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Who revived the electric car?

Totally electric cars are now for sale. Unlike hybrids, EV’s use only electricity and can be charged at night, at a reduced price (80% of the battery in 2.5 hours). If electricity comes from clean sources, pollution is 0. We talk about the most interesting models.

The big European and American brands have already bet on the traditional combustion engine, propelled by diesel, gasoline or alternatives like ethanol. A purely electric motor isn’t, at the moment, a priority for the big automakers.

However, new manufacturers are betting on the electric motor by making urban micro-cars (REVA, Going Green, Nice, Zenn, Myers Motors), mid-range cars (Zap, Miles Automotive, Th!nk) high-end sports cars (Tesla Motors, Lightning, Lightspeed) and even industrial vehicles (Cruise Car). The orders are arriving from around the world, with cities like London at the head of the line.

In search of clean tech for the car of the future

As faircompanies explains in the article Beyond the Prius, traditional automakers and new firms are working on a range of technologies, several of them already commercialized and others still promises: hybrid cars, plug-in hybrids (hybrids that can be recharged by the user), electrics, cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells and those propelled by improved diesel and gas technologies and biofuels.

With the exception of motors powered by hydrogen fuel cells- still a promise given the doubts about the production of hydrogen and the elevated cost of the prototypes (related videos: Hydrogen Future, Hydrogen Highways, Under the hood and On the Road)-, the rest of the technologies have already reached the market in several countries, both in the Western world as well as emerging economies.

The electric car, here and now

The debate over climate change and the price of fuel is generating new necessities among consumers, and manufacturers have decided to supply them with new more environmentally-friendly alternatives, beyond the vague promises of the future. For many drivers with the need to move around a city, an electric car with an 80 mile range and 50 mph (80km/hr) maximum speed is very attractive, especially given that the maintenance cost is close to zero.

In California, the Tesla company has become a cult manufacturer by attempting an even more ambitious business model: to make their electric models into exclusive sportscars, with a speed and range to rival any hot rod. It seems that Tesla isn’t doing too badly, given the waiting list of the Roadster model.

Investment in the electric car

Investment trends for North American venture capital in the greentech or cleantech sectors can be seen clearly at conferences like GreenVest, an event in San Francisco which attracted investors betting on sustainable technologies because of one motive: the promising returns of greentech.

At the conference, faircompanies spoke with Canadian venture capitalist Steve Turner from Ventures West (as seen in the video The cleantech explosion) who said his firm had traditionally focused their clean tech investments on fuel cells, but are now trying to broaden out to include things like electric cars. “It’s a theme that we believe is gaining momentum and we believe that there’s going to be opportunities there. And plug-ins is maybe a more nearer term play on the larger electrification of the vehicle.”

Many at the conference, including Steve Turner, agreed that battery investments- an essential component to electric cars- was a very promising sector. Industry veteran Nancy Floyd, who as founder and managing director of Nth Power has been investing in cleantech since 1993, thinks battery investments have nearly unlimited potential. “You’re seeing batteries of course, whoever figures out the energy storage piece will be a billionaire.”

The small car

In Europe, small and efficient cars have been a part of the landscape for decades.

Oozing charm, cars like the Fiat 500 (in the same class as the Biscúter and Seat 600) from Italian neorealist films, the spanish “cochecito” of the movie of the same name by Marco Ferreri, or the small car of Luis García Berlanga’s Plácido, make sense again in 2007. Although now, they won’t be associated with Pyrrhic growth or lack of progress.

It’s the philosophy of the Vespa from Roman Holiday and all that it represents: fuel efficiency, mobility and manoeuvrability in narrow European streets.

The attractive and cinematic image of a Vespa or a small car, like the new Mini Turbodiesel, in any Italian, French or Spanish city- that characterizes a small and efficient car, developed only to reduce fuel consumption and pollution, only attracts, however, a finite number of clients. The SUVs find fans throughout the world, as proven by any statistic.

Are there assassins of electric cars?

The documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? contributed to reopening the debate over the electric car, whose origins reach back to the beginnings of automotive transport. Fuel prices and consciousness about climate change seem to be contributing to revive it.

More than 100 years later, the automobile industry continues selling essentially the same motor, without technological advances allowing the ingenuity of combustion to be set free of fossil fuels.

