Last Updated: Friday, 10 August 2007, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
The electric car's high-end revival
Dan Simmons
By Dan Simmons
Reporter, BBC Click

With the problems of global warming most of us want to be cleaner and greener. So you would think the electric car, with no carbon emissions, would be a hit in Silicon Valley. In fact it has been a disaster, but the dream is not dead.

An EV1 at a charging station
General Motors abandoned the EV1 but is making electric cars again

Electric cars and trams are not new. They were very popular 100 years ago until petrol took over.

But apart from the occasional concept car it was not until 1996 that a major manufacturer started producing them in the US when General Motors (GM) unveiled the EV1.

Other manufacturers had to come up with their own non-polluting electric vehicles because of a Californian law to help reduce smog.

Wally Rippel, research engineer on the EV1, said: "The EV1 was a leap of faith. We were doing something very new, something that was in many ways scary.

"There were some at GM who were very enthused and some who were dubious."

But when the law was challenged and then watered down, GM demanded the leased vehicles be returned. Almost all of them were crushed.

The car companies blamed the technology and lack of interest. Critics said they wanted to kill it off to protect profits from petrol.

New climate

But now oil prices have tripled, people are worried about climate change, and hybrid cars, part electric and part petrol, are starting to make an impact.

The waiting list for a Tesla is already a year long

But they still have emissions; they are still dependent on oil. So whatever happened to the all-electric car?

One small Silicon Valley start-up is finally putting some fizz into electrics.

The Tesla Roadster has a good pedigree. Its ultra-light carbon-fibre body is designed by Lotus, based on the Elise. And thanks to new battery technology it can go three times as far as the EV1.

"The technology has evolved a great deal," said Mr Rippel. "When we did the EV1 all we had to work with were lead acid batteries. Now we have lithium batteries, and they are evolving and getting better with time."

The car is powered by ordinary lithium ion batteries, exactly the same kind you would find in laptops or smart phones. However, it needs 7,000 of them, all put into a large battery case, which makes up a third of the car's total weight.

The Roadster is incredibly simple. It has 12 moving parts. It needs no oil change, filters, spark plugs or clutch. Plug it in overnight and you are ready to go again in the morning.

Electric engines do not wind up the power like combustion engines do. You get 100% of the torque from the second you touch the pedal. For the Roadster that means 0 to 60mph (100km/h) in four seconds.

Inside, the car has been stripped down to bare essentials. Two gears take you from 0 to 65 and then on to 130mph (210km/h).

There is good and bad news for your wallet. On the good side the electricity costs about two cents per mile. That's about a tenth of the cost of petrol in the US, and one twentieth in Europe.

But the super savings from this supercar come with a super price tag - $98,000 (49,000).

The downside

Also, the electricity needed to charge the car is produced by burning oil or coal and is not green.

The X1 goes from 0-60 in three seconds

"It's still much easier to clean up the emissions at the energy plant than it is out of the tailpipe of a car," said David Vespremi, Tesla Motors. "That's one reason our car is cleaner."

"The other is that the car is better at using the energy that you feed it. More than 80% of the energy that you put into the car actually powers it down the road. That's compared to an efficiency range of about 20% for most combustion engine cars."

The first of these electric supercars are expected to roll off the production line in the first quarter of 2008.

There is already a year-long waiting list. Tesla has plans for a cheaper four-door family saloon in 2009.

Sports performance

Another car on the horizon is the X1, a concept car that Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ian Wright is using to raise eyebrows and money to build a proper sports car.

The X1 goes from 0 to 60 in the time it takes to say 0 to 60.

"I've had beautiful women walk up to me in the street and want to know all about my car. That's never happened to me in my life before," revealed Mr Wright.

"The traditional image of electric cars is that they are heavy, ugly and slow and you would not want to be seen dead in one.

"That does not have to be true. You can make beautiful, interesting and very fast electric cars."

Like Tesla, Mr Wright sees the pure electric car market for now as a top-end concern.

Because battery power now delivers top-end performance and because the rich may also want to save the planet.

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