Apt license plate featured in the Revenge of the Electric Car film produced by Chicago social entrepreneur Stefano Durdic.


Electric Cars Get Some Love


Around the same time the documentary Revenge of the Electric Car premièred in Chicago this past November, a silent revolution on the roads started as new electric vehicles (EVs) began gliding out of local dealerships. Chuck Frank of Highland Park (and Sierra Club Foundation board member) took ownership of one of Chicagoland’s first Chevy Volts and is confident new plug-ins will forever change the way America drives.


Since November, I’ve been learning first hand why the groundbreaking Volt is Motor Trend’s 2011 Car of the Year.  Riding in my sporty new car is super smooth and so quiet Chevy added a soft horn “chirp” to alert pedestrians.  Designed with the latest technology and loaded with creature comforts, the car delivers in every possible way.  The big difference is I plug it into an outlet in my garage every night.  The next day I can drive up to 40 miles on a full electric charge (costing about $1.50).  Past that, the gas tank can extend my driving range for another

2012 Chevy Volt

 Thanks to plugging in, I still haven’t bought any gas yet.  At this rate, I’ll only need to fill my tank twice a year!

300 miles.  Every Volt owner I’ve met so far adores the car, and apparently we aren’t the only happy customers.  It was the highest rated auto in Consumer Reports’ 2011 owner-satisfaction survey (ahead of the Porsche 911).  People are turning to plugs-ins because they are the most fuel efficient, reduce oil dependence, and decrease global warming emissions.  Clean cars are also driving innovation and job growth.  From battery researchers and electricians to auto manufacturers and component suppliers, electrified vehicles are creating good green jobs in the Midwest.



Clearing up some misperceptions

Despite all the benefits, the hype of EV skeptics lingers on.  Since plug ins are still new and somewhat elusive, I’d like to address some surprising comments that have come my way:


“too bad the Volt didn’t work out”  It’s still early in the game.

The Chevy Volt just became available for sale in Chicago this past November and nationwide in February 2012, and purchases are gradually rising.  GM may have overestimated early sales, so they temporarily scaled back production to catch up on demand.  Keep in mind the top-selling Toyota Prius sold just 5,500 cars in the U.S. when the hybrid debuted in 2000

Fisker north shore

Check out the amazing electric Karma at Fisker North Shore in Northfield. The Fields Auto Group’s LEED certified dealership saves 40% of energy with on-site wind turbines and solar panels shown here.

(around 7,700 Volts sold in 2011).  The Nissan LEAF, “the world’s first affordable, zero-emission car” with a driving range of 100 miles, also became locally available by factory order in December.  Although the Japan earthquake and tsunami temporarily slowed production, a dedicated LEAF plant in Tennessee will boost domestic production starting in 2013.  Plug-ins will soon be the new normal, many more are here or on the way.  Now through 2013, expect to see the Toyota Prius Plug in & RAV4 EV, Tesla Model S sedan & Model X SUV, Audi e-tron, Cadilac ELR, Honda Fit EV, Ford Focus EV & C-MAX Energi, Mitsubishi iEV, Fisker Karma, Fiat 500SMARTForTwo, CODA sedan and others.  President Obama set a national goal to put 1 million plug-in vehicles on US roads by 2015.  Although that might be bit optimistic, analysts have high hopes for the long term.  The question remains, how soon will the buyer’s market catch on.


tesla s sedan

More than 8,000 people have reserved the forthcoming Tesla Model-S, including my friends Nate and Nancy, which is expected to debut this July.  Can’t wait to see it!


electric cars are too expensive  The economics will become increasingly attractive to buyers.

Currently the Volt is $39,145 and Nissan Leaf is $35,200.  Great incentives including the $7,500 federal tax credit and up to $4,000 Illinois rebate can significantly reduce the price.

IMiev in EVtown...Normal, IL

Kudos to Normal, IL for being recognized as a top city for electric cars. Mayor Chris Koos turning his city into an EVTown. Federal, state and local tax rebates bring down the price of the Mitsubishi iMiev to $21,625. Mitsubishi is also helping install 30 high-speed charging stations. Pix courtesy of mitsubishipedia.org

At this point, electric cars may cost more to buy, but they cost much less to run, especially if gas prices continue to rise to $5 a gallon or more.  It costs 3.5 cents per mile to “fuel” a Nissan Leaf (at the national average of 11 cents/kWh of electricity) and it costs 21 cents per mile for the average 21 mpg car at today’s gas price of $4.50.  Like any other new technology, the first generation of electric cars carries a higher price tag.  Innovations in battery technology are expected to make plug-ins more cost competitive with gas powered cars in the near future.  Tesla’s simple master plan sums up the economics of EV iterations:       1. Build sports car  2. Use that money to build an affordable car  3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car…




“EV production has stopped due to limited charging stations”  Not true.
chicagoland charging stations from Chargepoint

Looking for nearby charging stations?’ There’s an app for that. ChargePoint (shown here) and PlugShare display stations throughout the U.S.

