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Electric cars coming soon to a road near you

Dec 26, 2008 - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News - Matt Nauman - San Jose Mercury News

Tom Gage is a patient man. As chief executive of AC Propulsion, he's watched the ebb and flow of electric-car momentum for more than a decade.

There was the California Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate, and Chris Paine's documentary, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" There were electrics from General Motors, Honda, Toyota and others, and then they mostly disappeared.

Now, with fresh concerns about global warming and everyone from Silicon Valley's Tesla Motors to big automakers like GM and Toyota talking about the electrification of automobiles, Gage, who lives in Sunnyvale, is optimistic.

AC Propulsion, which is based in San Dimas, in Southern California, inked a huge deal with BMW this year to produce lithium-ion battery packs and powertrains for 450 Mini Coopers, BMW's small-car brand. Those vehicles, to be called the Mini E, will be leased for 12 months to people who live in or near New York City and Los Angeles in early 2009.

"This is a big step for electric vehicles," Gage said.

The cars will rent for $850 a month.

For BMW, the Mini E represents a chance to get real-world experience with electric vehicles, said spokeswoman Nathalie Bauters of Mini USA. The German automaker figured its Mini, which gets 37 miles per gallon from its gasoline engine, would be a perfect platform for the experiment, she said.

More than 10,000 "hand-raisers" have expressed interest in the vehicle, she said, and since BMW began taking online applications in November, more than 1,800 have applied to lease it. The deadline was Dec. 24, and the automaker will make decisions early in 2009.

Most Mini E drivers will be able to travel 110 to 120 miles on a single charge, the company says. Due to the large battery pack consuming back-seat room, the Mini E became a two-seater.

After a year of feedback, BMW will take back the Mini Es and decide whether to move to mass production of electric Minis or BMWs.

Whatever BMW decides, AC Propulsion will continue with another project, making its eBox. That car is a converted Scion xB with the engine and gas tank removed and batteries and electric motors installed.

The conversion costs $55,000, which might explain why only 12 have been made so far. (Buyers also have to buy a gasoline Scion xB, which costs $14,000 to $15,000.)

Still, owners have been very happy, Gage said. Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks owns one, and drives it frequently, getting more than 100 miles per charge, according to an interview on Current TV. Other eBoxes are operating in France, Florida and British Columbia, and are being used and tested by the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto and the University of Delaware.

VantagePoint Venture Partners in San Bruno has funded both Tesla and Better Place, a Palo Alto company with plans to build electric-vehicle charging ports around the world. Alan Salzman, the firm's managing director, predicts 2009 will be a big year for electric cars.

"The ball that got seriously bouncing courtesy of Tesla is going to bounce higher in 2009," Salzman said, forecasting that several major car companies would announce "real, near-term plans to produce pure electric cars in volume."

Gage believes that every auto company will produce an electric car by the middle of next decade. "Electricity gives you transportation without petroleum," he said. "In my view, it's going to happen. It has to happen." AT A GLANCE:


--What: Electric cars use battery packs, electric motors and sophisticated software to travel while emitting no pollution.

--Why now: The electrification of vehicles, whether pure electrics or plug-in hybrids, has gained traction as the world tries to move away from gasoline cars.

--Major players: Tesla, Fisker, AC Propulsion, General Motors, Toyota, Renault-Nissan, Chrysler, BMW/Mini. Plus battery suppliers, and Palo Alto's Better Place, which is building an electric-car infrastructure in Israel, Hawaii, the Bay Area and elsewhere. -Challenges: Batteries still need improved performance, increased supply and lower prices. Infrastructure largely nonexistent.


--What: 5-seat electric vehicle based on the Scion xB

--How much: About $15,000 for the car, and $55,000 for the conversion.

--0-60 mph: 7.0 seconds

--Top speed: 102 mph

--Range: 120 to 150 miles

--More information: www.acpropulsion.com

Source: AC Propulsion ABOUT THE MINI E:

--What: Electric version of the Mini Cooper

--How much: $850-a-month lease includes installation of home-charging unit

--When: Early 2009

--Where: Available only in Southern California and New York/New Jersey

--Specs: 0-62 mph in 8.5 seconds, top speed of 95 mph --Charging time: From three hours with a 240-volt, 48-amp outlet to 26.5 hours on a 110-volt, 12-amp outlet

Source: Mini USA