In our view: (Electric) Car Talk

Soon, around Vancouver and Portland, ‘fill ’er up’ will become ‘plug ’er in’

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About a century ago, more than one American probably muttered: “Why in the world do we need that dad-gum gas station? No one ever uses it. Those newfangled cars are so expensive, hardly anyone owns one. My horse and buggy work just fine, thank you very much.”

Fast-forward to 2011. In the above quotation, change “gas” to “charging,” and change “horse and buggy” to “gas guzzler.” Now you understand why some folks aren’t as quick to embrace the newfangled electric cars that started gaining popularity last year.

Fortunately, the Vancouver-Portland area is on the cutting edge as electric charging stations are being planned. The Electric Vehicle Project is a $230 million federally funded program that will install 14,000 charging stations in 18 major metropolitan area. We’re one of those 18; Seattle is another. And, as a story in Tuesday’s Columbian reported, San Francisco-based ECOtality was awarded a $99.8 million contract by the U.S. Department of Energy to install the stations. Also, the Washington Department of Transportation is using $1.3 million in federal funding to install rapid chargers on highways between cities.

Officials for both Clark County and the city of Vancouver are involved in charging station research and planning. The county has until July 1 to make sure that local coding allows electric vehicle charging stations in most places except residential neighborhoods and other specially designated areas. Vancouver has received about $100,000 in federal stimulus money to install chargers.

We suspect many of the 60,000 or so Clark County residents who commute to jobs in Oregon will develop intense interest in electric vehicles as the cars become more widely available. Each electric charge is said to last about 100 miles for the Nissan Leaf and about 40 miles for the Chevrolet Volt. That sounds like an attractive alternative to prevailing gas guzzlers, especially when commuters can recharge their vehicles at home overnight.

As with any rapidly emerging technology, many problems will bubble up as the progress unfolds. The same held true a century ago when folks complained about crank starters, stick shifts and car interiors that were too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. And just as certainly, we can trust American (and international) ingenuity to formulate solutions.

For example, driving distance per electric charge already is an issue that is hotly debated. And the technology is not advanced enough — yet — for reliable projections on how much it costs to recharge the vehicle batteries. Also, it’s uncertain how long federal tax credits (up to $7,500 per electric vehicle) will last. And, yes, the costs of electric cars (about $32,780 for the Leaf and about $41,000 for the Volt) are much higher than many cars with internal-combustion engines.

Indeed, skeptics can cite many reasons not to buy electric cars. For them, gas vehicles are the preferred alternative … and will remain so for many years. But ask the skeptic to predict the cost of gasoline many years from now, and it’s tough to get an answer.

It’s good to see Vancouver-Portland emerging as a charging-station laboratory in this amazing technology. We don’t know how popular electric cars will become or how soon that will happen. But we don’t think the whirring autos are going away, and we do know this: The large legions of today’s naysayers resemble the doubters who sang the last, dying praises of the horse and buggy.