On August 28th of 2007, The Economist published a ranking with the 10 largest companies in the world according to stock market capital. As a sign of the times in which we’re living, they highlight that three of the companies are Chinese, although no one seems surprised that four of them are petroleum companies: Exxon Mobil (1), PetroChina (4), Royal Dutch Shell (8), and Gazprom (9).

Maybe this point helps to broaden the context of this article and helps us imagine why the combustion motor has remained untouched by innovation and less-polluting, or even innocuous, energy alternatives.

A wind in favor of the electric car

The electric motor, despite being technologically as veteran as its victorious rival, the internal combustion engine, hasn’t raised the interest of the private automobile sector for more than a century. Climate change and the price of gasoline may be about to change the course of history.

What is the debate? The future of engine design and the energy to move it. With a gasoline price that hasn’t dropped below the high established after the beginning of the Iraq war as well as the growing interest of individuals who want to reduce their contribution to global warming, energy efficiency is now a commercially viable option.

The most highly efficient cars in the European market are hybrids (Honda and Toyota); or super compact models with gas or diesel engines (Citröen, Peugeot, Smart, Daihatsu, Chevrolet, Opel, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, Renault).

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prepares an annual Green Vehicle Guide: those models that score best in fuel efficiency as well as low emissions.

However, the EPA, nor most European auto efficiency rankings, don’t take into account an increasingly viable category: electric cars.

Why don’t the big automakers offer electrics?

Several motives have influenced the lack of commercially-available electric cars with price and performance similar to a hybrid or combustion vehicle, according to the experts.

Michael Kanellos, editor of News.com, believes that who killed the electric car was, pure and simply, lack of user demand. “In the past few years, a theory has developed hinging on the notion that oil producers, in cahoots with auto manufacturers, conspired with each other in the mid-’90s to throttle the electric car in its crib. As a result, we’ve all been consigned to environmental doom.”

Kanellos agrees that automotive sector has caused great environmental damage, but he doesn’t share the conspiracy theory proposed by Chris Paine in his documentary. In the opinion of the American technology reporter, one can count various reasons to explain why, in 2007, there is no electric car on the market that is as appealing as the Toyota Prius and other similar low-consuming models:

  • US automakers: according to Kanellos they “are the last bastion of industrial feudalism on the planet”.
  • Japanese manufacturers: they focused their development on hybrid models, even though, inexplicably, they haven’t come up with a response to the EV1 (a vehicle with total electric traction).
  • Hybrids: the successful Prius hit the market in 1997, the same year as the EV1 (GM sold 650 EV1s, while Toyota only sold 323 Prius).
  • In the ’90s, sales of available electric models weren’t spectacular. Neither were the available models.
  • The batteries are difficult to make. “There is no Moore’s Law for batteries that allows them to get cheaper, faster and better at a steady rate over time.”
  • Batteries are also expensive.
  • The auto industry impedes innovation. The development of a new model requires multi-million dollar investments in enormous factories, crash testing, as well as assembling huge supply chains and working with a sales industry that doesn’t respond well to innovation.

Be that as it may, Kanellos assures that electric cars and biodiesel motors will prevail within the next 20 years.

Kevin Cameron wrote in the New York Times that “electric cars are nearly ready, but batteries are less so.”

According to the journalist, automakers try distinct chemical combinations to lengthen life and reduce the cost of electric batteries, although two technologies seem to be predominating:

  • Those driven by a nickel-metal hydride combination. These are the type used in the Toyota Prius.
  • Those using lithium ions, whose technology is used in mobile phone batteries, portable computers and other electronic devices. This type has gained capacity at a rate of 8 to 10% annually, doubling its storage capacity in the past decade.

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries have been used since 1991. They are very light- lithium is the third lightest element-, which allows for an increase in capacity in relation to weight. For the same weight of a traditional lead-acid battery, a lithium-ion battery can deliver four times the power, but its cost has limited its use to concept cars, until now (Tesla Roadster, Elettrica, Th!nk city).

One of the few inconveniences of the technology, that seems as though it will dominate in automation, as it has in computing and electronics, is its durability. However, the Japanese firms and the new Californian manufacturer of electric sports cars, Tesla, promise to increase the duration of the lithium ion battery to 9,000 cycles (that is to say, charges and discharges), equivalent to 20 years of life.

The objective isn’t just for batteries that are powerful and rechargeable to 80% in little time, but that can last 10 years or more.

Kevin Cameron wonders: “Would urban and suburban citizens buy lots of small electric vehicles at a price competitive with economy gasoline-powered cars? Have batteries matured enough to hit such a price point? Or will new emissions solutions make the small turbodiesel our first choice, as in Europe? It all comes down to price.”

