Friday, October 31, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

Electric cars battle for hearts, wallets

By
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

Comments

comments

San Francisco Chronicle

  • Recent Posts

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this newspaper and receive notifications of new articles by email.

  • .

    News

    Gardner guilty of murder, with special circumstances

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A1 | Gallery

     
    State superintendent makes campaign stop in Davis

    By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A1 | Gallery

     
    Bob Dunning: Lawn display causes a theological crisis

    By Bob Dunning | From Page: A2 | Gallery

    Couple killed in Yolo County crash

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A2

     
    Same-party races challenge incumbents

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

    State races test one-party rule

    By New York Times News Service | From Page: A2

     
    Meet Poppenga at Saturday reception

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A2

     
    Indians celebrate Diwali with gala on Sunday

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3

    Rairdan dinged for late report

    By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A3

     
    Veterans will tailgate at ‘Salute to Heroes’ game

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    Wolk hailed for environmental votes

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

     
    Yamada honored for leadership on aging issues

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    Embroidery group meets at mall

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

     
    Local artisans featured at holiday craft fair

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    Got bikes? Donate ‘em!

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

     
    Kids walk for friends at Birch Lane

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

    Explorit: Creep out with some spooky science

    By Lisa Justice | From Page: A4

     
    Shambhala offers Tai Chi class

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

    Bones for Life classes offered

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

     
    Bet Haverim will hear Israel update

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

    Enjoy wine, music and art at Sunday fundraiser for DHS choir

    By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A9

     
    .

    Forum

    New-school cheating on the smartphone

    By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B5

     
    Garamendi, Dodd get my votes

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A10

    Tom Meyer cartoon

    By Debbie Davis | From Page: A10

     
    High hopes for Sunder

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A10

    Public service is in her heart

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A10

     
    A calm, thoughtful voice

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A10

    Sunder is a perfect fit

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A10

     
    Best predictor is past behavior

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A10

    Vote for students, with Tuck

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A10

     
    My choices on Tuesday

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A10

     
    .

    Sports

    Blue Devil girls net an easy win at Grant

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1 | Gallery

     
    Aggie offense A-OK; now what about defense?

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    In Davis, rugby is as American as apple pie

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1

     
    DHS plays undefeated Pacers Friday night

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

     
     
    Niemi’s 43 saves aren’t enough in loss to Wild

    By The Associated Press | From Page: B8 | Gallery

    .

    Features

    .

    Arts

    Calling all artists for upcoming show

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

     
    ‘Birdman': A dark comedy that soars

    By Derrick Bang | From Page: A11

     
    DHS Madrigals host singing workshop

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A12

     
    Marcia Ball to play at The Palms

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A12 | Gallery

     
    .

    Business

    Big, capable luxury defines Yukon

    By Ann M. Job | From Page: A5 | Gallery

     
    .

    Obituaries

    Joseph Francis Gray

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

     
    .

    Comics

    Comics: Friday, October 31, 2014

    By Creator | From Page: B6

     
    .

    Real Estate Review

    Featured Listing

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER1

    Professional Services Directory

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER2

    Lyon Real Estate

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER3

    RE/Max Gold

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER4

    Kim Eichorn

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER5

    Susan von Geldern

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER6

    Team Traverso

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER6

    Yolo FCU

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER6

    Juan Ramirez

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER6

    Tracy Harris

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER7

    Susan von Geldern

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER7

    Wells Fargo Home Mortgage

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER8

    Julie Leonard

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER8

    Joe Kaplan

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER9

    Melrina A Maggiora

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER9

    Coldwell Banker

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER10

    Leslie Blevins

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER12

    Julie Partain

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER12

    Robin Garland

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER13

    Jamie Madison

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER13

    Diane Lardelli

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER13

    Karen Waggoner

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER14

    Jamie Madison & Associates

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER14

    Lisa Haass

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER14

    Ciana Wallace

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER15

    Travis Credit Union

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER16

    Malek Baroody

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER17

    Marcelo Campos

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER18

    F1rst Street Real Estate

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: RER20