Carmakers launch their battery powered rides
Nearly three years after General Motors announced a concept car called the Chevrolet Volt, setting off an avalanche of hype, skepticism and imitation from other automakers, the electric-car renaissance is here—almost. This is the year major automakers have said they would give us the electric cars we were promised. Do we think they’ll deliver? Yes, we do.
Despite surviving the biggest bankruptcy in American history, GM is still scheduled to start building Volts this winter. A four-door hatchback, the Volt will run on a lithium-ion battery for 40 miles before switching over to a four-cylinder gasoline engine. The Volt could cost as much as $40,000, although a $7,500 federal tax credit will bring that down. GM says some 50,000 customers have already lined up to buy the Volt, and for the company’s sake, it had better follow through. Throughout last year’s controversial restructuring, GM held up the Volt as a symbol of its new direction; failing to deliver the car would be a major embarrassment.
A second electric-car debut will come late this year when Nissan starts shipping its Leaf, the first truly mass-market pure-electric car. A hatchback with room for five, the Leaf skips the Volt-style range-extending gas engine in favor of a bigger battery that gets it about 100 miles on a charge. Recharging takes between 6 and 12 hours, depending on what kind of outlet you’re plugged into. The Leaf will be just as highway-worthy as any conventional car of its size, with a top speed of 87 mph. It’s expected to cost around $30,000, minus the tax credit. According to Nissan, some 22,000 customers have already signed up.
Finally, another indie electric arrives this year: the Fisker Karma. Provided the delivery date doesn’t slip again (it was scheduled to go on sale late last year), the boutique plug-in hybrid will arrive in driveways this summer. The $87,900 Karma—the primary rival to the all-electric Tesla Roadster, which is already on sale—has a powertrain similar to the Volt, in which battery power alone delivers the car up to 50 miles before a gasoline engine kicks in for backup.
Electric-car launches have a notorious history of delays and cancellations. This time, however, so many companies have put so much on the line that as long as GM, Nissan and Fisker hit their self-imposed deadlines, 2010 should be the year the electric car comes back to life.
The Progressive Automotive X Prize promises $10 million in prizes to the first cars that can maintain 100 mpg in a series of road races. Who will win? We’ve handicapped the field.
Mainstream-class: Must have at least four wheels and seat four adults
Delta Motorsport | Britain: The all-electric E-4 coupe mounts an electric motor for each wheel on the chassis, netting it up to 95 percent drivetrain efficiency, 3.5 times that of the standard car.
Chance of victory: champagne
GoMecsys | Netherlands: This team stuck with a gas engine but added an extra gear in the crankshaft that makes the power stroke last longer, yielding higher mileage, power and efficiency.
Chance of victory: sparkling wine
Team ULV-3 | Minnesota: This hybrid’s computer shuts down one or more cylinders when engine load is light. Aerodynamics and regenerative braking round out the package.
Chance of victory: sparkling wine
Alternative-class: Must have a 100-mile range and seat two adults
Western Washington University | Washington: This hybrid-electric coupe weighs 1,400 pounds yet aims to meet federal safety specs, thanks to custom impact-absorbing carbon fiber.
Chance of victory: champagne.
—Mary M. Woodsen
Craig Venter, Biologist
Job: Build artificial life
On the agenda:Venter says he’s in the final stage of creating the first synthetic biological organisms. Man-made organisms could churn out pharmaceuticals and carbon-neutral fuels. ExxonMobil is working with Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics, and, if all goes well, will invest up to $600 million in his synthetic-algae-based biofuels. If Venter can’t get results fast enough, it will be only a matter of time until one of his competitors succeeds and reaps the glory.
On the agenda:The space shuttle is scheduled to retire in September, although a presidential committee predicts that it will fly into 2011. Either way, Garver is facing several years when NASA won’t be able to put humans into space by itself. This year, she must devise a plan for what the agency should do next. She plans to chart the course of human spaceflight and the life of the International Space Station beyond 2016 and assess the fate of the nascent Constellation Program, which is over budget and behind schedule and could be shelved by Congress at any time.
On the agenda:With the exclusive arrangement between AT&T and Apple’s iPhone reported to expire this year, Stephenson has to somehow keep the smartphone on the roster. AT&T earns twice as much from an iPhone user than from an average customer. At the same time, the mobile carrier spent up to $18 billion on boosting its networks last year, including its 3G network in more than 350 markets to handle the bandwidth-hogging ways of the iPhone. Stephenson needs to hang on to iPhone exclusivity to recoup that investment.
What’s starting up or shutting down in the world of physics
Death: Tevatron at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
The Tevatron is the most powerful proton accelerator in operation. It was due to shut down a year after the start of the higher-energy Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European center for particle physics near Geneva, Switzerland.
Second life? Until the LHC is running smoothly, the Tevatron will most likely be extended until 2011. “If, God forbid, the LHC still struggles and is not getting data, and we see something in our detectors that is captivating, it might be prudent to keep running it beyond 2011,” says physicist Robert Roser, the spokesperson for the CDF experiment at Fermilab. According to Roser, the Tevatron “is running phenomenally well right now. It’s a shame to shut
Birth: National Ignition Facility
This summer, NIF scientists in California will aim the world’s most energetic laser at a tiny fuel capsule to ignite a nuclear fusion reaction.
Death: Planck Orbiter
Planck provides our earliest look at the universe by observing radiation left over from the big bang.
Second life? Though scheduled to end in the fall, it will probably continue being used for as long as its detectors are operational.
Birth: Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array
This mega-telescope will consist of at least 66 high-precision antennas that work together to collect millimeter and submillimeter electro-magnetic radiation to observe some of the most distant objects in the universe.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.