Jun 7, 2008

Top 10 world-changing electric cars

We’re at the dawn of a new era. Electric cars promise to soon be ubiquitous, saving energy with their ability to plug into our power system that theoretically is more energy-efficient than directly burning fossil fuels. But keeping electrics from widespread use is today's costly and inefficient battery technology. Electric cars might be able to go fast, but still lack the convenience, economy and long range of today’s gasoline-fueled vehicles and hybrids.

Even so, innovators and entrepreneurs are undaunted, with some saying they’re about to release electric vehicles, several soon to hit the market, and others promising delivery a year or two away. Amid bickering, diving for investor dollars, upbeat press releases and unbridled controversy, the electric cars might indeed burst forth any time now. One thing’s for sure: They’re all accompanied with an explosion of innovation, creativity, gorgeous mockups and visionary talk.

The following list of Top 10 electric vehicles contains examples of cars that emphasize practicality, others that are race cars on steroids, and still others that are glorified golf carts. Even though a few on this list may not ever actually hit the American road, all are fascinating, and one may even end up in your garage before the decade is out — if you have the money and the early-adopter patience. Hit Continue and see what the future may hold.

1. Tesla Roadster
This $100,000 two-seater packed with 6,831 laptop batteries is now shipping in limited numbers. Originally, the 2,700-pound vehicle could zip from 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds, but since then its problematic transmission has been limited to one gear only, reducing that acceleration to a 0 to 60 time of 5.9 seconds. Tesla Motors promises to replace that makeshift transmission with a new unit as soon as it’s developed; meanwhile, Tesla says it will roll out 1,000 cars this year, with the waiting list into next year already full.
2. Chevy Volt
Set for production in November 2010, the Volt (0 to 60 in 8.5 seconds) will be a four-seat sedan that General Motors hopes to roll out for less than $30,000. It’ll run for 40 miles exclusively on battery power, and then a small 1-liter gasoline-powered motor kicks in to charge those batteries. You can also plug it in to charge it. GM is now working with various battery technologies, abandoning the old-fashioned nickel-metal-hydride batteries of the past for the current favorite, a T-shaped assembly made with stacked wafers of manganese oxide. Inside will be iPod-like tech, including a touchscreen for your entertainment, navigation and control of the car’s charging.

3. Toyota Plug-in Hybrid
Toyota is planning a follow-up to its popular Prius — this one a plug-in hybrid whose name hasn’t been announced yet. The picture you see above is not the final design, but this concept, called the Toyota Hybrid-X, could be close to what we’ll see by the time the car takes to the road by 2010. Using longer-lasting lithium-ion batteries similar to those in laptop computers, the car will probably be able to beat the current experimental plug-in Prius’s 62 miles traveled without any help from its onboard gasoline engine.

4. Aptera Typ-1

Is this a car or an aircraft? It’s an Aptera Typ-1 Plug-in hybrid, packing battery power and a tiny diesel engine that together have a range of 600 miles. The company says the first version of its car will be delivered this year, and will be an all-electric car with a 120-mile range. For a $500 deposit, you can get your name on the list, too, but you’ll need to live in Southern California if you want to be a proud owner.

5. Baker Motor

VehicleLet’s back up just a second. Electric cars aren’t all that new, as you can see by the first electric vehicle in the world, the Baker Electric, first built in 1899. Its performance left much to be desired, though — with a breakneck top speed of 14 mph, the $2,300 car only had a range of 50 miles. The last Baker Electric was built in 1915, but its batteries were built to last — in fact, the one in Jay Leno’s car collection still runs on its original Edison cells.

6. Fisker Karma
Now you’re talking. Check out this Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid sports car, a comely road rocket whose designer Henrik Fisker hails from BMW and Aston Martin. The $80K car supposedly will go 125 mph, but beyond that number and lots of sexy pictures, the company is mum about the progress with its power plant it says is made by Quantum Technologies. Too bad the company is now being sued by Tesla Motors for swiping trade secrets. Fisker says he’ll be showing off a test vehicle before this summer, and hopes to produce the first cars sometime in 2009. So far, it’s a lot of talk. 7. Renault-Nissan
Here’s a novel idea: Give away electric cars, and then sell battery maintenance in a contract-based business model. Called Project Better Place, it’s a plan scheduled to start this year that involves a huge grid of parking meter-like charging units, along with refueling stations where the entire battery can be quickly swapped out for a fresh one. The cars, jointly developed by Renault-Nissan, will have a 100+ mile range, a 100 mph top speed and will go 0 to 60 in under 10 seconds.

8. Zenn

This Toronto-based carmaker started out slowly, selling 250 low-speed electric “neighborhood electric vehicles” in 2007. Now Zenn plans to roll out a much faster car, powered by an energy-storing “ultracapacitor” made by EEStor by fall of 2009. This all-electric car is said to have zero emissions and no noise, something that might strike fear in the hearts of blind people everywhere. That mysterious ultracapacitor solid-state electrical energy storage unit is called by its maker: “longer lasting, lighter, more powerful, and environmentally friendly” than batteries used in other vehicles

9. Venturi Eclectic

CarYou have to laugh when you first lay eyes on this car, with its optimistically-placed wind turbine hoping to catch a breeze that might add to its 30-mile range at 30 mph. There’s also a solar panel up top, making the plug-in car “energy-autonomous.” Pretty much a glorified golf cart, its makers say they plan to build 200 of the $31,000 cars in an initial limited run, with production models hitting the road next year. The only problem would be finding people to drive the car that don’t mind appearing to be a bit eclectic themselves.

10. Th!nk Ox

Here’s the first five-seat electric car, the Th!nk Ox, which is a follow-on to this Norway-based (formerly part of Ford) company’s first car, the Th!nk City. Said to have similar technology, the Th!nk City can travel at 62 mph, goes more than 100 miles on a charge, and there are 1,200 of them on the road now. The company didn’t mention a price or delivery date on the Th!nk Ox, but a notable development in the company’s fortunes was GE’s investment in lithium-ion battery manufacturer A123Systems, which will supply the batteries for the cars.

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