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Electric cars ready to go mainstream

It can travel from zero to 100 km/h in 3.2 seconds. An amazing 320 km/h is its top speed.

These are the tech specs of Porsche’s latest 918 Spyder prototype unveiled at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show. With a silver streamlined body and a convertible overhead, the seats are placed so low between the front and rear wheels that the driver’s bum almost touched the ground.

It’s not only the fastest sports car Porsche has ever built, it can even go stealth – if you switch to the noiseless “E-drive mode” to use pure electricity as the car’s only source of propulsion power.

Love it or hate it, the hybrid-driven 918 Spyder comes fitted with a power plug next to its fuel tank. In the same motor show Ferrari and Lotus also displayed its own top-of-the-end hybrid concept cars – the Lotus Evora 414E and Ferrari 599.

Tesla launched the pure electricity powered Roaster two years ago targeting the mid-market, while at the Frankfort Motor Show a few months earlier Nissan demonstrated a cheaper electric model LEAF due to launch in Q4 2010.

Electric cars – pure or hybrid – seem poised to challenge the domination of internal combustion engines in every car market segment.

The struggle to become mainstream

Picture yourself standing at the city’s busiest traffic intersection, cars silently glide through the streets and the howling of combustion engines is nowhere to be heard. You raise your head to inhale a lungful of unpolluted air, and the sky is crystal clear.

Surprising as it may sound, this was how it was like over 110 years ago in the New York City, USA. In 1897, a fleet of electric taxis built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia dominated the streets of downtown New York. Back then, the electric car was the mainstream.

But its heydays ended when technology breakthroughs in the internal combustion engine increased petrol-driven car’s speed and range to double that of the early electric car. Meanwhile companies like Ford Motor Company implemented standardised manufacturing systems (known today as Fordism) that reduced the cost of petro-driven cars to half that of an electric car. The competition became no match.

It wasn’t until Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth sparked the global race for a clean energy solution that electric vehicles – alongside other alternative energy solutions like solar and hydrogen – reclaimed global attention in universities and manufacturers’ research labs.

In the MIT Lab, the latest developments in lithium-air battery aim to increase battery life by three to ten times in the next few years. China recently announced a subsidy programme of 60,000 Yuan (AU$10,700) for buyers of pure electric cars and 50,000 Yuan (AU$8,900) for hybrids. The UK government had also announced a £250m subsidy plan to promote low carbon transport over the next five years.

Better Place, an ambitious, venture capital backed company, is building electric car infrastructures targeting major cities around the world. The idea is simple yet constitutes a radical departure from conventional wisdom – instead of stretching the technological limits of a battery’s life, Better Place is constructing a network of battery swap stations that will allow electric cars to replace its depleted battery for a new one in less than 60 seconds. The company currently has active operations in Australia, Japan, Israel, Denmark and the United States.

Last month, taxi passengers in Tokyo may have noticed a strange quietness if they were lucky to catch one of the city’s battery-powered Nissan Rogues. It was part of Better Place’s project in partnership with Nihon Kotsu, Tokyo’s largest taxi operator, to test out the effectiveness of its battery swap stations in a nearly around-the-clock service for a 90-day period.

In Australia, Better Place is rolling out its first network in Canberra.

“We aim to start construction on our charge spots and battery swap stations in 2011 and start supporting customers in 2012” said Australia CEO Evan Thornley, who in 2008 famously quit his role as Victorian Parliamentary Secretary the night before he was expected to be promoted, and took up the top job at Better Place.

By as early as 2013, Better Place aims to link Australia’s east coast cities with battery swap stations dotted along the highway.

And the money is pouring in. Better Place Australia has so far received capital injections from Lend Lease Ventures, ActewAGL, Royal Automobile Club of Australia (RACV) and a group of private investors totalling $27 million. This is in addition to a $350 million Series B investment to its global operation from an investor consortium led by HSBC Group last year.

With money, research, leadership, government, manufacturer, infrastructure, attention and demand all coming to one place, is electric car really going to be the killer app to end climate change?

Zero emission or a hollow delusion?

It’s true that electric cars don’t puff out any smoke on the road, but the “zero emission” status often claimed by electric car proponents can be misleading. Unlike petroleum, electricity is an energy carrier, not an energy source.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates that in Australia 84% of electricity is generated by burning black and brown coal. It is the largest source of greenhouse emission in Australia, pumping 170 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere every year. Contrary to good intention, if our cars start simultaneously sucking electricity from the same power grid, the amount of CO2 emission will only increase (and dramatically).

The counter argument is that electric cars will free our transportation system from its sole dependency on oil. Once the uptake for electric cars reaches a critical mass, consumers and electricity distributors will have the market power to negotiate for cleaner energy source, such as hydro and wind power.

Some electricity companies in Australia are already offering optional clean energy packages and carbon offset programmes. Collectively, consumers are slowly steering the electricity industry in Australia towards an environmentally friendlier one.

If nothing else, the flexibility to switch energy sources without having to purchase new car models will make it economical for us to embrace the carbon neutral alternative when, not if, it happens.