Eclectic Electrics

Electric car designers, The New York Times reported, "have made great advances in the past few years." That was written in 1911—the same year Thomas Edison announced a battery that could propel a car 60 miles on a three-minute charge. A century later, we're still waiting for Edison's miracle battery, and electric vehicles still cover less ground for more money than their gasoline-powered counterparts.

Progress is finally—really—around the corner. By late next year six major auto manufacturers will be selling plug-in hybrid or all-electric vehicles. General Motors' (GM) Chevy Volt (expected sticker price: $40,000, minus $7,500 in federal tax credits) will run for 40 miles in all-electric mode before a gasoline-powered generator kicks in. Its price is expected to come down over time because GM is reducing shipping costs by moving battery production from South Korea to Michigan, and because of competition. When Nissan's (NSANY) Leaf hatchback goes on sale in December, the four-door, 100-mile-per-charge car will list for around $32,500 before tax credits, making it the most affordable full-size electric vehicle yet. A price war could be just the thing to drive broader EV acceptance.

For now, and until the inevitable consolidation takes hold, the EV market looks a lot like the auto industry in the days before the Model T. Without the economic and engineering constraints of mass production, dozens of small players are coming up with freewheeling designs, from narrow one-seaters made to snake through traffic to a line of, rechargeable, folding vehicles. The cars featured on these pages are just a sampling of the creative industrial design bubbling up from Cambridge to California to Malaysia.

Energy economics still favor internal combustion, and none of these designers can change that. U.S. gasoline prices may need to reach $6 a gallon before plug-in hybrids become cost-effective, according to a 2008 study by Duke University's Center on Global Change. Public charging points are scarce, and 40% of U.S. consumers lack a charging station near their vehicle at home, the Government Accountability Office reported in June 2009. As for arguments about environmental priorities, electric vehicles are only as green as the plants that generate their power. Nearly 70% of electricity in the U.S. grid comes from coal and natural gas, with only 9 percent from renewable sources like hydro, solar, and wind. "Electric cars are the Next Big Thing and always will be," says Robert Bryce, author of Power Hungry: The Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.

Even skeptics like Bryce acknowledge that electric vehicles make more economic sense in urban environments where speeds are low, distances short, and potential charging points plentiful. The case for electric mobility looks even stronger when you consider that half of humanity lives in cities and that urbanization is expected to accelerate in coming decades. Civilization may not declare independence from petroleum this year or next, but with cars like these on the way, electric dreams are sweeter than ever.

SENSIBLE ALTERNATIVES, OUT THIS YEAR

Chevy Volt

Developed by: General Motors
Expected release date: Late 2010
Years in development: 4
Special feature: 40-mile battery range supplemented by onboard gas generator
Number of passengers: 4

Nissan Leaf

Developed by: Nissan
Expected release date: Late 2010
Years in development: 4
Special feature: Laminated lithium-ion battery pack delivers estimated 100-mile range
Number of passengers: 5

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