For Americans tired of sending their petrodollars to Mideast dictators, an all-electric, battery powered car is here. It's just not for sale yet, at least not from any of the big manufacturers.
Nonetheless, neurologist Lyle Dennis commutes in one between New York and New Jersey. "I absolutely love the idea of driving on U.S.-made, homegrown electricity," said Dennis, after spending the past 5 months driving a lithium-ion battery powered Mini Cooper almost every day.
Lyle considers himself lucky. Mini Cooper, owned by BMW, is leasing 450 of these electric Minis to individuals and fleets in the New York City area, and in Southern California.
"It is a field trial" of the electric car concept, said Richard Steinberg, Manager of Electric Vehicles Operations and Strategy for Mini Cooper. He added that "BMW expects to have a sub-brand of E(electricity) class cars within the next five years."
For Dennis, it means never having to fill up a tank. "Zero" was his answer when asked how much he pays for gas for his daily commute.
But Dennis is holding out for more. His Web site, GM-Volt.com, has been pushing General Motors to bring the Volt concept car to market. It promises to go 40 miles on electricity. If you have to drive farther, a small gas engine on board makes more electricity to feed the battery, so that the car never runs out of power (until the gas tank needs refilling). But as long as you keep recharging the battery at home or work, and drive fewer than 40 miles, you would never need to "fill 'er up."
"Range anxiety" is the term Dennis said the Volt is intended to address. He knows from experience with the battery electric Mini. "I've driven it twice to where I only had three miles of range left," said Dennis. He added that when that happened, he would turn off the AC, the radio and anything else he could think of to make sure he got home to his charging port.
In reality, Mini Cooper said, to date, it knows of only two cases where any of its 450 motorists have actually run out of power while on the road and needed a tow. But Steinberg added the electric car has a "limp home mode" that even when customers push the limit, it can usually go a few miles farther at a lower speed.
As for Dennis, he praised the electric Mini, "It's silent, it's smooth, it's got instantaneous torque and instant responsiveness." He said the company quickly reacted after he hit a pothole recently that ended up disabling the car's electronics.
So how much does he pay? Well, admittedly it's not cheap to be a guinea pig. The BMW/Mini Cooper lease is $850 a month. But that includes collision insurance, installation of the home charging port and all maintenance.
Plus, "Lots of times I find myself driving by a gas station and it sort of calls me and I think, 'Oh, do I need gas?' and then I realize, 'Wait a minute, there's no gas,'" Dennis said.
Steinberg wasn't sure if there will be more electric Minis, though he said the company "is contemplating extending" the current one-year lease. That might avoid the publicity 'hit' GM took a few years ago when it killed off its EV-1 electric car program in Southern California, much to the dismay of many of the people given a chance to lease it. The documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car" chronicled their pain when GM towed their cars away and crushed them in a move the company now admits was a mistake.
So when can you buy an electric from a major manufacturer? Even before BMW's 5 year time frame, the "new" GM promises to start selling the Volt a year from now. Nissan is making the same promise with an all battery-electric Leaf(about the same range as the Mini, up to 100 miles).
It gives new meaning to the term "Power to the People."