Plug In, Turn On, Drive Off

When do we get to share electric cars?

Before the combustion engine pooted its way into the hearts and lungs of civilization, our nation was on the road to electric cars. Anyone who saw the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? knows what happened next. (And for anyone who didn't, it takes but one suck of a tailpipe to become enlightened.)

Daimler's Smart USA recently announced the debut of new models, including the Electric Drive car for 2011. According to Eric Patterson, general manager of Smart Center Round Rock (the only Smart dealer in Central Texas and the service facility for Austin's Car2Go fleet), the dealership "will sell electric Smart cars on a very limited basis for the first year and a half, beginning in spring 2011." The flow of inventory will be slow but dedicated. "Austin is not currently prepared for a fleet of 300 electric cars from the charging perspective," says Patterson. "We'll get there, but we're not there yet."

According to Austan Librach, Austin Energy's director of emerging transportation technologies, federal stimulus funding is going to finance some of that needed infrastructure. "We are one of nine cities that are subgrantees in a Department of Energy grant," he says. The package was awarded to electric-vehicle charging station contractor Coulomb Technologies to provide 200 public charging stations ready for installation by the second quarter of 2011, located at both public- and private-sector facilities across Austin.

While electric vehicles offer transportation without direct carbon emissions from the tailpipe, electricity still comes from the same old grid, which in Austin is powered by a mix of fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and renewables (mainly wind). The good news there, says Librach, is that because "90 percent of private car charging will happen at night ... most of that energy will be provided by West Texas wind. That's when we get a lot of the wind energy."

The charging stations will arrive none too soon, considering last month's debuts of the Chevy Volt and Nissan's all-electric Leaf, plus the recently announced addition of Smart EDs to Hertz Car Rental's fleet beginning this month. Meanwhile, says Rick Bourgoise, communications director for Penske Automotive Group Smart USA, Smart cars have been ready for the electric era for two decades – having been originally designed to "convert to electric without an entire redesign. The new electric models will carry the same iconic design and footprint that currently exists in the Smart gas models."

While the car-share models to be introduced in 2011 will not include the new EDs, the news of Austin's emerging charging infrastructure is bringing the transition to electric car-share vehicles within reach. Says Car2Go's Paul DeLong, "Electric cars are definitely the next progression."

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