The electric car, a commercial unknown

The more efficient versions of the internal combustion engine like the hybrid cars have proven their commercial success. On June 7th of 2007, Toyota announced they had sold 1 million hybrid cars worldwide, 757,600 were the Prius model.

The same thing hasn’t happened with purely electric cars. Until now, only one of the world’s largest companies, General Motors, had decided to commercialize a totally electric model, the EV1, that they sold in the US in the nineties and, without much explanation, disappeared from the corporation’s catalogue very quickly.

The strange behavior of GM with the EV1 model (commercially sold only through leasing offers; later, removed from the highways and crushed) has spawned much speculation, that culminated in 2006 with the documentary Who killed the electric car?

In London, the electric car is what is growing fastest

The rise of the electric car in the capital of Great Britain must be noted. If what is happening in London can be taken as a trend, we shouldn’t forget that electric cars are the fastest growing segment in the congested British capital, as explained by The Economist.

In June of 2003, there were 49 electric cars in London; in March of 2005, 1,278 electrics. Since then, the 2005 figure has more than doubled. Including all the alternative fuel cars, that figure reaches 14,000, while in 2003 there were just 1,800.

Advantages and inconveniences of the electric car

The first electric cars had many of the advantages of the current models:

  • Electric traction motors are very simple and practically don’t emit any polluting particulates when in use.
  • Electric motors can be controlled with precision and have an energy conversion efficiency of 90%.
  • They can be combined with recharging systems through the use of the brake (regenerative braking), like Toyota has put into practice with the Prius.
  • They don’t emit any pollutants nor use energy when they are stopped and they don’t need gears to reach different speeds since acceleration is constant.
  • They vibrate less and are practically silent.

Among the inconveniences are:

  • Although the emissions of an electric car are practically non-existent, they often depend on energy generated from burning fossil fuels to recharge the batteries.
  • If a large portion of private vehicles will need to be connected to household electric grids, it will increase the need to generate and transmit energy, though the majority of the recharges will be done at night.
  • The batteries used by the electric vehicles and hybrids still need to be improved: the objective of the manufacturers is to reduce the cost, weight and size, while improving capacity and reliability.


Here is a list of the main commercial proposals for integrally electric cars.

All the vehicles that appear include batteries that can be recharged at home. All have the autonomy necessary for city travel and several aim to be alternatives to the hybrid or combustion engine cars.

Considering that Chris Paine’s next documentary will be called Who Saved the Electric Car?, let’s look at some of the candidates:

REVA (Revolutionary Electric Vehicle Alternative) GWiz:

  • Description: a compact two door hatchback, 2 seats. Accelerates from 0-40 mph in 7 seconds. Britain’s most popular electric car (driven by actress Kristin Scott Thomas). Soon to be relaunched with a lithium-ion battery.
  • Price: 7,299 pounds (14,000 dollars).
  • Battery range: 80 km (49 miles).
  • Recharge time: 2.5 hours for 80%, 8 hours for 100%.
  • Maximum speed: 80 km/h (49 mph).
  • Available: United Kingdom, Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Norway, Sri Lanka and India. Soon in China, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Nepal, Switzerland and the United States. 

Nice Mega City:

  • Description: the French manufacturer Nice Car Company, specialized in cars that can be driven without a license, has a two seat electric model made from 100% recycled material.
  • Price: 15,000 euros (21,000 dollars).
  • Battery range: 65 km (40 miles).
  • Recharge time: 2.5 hours 80%, 8 hours 100%.
  • Maximum speed: 65 km/h (40 mph).
  • Available: several EU countries.

Tesla Roadster:

  • Description: an exclusive California sportscar that, despite being sold at prohibitive prices, has a waiting list.
  • Price: between 98,000 and 107,000 dollars (70,000 and 80,000 euros).
  • Battery range: 200 miles (322 km).
  • Recharge time: 3.5 hours for 100%.
  • Maximum speed: 130 mph (210 km/h).
  • Available: United States.

Zap X:

  • Description: Zap is now taking reservations for their next electric car, an attractive mid-range touring vehicle designed by Lotus with an aluminum shell, that has received some of the best reviews of the sector. Its specifications are surprising for an electric car. Acceleration is similar to a gasoline or turbodiesel sportscar (from 0 to 100 km/h in 4.8 seconds).
  • Price: 60,000 dollars (39,000 euros).
  • Battery range: 350 miles (560 km).
  • Recharge time: 2-3 hours 80%, 8 hours 100%.
  • Maximum speed: 155 mph (250 km/h).
  • Availability: 2010.

