We’ve been hearing for some time now how emissions-free electric vehicles (EVs) could someday save the planet – or at least our part of it – by replacing cars powered with internal combustion engines. What nobody can seem to tell us is when that day will come.

Two companies that hope to answer that question are Nissan and General Motors. Nissan is currently taking reservations for its 100-percent electric car called the LEAF and claims to have 20,000 customers already onboard. GM is also taking orders for its Chevrolet Volt, a car they claim is electric – not a hybrid – even though after traveling 50 miles it depends on a gasoline engine to keep its electric motor running. Sounds to me like GM’s marketing department is way ahead of its engineering department on this one, but what do I know?

Their primary competitors, Honda and Toyota, don’t plan to bring electric vehicles to market in the U.S. until at least 2012, while Ford is hedging its bets, claiming its all-electric Ford Focus will initially appear in 2011 but serious production won’t occur until 2012. And then, of course, there’s Tesla, the exotic electric sports car that can go from 0-60 in 3.7 seconds and can be parked in your garage almost as quickly if you happen to have $101,500 burning a hole in your pocket. That’s a lot of green to go green!

Although they’re nowhere near as expensive as the Tesla, price could still be an obstacle to widespread adoption of EVs like the LEAF and the Volt. The LEAF carries a manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) of $32,788, while the Volt’s MSRP is $41,000. The good news is that both qualify for a $7500 tax credit, which should lessen the sting a bit.

In my opinion, a much bigger obstacle to widespread adoption of EVs is the technology itself. Until EVs can match the range, convenience, and reliability of the cars American drivers already have, they are not going to embrace them. The Nissan LEAF, for example, will travel up to 100 miles on a single charge. If the only place you can charge it is in your garage, that means you can’t go more than 50 miles from home. The Chevy Volt will only travel 40 – 50 miles on a single charge before the gasoline engine kicks in to power the electric motor for another 300 miles or so. Seriously, is it really an electric vehicle if you have to burn up to 9.3 gallons of gasoline to keep the electric motor running? Not in my book! The Tesla claims to have a range of 245 miles per charge, but for a hundred grand you’d kind of expect that, wouldn’t you?

Those mileage figures, incidentally, come with a host of disclaimers and qualifiers. Nissan, for example, warns that battery capacity could be severely diminished by things like driving or storing your car in extreme temperatures, driving up steep hills, or driving at high speed for extended periods of time (something tells me unless you buy a Tesla, that last one isn’t going to be a problem!).

Vehicle technology notwithstanding, the other part of the problem is infrastructure. Until you can recharge an EV as conveniently as you can refuel a conventional car, Americans will be reluctant to switch. Fortunately, a company called Coulomb Technologies may have a solution for that problem. Their network of ChargePoint Charging Stations work much like a gas pump at any filling station. You simply pull up to the charging station, touch your ChargePass smart card to the station’s card reader, open the door protecting the outlet, and plug in your vehicle. A display on the charging station lets you monitor progress. When charging is complete, you touch your ChargePass card to the card reader to unlock the outlet door, unplug your car, and off you go. The charging stations, which take up very little space, can be mounted anywhere electrical power is available, meaning any gas station, truck stop, convenience store, etc. can tap into a whole new potential revenue stream with a small up-front investment.

Sounds like a no-brainer…except for a little chicken-and-egg scenario we’ve got going here. See, business owners won’t be quick to take the plunge and install charging stations until they’re confident that enough people will use them to make it worth their while, and a lot of people won’t buy EVs until they’re confident they can recharge them someplace other than their garages.

Let’s see who blinks first?

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