The Race For The Electric Car

Competition To Build A Viable Electric Car Heats Up, As Silicon Valley Gets Into The Game

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The price of oil is up, gas guzzling cars are out, and a race for a fuel-free, practical electric car is on.

It includes the usual suspects: Detroit, Japan, and Germany. But as correspondent Lesley Stahl reports, a surprising newcomer with no experience at building cars has entered the race: Silicon Valley.

The jury is still out on whether electric cars can ever be really practical, but the computer geeks in California are betting that their inventiveness can beat out Detroit's cumbersome bureaucracy in producing a viable e-car.

One of the reasons electric cars have never taken off has been battery technology. A few years ago, someone wondered: why not use the batteries they put in laptop computers called lithium-ion batteries? That's when the environmentally-conscious hi-tech industry in California jumped in.

The first all-electric sports car is called the "Roadster" and is made by Tesla Motors, a small start-up in Northern California.

The chairman of Tesla, Elon Musk, says the Roadster can accelerate from zero to 60 in four seconds. It is propelled by over 6,000 finger-sized lap top batteries, and not a single drop of oil.

Musk made his fortune by inventing PayPal, the online banking service. He launched Tesla five years ago, with no experience at all in the car business. Now he has over 1,000 orders for the Roadster from people like George Clooney and Gov. Schwarzenegger. They can afford it.

Musk says the Roadster sells for $109,000, and tells Stahl, with a smile, that the car is "a deal." "And our car's twice the efficiency of a Prius. So a Prius is a gas-guzzling hog by comparison with our cars," he says.

Musk says the Roadster can go over 200 miles before you have to plug it in to any ordinary wall outlet. It can take anywhere from four to 30 hours for a full charge.

"It's very easy. It's like plugging in a hairdryer. It's so simple," Musk explains.

From the beginning, Musk wanted to prove that innovative and nimble Silicon Valley could build a better green car than lumbering, bureaucratic Detroit.

"Out of Detroit everybody thinks that Detroit is dumb," comments Bob Lutz, the vice chairman of General Motors.

"Or they think you're hide-bound," Stahl remarks.

"Yeah. Same thing," Lutz says.

Lutz is the man in charge of developing GM's new products, and he says he owes Tesla and its Roadster a debt of gratitude. "If a small Silicon Valley start up believes that they can do a commercially viable electric car, are we going to sit here at General Motors and say, 'Well, a guy in California can do it, but we can't?' Well, that didn't sound very good."

Lutz admits that's embarrassing.

And so, the race was on, with Lutz overseeing the research and development of the Chevy Volt, which is a four-door family electric car.

The Volt is not purely electric - it's called a "plug-in hybrid." It'll drive on battery power alone for 40 miles; go beyond that, and a small gasoline engine kicks in to recharge the battery while you keep driving.

"Seventy eight percent of trips in the United States are under 40 miles a day," Lutz tells Stahl. "If all those people had Volts, you would have 78 percent of Americans basically never using another drop of gasoline."

Everything about the Volt, he says, works like a conventional car, except there's no noise. "There's one thing we can do, for people who miss the sound of the engines, we sell them a CD…with various engine sounds. So you'll be able to pick a Ferrari V12 or, you know, Le Mans Corvette," Lutz explains.

GM is already touting the car in TV ads, even though they don't yet have a working prototype. "The real trick on the car is software. The car needs to know where home plate is. So if you, for some reason, have gone from work instead of directly home, you've gone shopping, and you're starting to run out of battery on the way home, the computer will tell the gas engine, 'Look, he's five miles from home, only run for three minutes, because he only needs enough to get home,'" Lutz explains.

What about safety? In 2006, Dell was forced to issue the biggest recall in electronics history when its lithium-ion batteries burst into flames. Lutz says GM has solved that problem with its batteries, but they need a lot more testing to check how durable and reliable they are in extreme weather and real-road conditions. Still, Lutz insists the Volts will be in dealerships by 2010.

"We've spoken to people who say, 'Lutz is crazy.' … they cannot do this by then. It's just not going to happen," Stahl says.

"Right. We'll see. Somebody's going to have egg on their face," Lutz replies.