Monday, July 26, 2010

More roadside chargers needed for electric cars

NEW YORK — The auto industry calls it range anxiety: Drivers want electric cars but worry they won't have enough juice to make long trips. After all, what good is going green if you get stranded with a dead battery?
It's a fear that automakers must overcome as they push to sell more battery-powered cars. So government and business are taking steps to reassure drivers by building up the nation's network of electric charging stations.

The hope is Americans will become more comfortable buying cars such as Nissan's all-electric Leaf, due out late this year, which can travel just 100 miles on a single charge. That's fine for a commute but potentially stressful for longer road trips.

"I think the Leaf is a beautifully designed vehicle, but 50 miles in one direction is just not enough," said Bob Shafron, a former electric car owner in California. "I think they are going to run into problems in markets like L.A., where things are spread out."

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While automakers and electric car advocates expect most charging to be done at home outlets, those won't help drivers running low on power far from their garages or caught in traffic.

Only a few hundred public chargers exist now, but government grants totaling more than $115 million will help add thousands more, including in San Diego, Detroit and Washington.

Electric vehicle advocates hope more will be built by private retailers and restaurants, using the charging stations to draw customers.

Public and privately funded chargers are going up in places like rest stops, hotels, McDonald's and Starbucks. Still, even the rosiest estimates put the number of public charging stations at 16,000 by 2012, compared with 117,000 gas stations on American roads.

Which comes first?

President Barack Obama wants 1 million electric cars on American roads by 2015, but experts say a chicken-and-egg problem is standing in the way. Before enough cars hit the road, private vendors may be reluctant to build many charging stations. And without many charging stations on the road, people may be reluctant to buy the cars.

Most public stations will take eight hours to juice up a car all the way, about the same as home chargers. These plugs could work for people who have chargers near their offices, but wouldn't work for quick refueling. Even a partial charge will take a while — 2½ hours to get 30 miles. A limited number of the chargers will be fast chargers, which will still take 30 minutes for a full power-up.

In 1999, Shafron ran out of power as he was driving his EV1, the all-electric car that General Motors launched in the 1990s and later stopped making. His range meter had told him he had 20 miles left.

Difficulty in gauging remaining charge was an issue with the EV1. Varying road conditions made the range of early electric cars tough to predict. Carmakers say today's range meters are much more accurate.

Whether or not the infrastructure is ready, 146,000 electric cars are expected on the road by the end of 2012.

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