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Electric cars battle for hearts, wallets

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From page B3 | February 22, 2013 |

Visitors inspect Nissan electric cars on Feb. 8 at a gallery inside Nissan headquarters in Yokohama, Japan.  AP photo

Visitors inspect Nissan electric cars at a gallery inside the headquarters of Nissan Motor Co. in Yokohama, Japan, Friday, Feb. 8, 2013. The Japanese auto maker suffered a 34.6 percent plunge in October-December profit to 54.1 billion yen (US$579 million) as global sales languished, especially in China, where anti-Japanese sentiment flared over a territorial dispute. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

By Carolyn Lochhead

WASHINGTON — Electric cars are at a fork in the road, with oblivion lying in one direction and the mass market in the other. A woeful tale splayed across the pages of the New York Times on Feb. 8 of a dead Tesla electric sedan getting towed in wintry Connecticut did not seem a promising start.

But the firestorm that followed — Tesla founder Elon Musk all but accused the reporter, John Broder, of lying, Broder issued a point-by-point rebuttal, and CNN conducted a redo that vindicated the car — highlighted the battle under way for the hearts and wallets of American drivers.

At stake is $7.5 billion invested by the Obama administration, and billions more by automakers, who will put eight new models of plug-in vehicles on U.S. roads this year, including Ford and BMW. Nissan has invested $5 billion in electric cars and General Motors $1 billion.

Mass adoption of the electric vehicle, or EV in car lingo, is critical, experts said, to controlling greenhouse gas emissions. That means weaning drivers off the gasoline engine.

“There’s no backing off,” said Brendan Jones, director of marketing and sales for the all-electric Nissan Leaf. Nissan has opened a new battery plant in Smyrna, Tenn., where it builds the Leaf.

Elizabeth Ferber just leased her first Leaf for her commute from her home in Albany to her job in San Francisco.

“It takes off like a Porsche,” Ferber said. “It works perfectly. It loves traffic, it loves red lights, and it loves going downhill,” when the battery recharges itself. Ferber said she is saving roughly $150 a month on gasoline, after subtracting the cost of her home charging.

Plus she gets to drive in the high-occupancy-vehicle lane.

Falling short of hopes

U.S. households paid on average almost $3,000 last year for gasoline, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, almost 4 percent of their pretax income.

But sales of the Leaf, the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt and similar cars have fallen far short of expectations, despite a $7,500 federal tax credit and an additional $2,500 rebate in California, with many other states offering similar sweeteners.

That has led some analysts to conclude that the cars will never escape their small niche.

“The Volt is a car that is genuinely fun,” said Timothy Cain, founder of Good Car Bad Car, a website that sifts car sales statistics. “The power is instantaneous. It’s a spectacular feeling, strangely normal and so abnormal at the same time.”

Still, he said, plug-ins were just 0.6 percent of new U.S. car sales last year, “and that was boosted by rebates that aren’t available to buyers of other cars.”

Vast expansion of charging stations, changes in drivers’ mind-sets, battery improvements and lower prices are needed before the cars become mass market, Cain said.

Enthusiasts embrace the new vehicles.

“People become evangelical because electric cars are simply better technology,” said Kirk Brown, the managing director in San Francisco of Plug in America, a nonprofit group of dedicated drivers. “They are more responsive, they have better traction and control. They feel safer, and in fact they are.”

Drivers who have made the leap to electric seem to love the cars. The Volt ranks higher than any other car in customer satisfaction, according to Consumer Reports, and is outselling half of other car models, including the Mercedes S class and several Audis.

General Motors thinks the market is so promising that it is introducing a Cadillac extended-range plug-in, which like the Volt will have a gas-powered generator to charge the battery when it gets low, as well as an all-electric vehicle called the Spark, said Shad Balch, General Motors’ spokesman for environment and energy.

State tries to be leader

California, where the car is king but the governor is green, intends to become the nation’s showcase for a revolution in automobile travel. Gov. Jerry Brown joined United Parcel Service this month to introduce 100 all-electric brown trucks for the delivery service, made by Stockton manufacturer Electric Vehicle International.

The venture is part of the state’s “Zero Emission Vehicle Action Plan” issued this month calling for 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on California roads in 12 years. Transportation accounts for 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Electrification of cars and trucks is “imperative” to meeting the state’s ambitious climate change targets, the plan said.

Detractors note that Thomas Edison himself gave up on the electric car a century ago because of the same problems – weight, expense and lack of range – that still plague batteries.

Plus there is political hostility from conservatives who don’t like the subsidies and the Obama administration’s embrace.

Automakers are offering discounted leases. States and cities are adding rebates, access to HOV lanes, free city parking and fee discounts. With federal and state rebates, the Leaf can sell for as low as $18,800, Jones said.

Pennan Barry, who commutes from San Francisco to Richmond, devised a spreadsheet that showed he is driving a new Leaf for the almost same cost as his old 1996 Subaru, with a lease of less than $200 per month, gasoline savings of $160 per month, and discounted tolls on the Bay Bridge.

“I wouldn’t have done it if the math hadn’t worked out,” Barry said. Still, he said, the car “is quite fun to drive.”

Charging limitations

Jesse Toprak, an analyst for TrueCar, an automotive website, said charging limitations will nonetheless hold down all-electric sales. Homeowners can charge in their garage, but young people who live in apartment buildings often can’t. “That’s a huge problem,” Toprak said. “That eliminates a big chunk of your potential customers right there.”

San Francisco, which wants to become the electric car capital of the world, is conducting a demonstration program to install 90 chargers in 35 apartment buildings to see whether that helps induce wider adoption.

Forrest North, founder and chief executive of Xatori, a Menlo Park company that runs the PlugShare smartphone app to help electric car drivers locate charging stations all over the country, said electric cars have passed a critical threshold.

“Plug-in vehicles have crossed over the point of being an economic no-brainer in the last few months,” he said. “The public perception is behind reality by maybe six months to a year.”

North said he drove his Leaf for two years, about 1,000 miles a month. “I have not taken it in for a single service in those two years,” he said. “You can fit the entire cost of ownership, lease, service and fuel into the fuel bill of any other normal car.”

Battery technology is poised for big gains, and that inertia is holding back broader acceptance, North said.

Nissan’s Jones said automakers must find an alternative to the gasoline engine. Global auto sales are expected to rise 55 percent in 12 years, he said, making gasoline prohibitively expensive.

“All manufacturers better have alternative vehicle platforms that are viable,” Jones said. “And what’s more viable than no gas?”

— Reach Carolyn Lochhead at clochhead@sfchronicle.com

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