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The Electric Car, Unplugged

The future would appear bright for the electric car. Gasoline prices are high. The government is spending billions on battery technology. Auto companies are preparing to roll out a dozen new electrified models. Concern is growing about the climate impacts of burning oil. And tough new fuel economy standards are looming.

Yet the state of the electric car is dismal, the victim of hyped expectations, technological flops, high costs and a hostile political climate. General Motors has temporarily suspended production of the plug-in electric Chevy Volt because of low sales. Nissan’s all-electric Leaf is struggling in the market. A number of start-up electric vehicle and battery companies have folded. And the federal government has slowed its multibillion-dollar program of support for advanced technology vehicles in the face of market setbacks and heavy political criticism.

The $41,000 Volt, in particular, has become a target of conservatives. Glenn Beck called the Volt “crappy.” Rush Limbaugh accused General Motors of “trying to kill its customers” by selling an unsafe car. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said while campaigning for president in Georgia last month that the Volt was too small to handle a gun rack (a claim proved wrong repeatedly on YouTube).

Daniel F. Akerson, the chairman of General Motors, defended the Volt before Congress earlier this year after revelations that the battery pack in one Volt caught fire three weeks after a federal crash test. Federal authorities eventually declared the car no more flammable than regular gasoline-fueled vehicles.

“Unfortunately, there’s one thing we did not engineer,” Mr. Akerson said. “Although we loaded the Volt with state-of-the-art safety features, we did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag. And that, sadly, is what it’s become.”

Is this the beginning of the end of the latest experiment in the electric car, whose checkered history goes back to the dawn of the automobile age? Can the electric car survive only with heavy government subsidies and big consumer rebates? Are the Teslas and Fiskers and ActiveEs and Volts and Leafs destined to be the playthings of only rich technophiles with a couple of spare gas-powered cars at home?

Or is this what an emergent technology looks like before it crosses the valley of death?

“Face it, this is not an easy task,” said Brett Smith, assistant research director at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “You still have an energy storage device that’s not ready for prime time. You still have the chicken and egg problem with the charging infrastructure. That’s not to say it’s not viable over the long run. But the hype is gone and the challenges are still there.”

The market for all-electric and plug-in electric cars in the United States is tiny, amounting to fewer than 20,000 sales last year out of total light-vehicle sales of 12.8 million. Even in optimistic forecasts, plug-in vehicles will account for less than 5 percent of the global market by 2025.

Hybrids that do not require external charging, however, like today’s Toyota Prius and many others already in showrooms, are a growing segment. Forecasters say they could represent as much as 6 percent of the market by 2015 and 25 percent by 2025, in part because they are among the few vehicles currently on track to meet the government’s proposed new fuel economy standard of roughly 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

Other propulsion technologies, like natural gas and fuel cells, are more likely to be seen first in heavy trucks and local delivery vans because of limited refueling options.

Jon Bereisa is a former G.M. systems engineer who helped design the Volt and was among the lead developers of the company’s mid-1990s experiment in electric vehicles, the ill-fated EV1. He says that the prospects for the electric car are much better today than they were then, but technical development, cost reduction and consumer acceptance are going to take far longer than most people expect.

“There is much more political support for it today, for a variety of reasons,” he said. “Global warming, energy security, petroleum prices, all these vectors are aligned to support the electrification of the automobile, whether it’s hybrid, plug-in, extended-range hybrid or full battery-electric.”

But he added that the Volt was an incredibly complicated device in the early stages of development. “When you push the start button, you’ve got 10 million lines of software running. On an F-15, it’s about eight million lines of code. You’re really driving a modern data center, and a lot can go wrong.”

He noted that the current Volt was the first generation and predicted that its third version, which will come between 2020 and 2025, will gain wide acceptance, as long as G.M. does not end the project and the government backs a nationwide infrastructure of charging stations.

President Obama, who has been a strong supporter of alternative vehicle and fuel technologies, proposed this month spending more than $4 billion to encourage purchases of electric and natural gas vehicles and to speed construction of charging and fueling stations. He is seeking to raise the current $7,500 purchase incentive for electric and plug-in electric vehicles to $10,000, and to make it a point-of-sale rebate rather than a credit to be claimed on a tax return.

David B. Sandalow, the assistant secretary of energy for policy and international affairs, said that the Obama administration was fully committed to nurturing this technology, and he is persuaded that, eventually, it will catch on.

“It is the future of transportation,” said Mr. Sandalow, who saves money on gas by commuting to work in a Prius converted to run 30 miles on battery power alone. “The only question is how fast and how soon.”

He said that China, Germany, Israel, South Africa and other nations were racing ahead with electric vehicle programs and maintained that President Obama’s goal of putting one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015 was achievable if Congress fully financed his rebate and infrastructure proposals.

Most analysts doubt the million-car goal is achievable, as the enthusiasm over electrification in the industry has begun to flicker and the price of battery technology remains stubbornly high.

At the recent auto show in Geneva, for example, Peter Schwarzenbauer, a top executive at Audi, said of electric vehicles, which generated considerable buzz at previous shows, “Reality is phasing in.”

And Dieter Zetsche, the chief executive of the German automaker Daimler, said that cost, range and consumer rates remained serious problems for the electric car. Still, he said, the company would continue work on such vehicles, as well as those powered by gasoline, diesel and hydrogen.

“There is no alternative,” Mr. Zetsche told reporters. “We believe it is our responsibility to push this technology forward and make it marketable.”

The fate of the electric car remains hazy, with technical, economic and political forces working both for and against it. Chris Paine, who made the 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” about the demise of G.M.’s EV1 at the hands of the car company, government regulators and the oil industry, said he was alarmed at how quickly the political climate had turned against the Chevy Volt and other electric vehicles, and offered a theory as to why.

“The attacks leave me a bit stunned,” he said in an e-mail message. He said the Volt had been more successful in the marketplace than the early Prius was and that today, unlike in the late 1990s, the government and the auto industry are fully behind electric vehicle programs.

But one possible culprit still stands to gain if the electric car is killed yet again, Mr. Paine suggested.

“Not too hard to guess,” he said. “With Americans paying $250 a month to fill up on gasoline when electricity can do the job in a Volt for $50 a month, why are we being told electric cars are failures? Who could possibly be behind this?”

Source : John Broder, a reporter on energy and the environment for The New York Times.