Zap Xebra:

  • Description: cute car with three wheels with spacious interior and conceived of for the city.
  • Price: 10,500 dollars (7,600 euros).
  • Battery range: up to 40 miles (65 km).
  • Recharge time: 2-3 hours for 80%, 6-8 hours for 100%.
  • Maximum speed: 40 mph (65 km/h).
  • Available: United States and Brazil.

Cruise Car Utility:

  • Description: small delivery cars designed to transport merchandise and to cover industrial necessities (trash, logistical transport, pickup truck, etcetera).
  • Price: from 7,500 dollars (5,500 euros), in function of the chosen industrial vehicle.
  • Battery range: 55 miles (90 km).
  • Recharge time: 8 hours.
  • Maximum speed: 25 mph (40 km/h).
  • Available: United States.

Cruise Car Kudo:

  • Description: small light vehicle with sunroof that allows recharging of the battery while the vehicle is in use. The battery can also be connected to a current. Designed to support mobility in universities, hospitals, etc.
  • Price: from 7,000 to 17,000 dollars (5,000 to 12,500 euros).
  • Battery range: 50 miles (80 km).
  • Recharge time: 8 hours.
  • Maximum speed: 25 mph (40 km/h).
  • Available: United States.

Myers Motors NmG:

  • Description: the NmG (no more gas) can be driven in the street, like a convention vehicle, but it is legally registered as a motorcycle (with the accompanying advantages like parking, HOV lane, ferry tolls, etc).
  • Price: 25,500 dollars.
  • Battery range: 30 miles (50 km).
  • Recharge time: 45 minutes for 80%, 4 hours for 100%.
  • Maximum speed: 75 mph (120 km/h).
  • Available: United States.

ZENN (Zero Emission No Noise):

  • Description: the size and shape of the ZENN is similar to a micro car (Volkswagen Lupo), although its maximum velocity is regulated.
  • Price: 12,750 to 16,000 dollars.
  • Battery range: 35 miles (60 km).
  • Recharge time: 4 hours for 80%, 8 hours for 100%.
  • Maximum speed: 40 km/h (25 mph).
  • Available: United States.

AC Propulsion eBox:

  • Description: the eBox from the company AC Propulsion uses the body of a US model, the Scion xB 5 speed, and an integral electric motor. A vehicle with a large interior that is more comfortable than attractive. Tom Hanks bought the first model in February of 2007.
  • Price: 55,000 dollars.
  • Battery range: 120-150 miles.
  • Recharge time: 30 minutes for urban autonomy; 2-5 hours for 100%.
  • Maximum speed: 95 mph (150 km/h).
  • Available: United States.

Th!nk City:

  • Description: 2+2 seater. Car is fully recyclable. First car ever mass-produced in Norway. Successor to original Th!nk (discontinued by Ford in 2004). Tesla will provide lithium-ion batteries.
  • Price: 32,500 dollars (16,600 pounds, 24,500 euros).
  • Battery range: 112 miles (180km).
  • Recharge time: 10 hours.
  • Maximum speed: 62 mph (100km/hour).
  • Available: Norway. Europe and the United States in 2008.


  • Description: Two seat, Italian car. Relatively affordable car with option of lithium-ion battery.
  • Price: 9,950 pounds (lead battery), 12,750 pounds (lithium battery).
  • Battery range: 113 km (70 miles).
  • Recharge time: 5-6 hours (lithium battery), 8 hours (lead battery).
  • Maximum speed: 72 kilometers (45 mph).
  • Available: United Kingdom and parts of Europe.

AEV Kurrent (American Electric Vehicle Company):

  • Description: as a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV), the car is limited to a speed limit of 25 or 35 mph, depending on the state. Costs less than 2 cents per mile to operate.
  • Price: 10,600 dollars.
  • Battery Range: 35-50 miles.
  • Recharge time: 8 hours.
  • Maximum speed: 35 mph.
  • Available: United States.


  • Description: An NEV. Costs 50 cents to fully recharge the battery pack.
  • Price: 18,000 dollars.
  • Battery range: 30 miles (50 km).
  • Recharge time: 11.5 hours.
  • Maximum speed: 25 mph.
  • Available: Canada, United States, United Kingdom.