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Originally published December 24, 2009 at 6:21 PM | Page modified December 25, 2009 at 10:06 PM

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Year of the electric car dawns

It was dark and rainy, and the battery on his nifty Mini E electric car was almost gone. Paul Heitmann rolled quietly through the suburban...

The Washington Post

Puget Sound area

UNDER A $100 MILLION Department of Energy grant, the Puget Sound area is a test market for the first wave of electric cars. More than 2,000 charging stations will be built beginning next year, many in park-and-ride lots, at big-box stores and in corporate parking lots.

THE GRANT IS BEING SHARED by areas in four other states: Portland, Salem, Corvallis and Eugene, Ore.; San Diego; Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; and Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville, Tenn. Because the Portland area is included, the Interstate 5 corridor between Seattle and Portland is expected to have a string of stations, making it possible to go between the two major cities on nothing but electricity.

Katherine Long,

Seattle Times staff reporter

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It was dark and rainy, and the battery on his nifty Mini E electric car was almost gone.

Paul Heitmann rolled quietly through the suburban New Jersey gloom, peering through the rain on the windshield, not sure what he was looking for, anxiety turning into panic. He needed juice. He noticed a Lukoil gas station, which was closed, and beside the point, anyway. But beyond the pumps, there was a Coke machine, and it was lit up.

"I thought 'Finally!' because I knew if there was light, there would be electricity," he said. "I managed to find the outlet behind the Coke machine and plugged in."

As many auto companies tell it, next year may be the year the massive U.S. auto industry really begins to go electric.

Nissan's all-battery Leaf is scheduled to go on sale in November. General Motors will begin selling the Chevy Volt, a primarily electric car (with a small auxiliary gasoline engine that kicks in to boost the car's range). Ford plans to produce an electric commercial van. The Obama administration has doled out $2.4 billion to companies involved in producing batteries and other parts of electric cars.

"We have to get on with the electrification of our industry," Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. said Monday.

"I know we have to have an electric car," GM Chairman Edward Whitacre said last week.

But overshadowing prospects for the transition of the vast U.S. auto fleet to electric — and the billions of dollars the automakers invested in the switch — is the question of whether anyone beyond a sliver of enthusiasts will embrace the newfangled cars.

The only major automaker with a fleet of new all-electric vehicles priced for mainstream consumers is BMW, with its 500 Mini E electrics in what the company describes as a test of the technology. To judge from interviews with drivers and more than a dozen of their blogs, it also has proved a test of consumer adaptability.

Electrics pose two primary challenges to convention: When fully charged, they generally cannot travel even half the distance a conventional car can go on a full tank. And once the battery is depleted, there are few places to recharge besides home, and charging can take hours.

Heitmann, for example, sat in the dark beside the Coke machine for one midnight hour to make sure he had enough charge to make it the four miles to his mother's house.

"I sat there looking at the gas pumps that said $2.45 a gallon," he recalled. "And I thought, 'What I wouldn't give to be able to use that.' Two and a half dollars, and I could have gotten another 25 miles."

Still, Department of Transportation data show U.S. drivers travel an average of 29 miles a day, well within the electric vehicles' range.

Many Mini E drivers are rhapsodic about the car's performance and the promise of environmental benefits, as is Heitmann. After all, they have been willing to join a select group that pays about $850 a month to lease the cars and have a recharging wall box installed at their homes. But when Mini E drivers gather, their talk often turns to the art of maximizing the number of miles they can get with a single charge.

Their tricks: They slow down; driving fast takes more power per mile because of aerodynamics and other factors. So some poke along at 55 mph on the highway as other drivers zoom past. In a pinch, they turn off the heater or the air conditioner, tolerating a chill or a sweat to get another mile. And they have learned that in extreme cold, they must restrict their travels further. When temperatures dip, the normal 100-mile range can shrink to 80.

"I was shocked," said Robert Hooper, 44, a computer manager from New Jersey, when he realized how much his range shrank in the cold. When he considers the prospects of the 70-mile trip to his fiancée's house in the cold, he said, "I'm nervous."

Timothy Gill, 59, a software engineer from Maplewood, N.J., learned the hard way. With a round-trip daily commute of 85 miles, Gill figured he easily could live within the official 100-mile range of the Mini E. And he did, until the first cold snap.

His next blog entry tells the story: "Towed! After only 87.8 miles. ... Sheesh!"

Car companies staking investments on electric cars say such difficulties will be minimized soon. They say the cars, now pricey, will be manufactured more cheaply when produced in greater numbers. Battery innovations will provide greater range at lower cost. The problem of the cold will diminish as heating systems are better-developed.

Perhaps most critically, they say, public charging stations will become far more common.

There are about 117,000 gas stations in the United States. By contrast, a database of public recharging stations maintained by Tom Dowling, an electric-car enthusiast in California, lists 734 public charging stations, with the vast majority in that state.

Dowling said the comparison to gas stations isn't completely apt because most charging can be done at home. Still, the lack of public charging stations is a widely recognized hurdle for the electrification effort.

In conjunction with Nissan, a company called ECOtality has a $100 million federal grant to set up about 7,000 stations in Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington. More than 2,000 charging stations will be built in the Puget Sound area alone.

Given these hurdles, some automakers and environmentalists have cast a wary eye on the enthusiasts.

"I would argue that the case for the electric car is not proven," said Jim O'Donnell, chairman and chief executive of BMW North America, which built the Mini E. "Our view is: Proceed with caution."

John DeCicco, a University of Michigan lecturer and former senior fellow at the Environmental Defense Fund, said expectations for electric cars were similarly high in the 1990s, after California passed a zero-emissions mandate. "What they were saying about electric vehicles then is about what they're saying now," he said. "They were banking on battery breakthroughs then. They're still banking on them."

Nevertheless, enthusiasts remain optimistic, many hoping to lead the way to weaning the United States from foreign oil. "The car is a joy," said Gill, the Mini E driver. His new license plate: "WHY GAS."

Seattle Times staff

contributed to this report.

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