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Washington Watch

Better World Plugs "Who Killed Electric Cars" Film and Now Electric Cars Make Comeback

OK, We're Plugging It Again, So Who Knows What Might Happen

From reports by USA Today and Kicking Asphalt

The major auto manufacturers may not be paying attention, but several small, independent automakers are producing electric cars amid renewed concern about global warming and dependence on imported oil.

Observers say the varied assortment of vehicles in the new electric-power generation from racing-style cars to around-town jalopies have a shot at success if they can create some excitement.

"There's no question" that success is within reach, says Dick Messer, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, which has chronicled the attempts at electric car production through the years. "Nobody has connected the dots."

The winner will be the company that ties together the finances, engineering, battery range and other assorted technical features to make a sustainable business, Messer adds.

Among the companies trying to lead the charge:

•Tesla. The car was designed in California's Silicon Valley, but will be built by Lotus in Great Britain, which is basing it on its two-seat Elise model.

The company says its sophisticated lithium-ion battery will allow a range of 250 miles on a single charge and a top speed of 130 mph.

Tesla is largely bankrolled by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, who says he kicked in about half the $60 million capitalization, so far. Musk, Tesla's chairman, also has a rocket company called SpaceX.

By producing expensive cars in a small quantity to start, the company hopes to bankroll future production of more-affordable, mass-produced electric cars. Musk compares next-generation electric cars with the personal computer industry in its infant stage in the early 1970s.

"Our goal is to become one of the great car companies of the 21st century," producing a car that's competitive against Porsche and Ferrari. And "by the way," Musk adds, "it's electric."

•Wrightspeed. Another Silicon-Valley-based start-up hopes to produce its own, $100,000 high-performance car within two years. It will have about a 200-mile range.

Ian Wright, who heads Wrightspeed, is a former computer-industry engineer and amateur racer. He says electric cars promise "extreme performance" through advanced electronics and software.

He says the new breed of electric cars could have three times the energy efficiency of gas-electric hybrids.

"You can build something that's seriously fast and a lot of fun to drive," he says. "We're building different cars aimed at different people."

•Zap. At the other end of the performance spectrum, specialized-auto importer Zap last month started selling a three-wheel electric "city car" imported from China that it says is capable of a top speed of 40 mph.

Priced at $9,000, the Xebra has a range of about 40 miles using a conventional lead-acid battery. So far, it's being delivered to five dealers on the West Coast and Florida.

Xebra seats four and even has four doors although it is classified by regulators as a motorcycle because of its three wheels. It comes in four colors, including a zebra-striped version.

•Tomberlin Group. An Augusta, Ga.-based company plans to sell three versions of electric cars.

The E-Merge E-2, a two-passenger car, is expected to be on sale early fall, followed by E-Merge E-4, a four passenger, and Anvil early next year. Prices will range from $5,000 for E-Merge E-2 to $8,000 for the four-seat Anvil.

Anvil's speed will be limited to 25 miles an hour, and because of that, it must be driven on streets with speed limits less than 35 mph. But "it handles like a Corvette," says Tomberlin Vice President David Hamilton. "It pulls a corner that will blow your mind."

Marketed as an "aggressive neighborhood vehicle," Anvil will go about 50 miles between charges. It will be sold through a network of about 450 dealers, Hamilton says.

Readers's of KA, know that the bad guy in "Who Killed the Electric Car" is General Motors. USA Today reports that GM is fighting back. GM has bought a paid-search link on Google.com that shows up whenever the name of the movie or one its stars is typed into the search engine. The blog item says the EV1 was a commercial flop and that its engineering advances are being incorporated into GM's next wave of hybrid and other advanced vehicles.

Buyers were passionate, "but there were never enough of them," GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss said in an interview.

"They were forced to make too many tradeoffs" in convenience and range.

So far, major automakers are showing limited interest in a new round of electric cars. DaimlerChrysler has a fleet of vans converted to run on electricity.

As reported in the June Kicking Asphalt, Toyota is pursuing a plug-in hybrid, which can be charged overnight to extend the range of the electric motor part of its gas/electric powertrain.

But Micky Bly, engineering director of GM's hybrid programs, says the lithium-ion batteries required by the plug-ins drive up costs, making them difficult to market.

For the most part, automakers are showing more interest in other gas-saving technologies, such as ethanol and fuel cells.

Still, Alexandra Paul, a former Baywatch star who has become an electric-car activist, says performance electrics will change minds, blowing the notion "to smithereens that an electric car is pokey or doesn't have range."