The electric car gets some muscle

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The electric car is trying to shake its puttering golf-cart image and be reborn as a futuristic high-speed sports vehicle.

With rising gas prices, advances in battery technologies and an aging generation looking for a low-key way to ride around their communities, a host of companies are betting that battery-powered vehicles finally will catch on.

Some car makers are coming out with models they claim can go greater distances on a single battery charge and go much faster than previous versions. Others are adding carlike features such as sunroofs and steel doors to a slower class of battery-powered electric vehicles, hoping drivers will see them as perfect second cars. More states, meanwhile, are now adopting legislation allowing lower-speed electric vehicles on some public roads, though not on highways.

The comeback bid is even extending to movie theaters, where a documentary, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" opened last month. The movie looks for conspiracies behind why electric cars -- specifically General Motors Corp.'s EV1 -- were on the market for such a short time in the late 1990s.

Smaller auto makers are largely behind the current revival. Silicon Valley start-up Tesla Motors Inc. last week began taking orders for its Tesla Roadster, a battery-powered electric sports car ($85,000 to about $110,000) that the company says can go up to approximately 135 miles per hour and run for 250 miles per charge. Similarly, Wrightspeed Inc. is developing a $100,000 electric sports car that it hopes will last 200 miles per charge and run up to about 120 mph. Another start-up, Phoenix Motorcars Inc., plans to begin selling two electric vehicles early next year that it says will be able to go up to 85 mph and last 120 miles per charge.

The resurgence of the battery electric vehicle comes as rising gas prices are spurring many consumers to look for ways to save at the pump, including opting for other new fuel-saving technologies that have hit the market in recent years like hybrid vehicles, which use a combination of gasoline engines and electric motors to boost fuel efficiency.

High gas prices encouraged Charisse James, a 59-year-old retiree in Lincoln, Calif., to buy a low-speed electric-powered vehicle last summer that she uses instead of her Lincoln LS to drive downtown for grocery shopping, eating out, hair appointments and other errands. "It costs pennies just to plug this thing in," says Ms. James, who estimates she now spends about $50 every two weeks to fill up her regular car, versus about $50 weekly before.

Electric-car companies say driving their vehicles, depending on the cost of electricity, can cost anywhere from about a cent to three cents per mile or anywhere from under $1 to just less than $8 for a full charge. Varying by model, the vehicles take from around one hour to eight or more hours to charge and can be plugged into regular electrical outlets.

Among other battery-powered electric vehicles hitting the market that are more like regular cars, transportation-technology company Zap recently began delivering to dealerships its Xebra "city car," a three-wheel, four-door $8,900 electric vehicle that can go up to 40 mph and last up to 40 miles per charge. It's Zap's fastest and longest lasting electric vehicle on the market to date (options available include stereos and leather seats). Miles Automotive Group Ltd. has started selling its two-passenger ZX40 model, an electric car with steel doors and cup holders that can go up to 25 miles per hour and last up to 40 miles per charge. Later next year, the company plans to introduce another model that can go up to 80 mph and last at least 200 miles per charge. DaimlerChrysler AG's Global Electric Motorcars LLC has made more carlike options available for its 2006 models including heated seats and steel bumpers.

The push to develop battery-electric cars dates back to the 19th century and has hit many bumps in the road before. In the late 1990s, a number of auto makers came out with battery-powered electric cars partly in response to a California regulation requiring at least some emission-free electric vehicles on state roads. Instead of fueling the cars up with gas, drivers would generally charge batteries by plugging vehicles into special charging stations. But within a few years, most car companies dropped plans to develop and market the battery-powered electric vehicles for reasons including revisions to California requirements and, car makers say, limited demand among consumers. Low gas prices also helped fuel sales of sport-utility vehicles instead.

Today, the Electric Drive Transportation Association estimates there are between 60,000 and 76,000 low-speed, battery-powered electric vehicles on the road in the U.S., up from about 56,000 in 2004.

Many of the faster models still have to finish being tested and will be available only in limited markets initially. Tesla Motors, for instance, is completing testing to make sure the vehicles meet federal motor vehicle safety standards and plans to begin shipping in mid-2007, in at least California and the Chicago area.

Advances in battery technology are also helping to make a longer-lasting battery-powered electric car more viable than when car makers like GM and Toyota Motor Corp. introduced their electric models about a decade ago. While these earlier car-maker models ran on lead-acid and nickel metal hydride batteries, the newer long-range electric cars entering the market generally run on lithium-ion batteries. Such batteries, the same type used in laptops and cellphones, are lighter and can store more power per charge than older batteries, enabling the vehicles to last for more miles on the road.

Indeed, major car makers are also starting to take another look at battery-powered electric vehicles. While GM says it is focused primarily on developing production vehicles that are powered by electricity generated by hydrogen fuel cells, it is testing new battery technology like lithium-ion batteries to see if it can find a way to get a range of roughly 300 miles per charge or use them in other ways such as for hybrids, according to a GM spokesman. Toyota announced last week that it is developing a plug-in hybrid. The batteries in such a hybrid model could be recharged at an outlet to allow the vehicle to go a certain number of miles before needing to switch over to the gasoline engine.

Besides the focus on coming out with faster and longer-range electric cars, lower-speed electric vehicles that can go up to 25 mph are evolving from golf-cart style vehicles meant for driving around subdivisions and corporate campuses to carlike models that can be used for short trips on some public roads.

In 1998, partly in response to the increasing use of battery-powered electric vehicles as an alternative to conventional golf carts, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration created safety standards covering vehicles, many electric powered, that can go up to 25 mph, classifying them as "low-speed vehicles" and requiring that they be equipped with features including seat belts and turn signals.

A law takes effect in Minnesota on Aug. 1 allowing such vehicles on roads with speed limits of 35 mph or less. Similar legislation took effect in New Jersey and Maryland earlier this year and is pending in Pennsylvania. At least 46 states now allow low-speed electric vehicles on at least some public roads.

Some cities are also encouraging the use of the vehicles on their roads. Belmar, N.J., plans to have low-speed electric vehicles at its boat docks and train station by next summer that people arriving to the city could rent and use to get around town. Lincoln, Calif., similarly, is working on creating lanes on existing roads with speed limits above 35 mph for the low-speed electric vehicles.


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