March 1, 2013

Electric cars playing catch-up to hybrid cousins

You see hybrids all over, with U.S. sales exceeding 2.5 million, but all-electric plug-ins are having a tougher go. Still, as one owner says, someone has to be first.

Last fall, Andrew Frey, a local apartment developer with an interest in sustainable building, made the decision to look for a new car. The hybrid he’d been driving was not coming close to the mileage he anticipated and he had a new baby boy. So he set himself a goal.

“I was going to the cutting edge,” he said. “Nobody out there could say they had a more fuel efficient car than me.”

Then he did what many of us to do when we need to answer a pressing question. He Googled it.

What he found was the Ford Focus Electric, which requires absolutely no fuel, and averages the highest ever city mileage for a five-passenger electric car. While the Chevrolet Volt, the Toyota Prius plug-in and the Nissan Leaf have far outsold the Focus, introduced just last year, the Focus has improved electric technology, the new darling of efficiency, prompting critics to sing its praises and give it high ratings.

Frey tracked down the only local dealer authorized at the time to sell it, Metro Ford in Miami, and in October he became the proud first buyer at a South Florida dealership. Last month, after installing a charging station at his Coconut Grove house and impatiently waiting when Ford decided to pull his car from the line to ensure everything was working perfectly, Frey’s zippy black Focus arrived.

And so far, so good. With a range of 76 miles per charge, he’s been able to go everywhere he needs to go by simply plugging in his car overnight. His electric bill rose, but only by 20 percent, he said. He forgot to plug in the car one night, but had enough charge on the car’s battery to take care of business the next day.

“You get comfortable with what your parameters are. And it’s not a bad thing,” he said. “It’s nice to be conscious of your energy consumption, i you care about things like that.”

Fourteen years ago Honda introduced the first mass-produced hybrid in the United States, followed a year later by the Toyota Prius, the first four-door sedan. In the years that followed, the demand for hybrids has been clear, with sales in the United States exceeding 2.5 million vehicles. But all-electric plug-ins are having a tougher go.

Over the years, the technology centered in Europe, with Fiat, Citroen, Volkswagen and even a Russian car company selling plug-in cars. The Netherlands is now developing a national grid of charging stations to bolster electric vehicle use.

But in the United States, progress has been slower. General Motors and Toyota made electric vehicles available as early as the mid 1990s, but for leasing only. In March 2008, Tesla launched its Roadster, but at a prohibitively expensive cost of $109,500. Still, nearly 2,500 of the cars sold and Tesla became an innovator in technology. At this year’s Detroit auto shows, it unveiled a model that can travel almost 300 miles on a fully charged battery.

It wasn’t until December 2010, that the United States saw more reasonably priced, highway capable vehicles when Nissan and General Motors launched their Leaf and Volt. Ford rolled out its first electric Focus in California in May.

While just over 50,000 of the vehicles sold in the United States last year, that is triple the number from the year before. And automakers say they are committed to the technology despite sluggish sales. General Motors announced plans at the January auto shows to begin producing an upscale version of the plug-in Volt in the form of the Cadillac ELR. Nissan, meanwhile is stripping down a version of the Leaf to offer a cheaper base model. In the next two years, BMW will begin selling its i3, followed by a Mercedes B-Class and models from Volkswagen and Audi.

Because electric plug-ins are powered without any liquid fuel, they produce no emissions. Critics have argued that the calculations done to determine fuel efficiency are based on the notion that power plants are operating with total efficiency, and are therefore inaccurate. But a 2012 study cited by Congress’s bipartisan Environmental and Energy Study Institute found that “even plug-in vehicles running on electricity from the ‘dirtiest coal-powered electric grids … produce far less greenhouse gas emissions than the average gasoline-powered vehicle.”

So while it is a safe bet that the electric car is the cleanest, why is it still the least popular?

“It’s in its infancy,” said Lomby Perez, vice president and general manager at Metro Ford. “Customers have to learn about the production.

And there have to be trendsetters, people like Frey, who know the technology and get into it.”

Ford is proceeding cautiously and ramping up slowly in phases, he said. Sales started in California, Washington, D.C., and the Northeast where green drivers are more numerous in May, he said. Florida came next with electrics slated to reach the middle of the country last.

“We’re getting about one a month,” he said. Still, interest is keen. The second car Metro received for its dealership inventory sold in just three days.

“I don’t think electric vehicles are for everybody, for individuals who are on the road all day. But if you have short commutes, like 50 or 60 miles, this vehicle will do it and gas free.”

Indeed, while Edmonds gave the Focus rave reviews for cutting charging times in half, extending mileage and handling and feeling like a fuel car, it conceded, “The Focus EV remains a home-bound runabout because the reality of range cannot be ignored.”

That “reality of range,” is what electric car drivers call range anxiety.

And that may be the biggest impediment to the growth of all-electric vehicles. With little infrastructure in place to charge cars, most drivers charge at home and have to calculate how far they can go. Stop-and-go city driving works well for electrics, which have breaks that recharge the battery. But highway driving can sap it faster than you can say where’s the next exit. And cold weather can decrease mileage even more.

Electric cars can plug into an ordinary 110-volt outlet and recharge in eight to 14 hours. But most buyers opt to install a 240-volt charging station (designed specifically for the car. To charge as quickly as it does, the Focus must be connected to a 40-amp service.

California, on the forward edge, has more than 100 charging stations registered with the Car Charging Group within 50 miles of Los Angeles.

But in South Florida, the group lists only 16 between Miami and West Palm Beach. And, another mapping site, lists only six.

Nationwide, there are only 12,000 public charging stations, according to J.D. Power. By comparison, there are an estimated 105,000 gas stations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To remedy that problem, most electric car makers have created Apps to update drivers on their car’s charge. (The same Apps can be used to find charging stations.) Frey set his App to sound an alarm every night to remind him to plug in his car. Ford also included a portable charger in the trunk for emergencies.

Part of Frey’s odyssey in getting his Focus was installing the charging station in his carport. Metro Ford has signed a deal with Best Buy’s Geek Squad to handle the installation. Best Buy in turn subcontracted with Mr. Electric of the Palm Beaches. Curt Perry, Mr. Electric’s director of business development, said the biggest delay is in pulling permits.

Some cities allow electricians to apply and obtain the permit on the same day. Other governments, he said, can take three to four weeks.

“The more times you work with a particular municipality, the easier it gets,” he said.

While he had installed chargers for Fiskers (which has since halted production), Frey’s was his first Focus, he said. So far, he’s installed about 15 electric car chargers between Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County, he said. Typically his electricians can finish a job in three hours, with the cost averaging about $2,000. The chargers, he said, are universal so will work on any car, no matter the make.

Another hitch may be the car’s expense. Electric cars are typically higher. The Focus lists at $39,500 and comes with a $7,500 federal tax refund. Charging stations are also eligible for a 30 percent tax credit up to $1,000. And in some states, including California, Oregon, Utah and Colorado, there are additional state tax breaks.

“I assume I’m overpaying for the car, but I’m OK with that,” Frey said. “Somebody’s got to be the first one to buy it. You can’t get economies of scale without the first people adopting the technology.”

For Frey, owning the car is as much an adventure as a necessity.

“Do I call electrical engineer now instead of my mechanic?” he joked.

Joking aside, Frey said he was willing to shoulder the inconveniences if it means driving a greener car.

“I value the future of our planet and I don’t like causing pollution any more than I have to. I think every ecosystem is fragile and delicate and if I want my kids and grandkids to grow up in the beautiful nature we have in South Florida, we have to minimize pollution.”

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