plug-in that gives you very high fuel-economy, but do not have that all electric range like the Volt. And that'll be much cheaper...

Ms. BOSCHERT: That's certainly a possibility, and we would welcome that. But it is a new day in America. I mean, President-elect Obama has pledged to put a million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015. We in Plug I America think that could happen by 2012 and get 10 million on the road by 2016. A lot of it depends on the will of the people and the will of the government to intensify this to help the economy get rolling and build green jobs, building clean cars. It's a new day.

Mr. STRAUBEL: Yeah, I think extrapolating how the changes progressed over the last - last 10 years won't be the best indicator of how it's going to look over the next 10.

FLATOW: You mean, if - you know, I'm sitting here thinking, it's 1961 and John F. Kennedy is talking about going to the Moon, and he says, you know, maybe if we get this, I can project, who knows, maybe by 1969, we might be in this lunar outpost, but on the Moon. They went ahead and they did it. I mean, they made a 10-year - JFK make a 10-year commitment, and people rolled up their sleeves. We brought along our educational community, our teachers and our kids, and had a whole, you know, educational process that went with this and people did it. You don't think we can do that in 10 years with plug-in battery cars?

Dr. SPERLING: Well, you know, Ira, the reality is that we can make our - we can get much, much greater improvements from our conventional technology. I've been a champion of electric-drive vehicles for, you know, 20 years now. There's no one that's more enthusiastic than me. But if what we want is reductions in oil use, reductions in greenhouse gases, the kinds of things that we can do is take these, the gasoline and diesel technologies, and make it a lot better. You know, California now has, for instance, a greenhouse gas standard that the automobile companies have been suing California, not let it - trying to block them. EPA under George Bush has blocked it as well. Fortunately, President-elect Obama says he will not block it any further. But if that, if those standards are imposed, then the vehicles are going to get much more efficient. There are already fuel-economy standards calling for 40-percent improvements for new cars by 2020. The California ones could stand up...

FLATOW: Wait, wait, wait - but I understand the politics that you're talking about. I'm talking about the demand from the public. The public wants these cars; why can't we give them to them?

Dr. SPERLING: Cost, cost, cost. It's like...

FLATOW: Well, but you just heard JB Straubel say, you know, if we could ramp up to the size of General Motors and built - we could build all these cars, and we could bring the cost down also.

Dr. SPERLING: We can and we will, but the reality is those vehicles will cost more, and some people will buy them. I own two hybrid cars. I've paid the premium to have them. You know, Sherry's brought her car. But they cost more, and you know, we can provide incentives to people, but those incentives represent a lot of money, and are we as taxpayers, how much...

FLATOW: Just to play devil's advocate here, you sound like you've come from Detroit.

Dr. SPERLING: I come from California.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BOSCHERT: And I mean, that, you know, the car companies keep saying, we can't, we can't, we can't, and today more people are saying, yes, we can. And the way technology goes, too, you know, sure. New technology is always more expensive. Think about cell phones; anyone my age remembers when there used to be as big as a shoe box and they cost $1,000. Now they fit in the palm of your hand and they're practically giving them away free. We can accelerate that process. We can make this happen. People want these cars and now, we're going to have someone in the White House who's going to help us make this happen.

FLATOW: JB?

Mr. STRAUBEL: Yeah, just one comment on cost. I think what's critical is to really look at the total cost of ownership. If you focus entirely on the initial purchase price, sometimes I think we can make the wrong decisions here, because what you do when you're buying a plug-in vehicle is you're really moving, you know, some of the price into the battery pack and into the vehicle what you would have used - previously paid for fuel. Because your energy bill for the lifetime of the car drops enormously, and there's some creative ways that that can be spread around and as long as you look, you know, intelligently at how that savings really plays out over the life of the car, it's much more competitive than it might seem.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about plug-in and electric cars this hour in Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. Getting a question from Idueno(ph) in Second Life. Isn't the missing piece an open interstate grid? Do we need to do the grid over for this?

Ms. BOSCHERT: Well, you know, eventually, there will be need to be grid improvements whether we have plug-in cars or not. I mean, if we're going to put more renewable power into the grid, which we want to do - we need to upgrade transmission lines, et cetera - yes, if we put millions and millions of plug-in cars out there - but to get started? No. We don't need anything but the cars, and while it takes time to roll those cars out, we can plan ahead, we can see what we need, we can put in what we need and we can start converting all of those gas cars out there, because even if we start producing new plug-in cars, there's all those polluting cars using Middle East oil that we could be converting as well.

FLATOW: We've got to take the last question, Michael from California. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi. Quickly.

MICHAEL: Yeah, I think all the talk on technology is missing what I think is the systemic problem, which is that the organizational structure of Detroit is a Hummer. And we need to retool it into a Prius, and there are concepts of community capitalism where we began to think like capitalists, and if I had $27 billion, I wouldn't be looking to give it to the managers of the car companies. I would be looking to purchase the company and create a company where the people working for the company actually - where we bring Jeffersonian democracy to corporate structures, and the people who work for Detroit end up to owning the company in the end, and maybe partnering with companies like Tesla. We use that bailout money to buy the company.

FLATOW: All right, thanks for your opinion. We've just about run out of time for this discussion. Very interesting, we'll have to pick - we will pick it up later. Sherry Boschert is vice president of Plug In America, author of "Plug-In Hybrids: The Cars that Will Recharge America;" Daniel Sperling, coauthor of "Two Billion Cars; Driving Towards Sustainability;" that's coming out in January - he's also a professor of engineering in environmental science and policy at UC Davis; and JB Straubel, who is chief technical officer at Tesla Motors in San Carlos, California. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. STRAUBEL: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Dr. SPERLING: Thank you.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend.

Ms. BOSCHERT: Thanks, Ira.

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