While range anxiety is a legitimate issue, charging infrastructure is expanding along with EV production.  Most electric cars can go up to 100 miles before recharging.  Since 80% of Americans drive less than 40 miles a day, EV range may be adequate for many drivers.  Homeowners will likely charge EVs in a garage socket overnight.  With a typical 110-volt charge, it takes 10 hours to fully charge a Volt and 18 hours for a Leaf.  Most challenges are faced by multi-unit residences with common parking facilities absent of power hook ups and drivers needing daytime fill-ups.  Public charging stations have been popping up to accommodate EVs.  Gov. Quinn has invested in charging infrastructure to “make electric vehicle use more accessible and convenient.”  With state and federal funding, 350Green will install and operate total of 280 Chicagoland charging stations by 2012, including 146 Level 2 chargers and 73 DC Fast stations in downtown parking garages, Midway and O’Hare Airports, grocery stores, shopping centers and tollway oasis 7-Elevens. Locally Northbrook installed a station at Village Hall and the City of Evanston plans to install solar canopies and charging stations at three city-owned parking lots.

Northfield, IL Walgreens electric car charging station

Local EV charging stations are available at Walgreens (Northfield shown here) and Whole Foods (my son gleefully spotted last week).

Deerfield-based Walgreens is leading the way as the first retailer to install charging stations at its stores, now available a the Northfield, Highland Park and Evanston locations.  Chargers have also been recently installed at local Whole Foods and Nissan dealerships. Other big box chains such as Walmart, Lowes, Kohls, Macy’s, IKEA and Best Buy have added charging capability for customers in parts of the US, hopefully here too at some point.  More EVs on the streets will likely prompt continued government infrastructure development and commercial installations to attract and service captive plugged in consumers.  Next time parking downtown, check out the city’s greenest parking garage (and EV chargers) at the GREENWAY Self Park at Clark & Kinzie.





solar charging station northerly island

This solar powered charging canopy at Northerly Island offers an incredible view.  Pix from guysandgoodhealth.wordpress.com.



aren’t you afraid your Volt will spontaneously combust?  Not really.

Recently media coverage focused on two fires that occurred days and weeks after extreme test crashes of the Volt.  GM has been adamant that the Volt is a safe car before, during and immediately after a crash, and has earned a 5-star safety rating.  In January, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration closed its fire investigation without finding a single defect in the Volt.  For peace of mind, GM is adding precautionary reinforcements.

newt gingrich

Why have EVs become a political target?  Newt Gingrich recently sniped “you can’t put a gun rack on the Chevy Volt.” GM responded actually you can, but who puts a gun rack on a sedan? Shouldn’t our leaders be celebrating American innovation and energy security?” Pix from Steve Pope/Getty Images at abc.go.com.

While it’s absolutely critical to address safety concerns, it’s important to keep some perspective. While no real world fire incidents have ever occured in a Volt, over a quarter of a million conventional cars catch fire every year, injuring and possibly killing passengers.  Why have more dangerous fire-related recalls escaped media attention? Likely this faux scandal has political roots.





“the carbon footprint and emissions of EVs are not any better than regular cars”  Not true.

Actually EVs and hybrids have a smaller overall carbon footprint when considering the vehicle’s full lifecycle.  Why Electric Cars are Cleaner details how an electric vehicle creates about

which car pollutes the most

Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found at www.motherearthnews.com

19 tons of Co2 over its lifespan while a comparable gas engine sedan generates approximately 24 tons of Co2 during its entire lifecycle. While electric and hybrid vehicles may generate more carbon emissions than conventional vehicles during the manufacturing process (mostly due to battery production), plug ins emit little to no tailpipe pollutants.  When it comes to upstream emissions, conventional cars generate carbon from extracting, refining and transporting crude and gas.  EVs upstream carbon output depends on how the local power plant generates electricity.  The more power is generated by nuclear and renewable energy, the lower the carbon footprint.  As for a recent report that claims air pollution is worse with EV traffic, it should be pointed out the study was based in China where dirtier coal-fired plants are predominantly used for electric generation and pollution control standards are much less stringent then in the U.S.



Check out the new electric cars, maybe you’ll become an early adopter too

I’ll admit, it’s fun driving my Volt, especially right past the gas station.  It’s also refreshing to see the auto industry finally promoting the virtues of fuel efficiency.  While the Jennifer Lopez “Bronx Streets” Fiat video caught some heat for being shot in LA, maybe the bigger story should have been that carmakers are finally trying to elevate the hip factor of eco-smart cars! Ultimately, true revenge of the electric car will hinge on continued technological advances, thoughtful infrastructure development and supportive policies.



. . .



After test driving the Volt for a week last May, I helped several Chicagoland eco-influencers take test spins and recruited teams to compete in a Volt eco-scavenger hunt.  Find out who won between the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), Illinois Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)…





The documentary Revenge of the Electric Car is available on iTunes & Netflix, and is soon coming to PBS.