Electric cars: they’re coming, but don’t hold your breath

If you want an electric car, 2011 just might be your year, though you’re going to have to really, really want one.In upcoming months, General Motors will be selling about 10,000 mostly electric Volt cars in several states, but New Hampshire isn’t one. Dan Schofield of MacMulkin Chevrolet in Nashua said he hopes to have some next year.As for Nissan, it will be selling a smaller number of entirely electric Leaf cars in several Western states, with no arrival date set for New England.So I’m afraid your desire for an electron-powered car from a major auto manufacturer will require a hefty road trip.Meanwhile, the only electric car dealer in the state is moving from Hudson to Massachusetts.The New England dealer of Wheego, a Chinese-American Smart car look-alike, is preparing the shift as it readies for the company’s first highway-legal model.The company has taken “four or five orders” for the two-seater LiFe car, which will arrive in January, said Daniel Enxing, president of Subaru of Nashua, who owns the Wheego dealership. Subaru will stay at its Hudson location; only the Wheegos will be moving.The LiFe will travel an estimated 100 miles on a charge of its lithium-ion battery pack (hence the “Li” in the name).That’s a big improvement from the only model available now, the Whip, which is powered by a bank of lead-acid batteries. The Whip has a maximum speed of 45 mph, meaning you can’t drive it on an interstate.Enxing is moving the Wheego dealership from the edge of his Subaru dealership to a new location being built on a cleaned-up industrial site in Reading, Mass. He’s also working with a company called AeroVironment, which is developing a high-power DC charging station for electric vehicles, to get these stations installed.A ways to goThe “chicken and egg” issue of cars and charging stations is one of the big obstacles facing the electric-vehicle industry – since few people will buy battery-powered cars if there’s nowhere except home to plug them in, and few companies will pay to install charging stations if no one has an electric car. But it will never be tackled if no one plunges in.”Somebody has to start, to educate the customers, have something available so you don’t have to be on a waiting list for a year and a half,” said Enxing.Wheego is an unusual car company. The body and chassis are made by Shuanghuan, a Chinese firm that bases it on a gas-powered model. Batteries and other equipment are bought from various other companies – Wheego said more than half its material is American – and the car is assembled in California.Enxing hopes to have several Wheego dealerships throughout New England eventually, so perhaps we’ll see him again.The lack of electricity “gas stations” explains why GM put a gasoline-powered engine in the Volt. It can recharge the motor and extend the car’s range beyond the inherent limits of batteries, which hover over the Leaf and Wheego.The Volt internal combustion engine is not connected to the drivetrain, which is entirely powered by the electric motor. In theory, you could drive a Volt all year and never put a drop of gas in it, as long as you recharge it often enough, and it’s not really correct to call the Volt a “plug-in hybrid.”This is a significant difference from hybrids like the Prius or my Honda Civic hybrid, which still gets 50 mpg year-round, despite being eight years old. Those can’t operate without gas.But it does mean that the Volt isn’t a true “electric-only” car like the Leaf or Wheego. You can’t entirely thumb your nose at OPEC in it.The future of electric vehicles, and whether they’ll really become a big player, is still up in the air. They’ve come a lot further than I thought they would in recent years. Ford is rolling out an electric transit van and should have an all-electric small car in a couple of years, and several high-end companies are making noises about electric vehicles.I certainly don’t want to argue with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate physicist and the only Washington bureaucrat whose autograph I’d ask for.At the Cancun U.N. climate talks, Chu said he thought electric cars would be competitive technically with gas/diesel cars in “about five years.” Chu said car battery companies have to improve energy storage capacity by a factor of five to seven and cut costs by about a factor of three in order to be make this happen, but he seems to believe it is possible.That doesn’t mean they’ll be cheap enough to buy or that there will be places to charge them, but it is something to think about.