After many fits and starts, the mass-market electric car may finally have arrived. Major automakers General Motors and Nissan will be rolling out the Chevrolet Volt and the Leaf in the coming weeks and these vehicles might just help spark an electric car revolution.
Although automobiles that run on electrons instead of fossil fuels predate the original Model T, electric vehicles have never caught on for modern day street driving.
Hybrid electric vehicles, which combine a conventional internal combustion engine with some form of electronic propulsion to boost overall gas mileage, are of course around in significant numbers.
But the plug-in hybrid electric Volt and the all-electric Leaf take a big step forward from these hybrid electric vehicles that we have become accustomed to since the Toyota Prius came out in the late 1990s.
With the new Volt, gas-burning takes a back seat to electricity, kicking in after the batteries have drained to power an electrical generator.
As the name implies, a plug-in vehicle gets most or all of its juice from an electrical outlet rather than from a gas pump.
The Leaf, meanwhile, is a pure electric vehicle — a cord plugged into an outlet is its only means of obtaining power.
Along with these newcomers and the Tesla Roadster — which had stood as the only highway-legal all-electric vehicle for the last two years — many other plug-in hybrid or fully electric vehicles are set to hit the road soon.
So for those interested in getting an electric car, does it make sense to buy now or later? In the following Countdown, TechNewsDaily presents five reasons why now is the time to buy an electric car. But equally good arguments could be made to wait. [Read: 5 Reasons to Buy an Electric Vehicle Later]
Tax credits and rebates
Federal, state and local governments are currently offering what in some cases are sizable tax credits and rebates to make buying an electric vehicle more affordable.
The federal credit is based on battery size, and new plug-ins as well as fully electric vehicles all have big enough batteries to earn the maximum $7,500, according to Pat Davis, program manager of vehicle technologies at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
Many states also offer additional tax credits or rebates that can knock off another couple of thousand dollars from the overall price tag.
The credits will not last forever, though: after a manufacturer sells 200,000 vehicles (not just electric ones), the Internal Revenue Service will reduce the federal credit by 50 percent starting the next quarter, then a further 25 percent six months later, and after that, the credit is gone (unless reauthorized).
The sales figures to trigger this phase-out are not imminent, Davis said, but waiting to buy could turn out to be costly mistake.
The threat of climate change, as well as economic and national security concerns, has heralded the dawn of electric vehicles, which do not use gas and have no tailpipe emissions.
"We're supporting electrification to counteract petroleum dependence and greenhouse gas emissions," the DOE's Davis said.
The U.S. spends $1 billion every day on imported petroleum, Davis said, much of which goes toward fueling our cars and trucks, and transportation in the U.S. accounts for more than a quarter of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. [Read More: Electric Car Therapy Could Cut U.S. Oil Addiction, Study Finds]
Naturally, the electricity that electric cars draw from the power grid has to be made somewhere. But their adoption dovetails with the green zeitgeist of moving electricity generation in the U.S. away from coal- and natural gas-fired power plants, which still produce two-thirds of our electricity, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Such aims have spurred the U.S. government to boost fuel economy standards over the years, which now stand at 27.5 mpg (44.3 kilometers per 3.8 liters) for cars and are set to rise to 35.5 mpg (57.1 km per 3.8 liters) by 2016.
To meet these standards, Ford Motor Co. has said it expects 25 percent of its fleet to be electrified by 2020.
All stats aside, the message in short: green is the new black.
Though electric car models themselves are new, their underlying technologies are not: lithium-ion batteries have become the battery of choice for consumer electronics ranging from cell phones to power tools, and electric motors have been around for ages.
As such, the technology underpinning the rise of electric vehicles is mature and ready to go.
Accordingly, GM and Nissan have announced eight-year/100,000 miles (161,000 km) warranties for their lithium-ion battery packs — three years longer than GM's warranties for its conventional vehicles' drivetrains and 40,000 more miles (64,000 km) in Nissan's case.
And if hybrid vehicles are any indication, Davis said, maintenance and repairs should not be an issue for electric vehicles, which are overall much simpler in terms of moving parts than conventional fossil fuel vehicles.
"I think from a tech standpoint, hybrids — as predecessors to plug-ins and electric vehicles — have had an excellent service record, so there's not a lot of risk here to the consumer from the standpoint of 'is the tech sound'?" Davis said.
For most people, their experience with or notions of a vehicle that gets its go from electricity have been limited to golf carts and scooters.
"People have had an image of electric vehicles as sort of wimpy," said Tom Turrentine, director of the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California, Davis. "That image of them being underpowered will probably shift — because they aren't."
Turrentine explained that gasoline vehicles have to rely on transmissions to provide acceleration, while electric vehicles can more naturally — and without lots of mechanical middlemen — deliver immediate torque to the wheels and "provide a greater sense of acceleration" and "launch feel."
Many reviewers have found the Volt and Leaf fun to drive, and Turrentine said he has heard the preference that drivers end up expressing for electric vehicles over gas-powered ones.
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But the makers of the Volt and Leaf certainly do not intend for their heavy electric investments to rot on the vine owing to a basic lack of style.
The Volt does not deviate from the mold of the modern, sleek sedan, yet it still presents an aggressive profile. The hatchback Leaf, meanwhile, with its steep-sloping hood and bulbous headlamps, has a hint of the avant-garde about it.
At any rate, the models are far more fetching than the first-generation Honda Insight, which was retired in 2006. That hybrid electric featured a low rear bumper covering much of the back wheels that smacked of future cheese rather than future chic.