WASHINGTON — Electric cars have long been more of an idea than a reality. They've been hailed as the future of driving yet they're hard to find on car dealership lots. This year, that will change.
Several big automakers plan to start introducing a range of electric vehicles in late 2010, giving the broader public its first chance to buy the vehicles that rely more on the electrical outlet than the gas pump. In the next several years, most major car companies plan to release vehicles that use electricity to get around. But buying an electric vehicle isn't like purchasing a gas-powered car.
The big draw for many buyers is the chance to stop burning gas and drive a more environmentally friendly car. But figuring out the fuel efficiency of electric cars isn't easy. Instead of keeping an eye on just gas prices, buyers will have to know how much they pay for electricity to charge the car. Away from home, finding a place to plug in could be difficult. Drivers will also have to figure out if a vehicle that could run out of power after 100 miles is right for them.
So what are some of the factors you should take into account if you're thinking about buying an electric car in the next several years? The following are some important questions and answers to consider:
What type of electric vehicles will be available in 2010?
There is a fairly wide range coming onto the market. Vehicles like Nissan's Leaf are purely electric, using just a rechargeable battery for power. The Chevrolet Volt, made by General Motors, also has a battery but includes a small gas-powered engine that creates electricity when the battery charge runs out after 40 miles. Other models are plug-in hybrids with engines that get power from both batteries and gas. But the common feature is that the vehicles can be recharged using a power cord and a plug.
When will electric vehicles be available in the United States?
It varies by manufacturer. The Volt will be sold in limited numbers starting in November. GM says it will first sell the Volt in California and other undisclosed markets. Nissan plans to sell the Leaf all-electric vehicle in mostly West Coast markets starting in December. Fisker Automotive plans to deliver its sports car Karma to dealers in the third quarter. But you may have to wait: Most automakers plan small initial production this year and in early 2011.
How much will they cost?
The Volt is expected to cost around $40,000 and the Leaf $30,000. Luxury models like Karma and Tesla Motors' Roadster can cost up to $100,000. But electric vehicle buyers will get a $7,500 federal tax credit this year.
How do I figure out the fuel efficiency?
That could be difficult. Price stickers for a gas vehicle include the number of miles it can travel on one gallon. But with Nissan's Leaf, there is no gas involved. The Volt does have a gas engine, but it isn't always in use. If you travel less than 40 miles per day — the maximum range of the Volt's battery — you may never end up using gas.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which sets standards for fuel efficiency, is still developing final guidelines for electric vehicles. GM said last year that the Volt can get 230 miles per gallon in city driving, an estimate based on draft EPA guidelines for electric vehicles. But that figure has been criticized as misleading, since the Volt would get much lower mileage depending on how far you drive after the 40-mile battery range is used up and the gas motor kicks in.
One way to judge how much it will cost you to run the car is to look at electricity prices. GM estimates a $1 per day cost to fully charge the Volt. But keep in mind that prices for electricity vary significantly depending on the time of day.
Can I just plug an electric vehicle into an outlet at home?
Yes, but you may want to figure out what kind of outlets you have. If you hook your electric car up to a common 110-volt plug, it could take a fairly long time to recharge the battery. Using a 220-volt plug could cut that time in half. An electrician may have to install special charging equipment at your home for some electric models.
You'll need to consider how easy it would be to find an outlet. If you don't have a garage, or park on the street in a city, it may be hard to power up overnight.
How will electric vehicles perform?
Manufacturers say the power of the electric vehicles should be similar to their gas-powered cousins. But most aren't muscle cars. The Leaf, for example, has about as much horsepower as Nissan's subcompact brands and tops out at 90 mph.