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Is electric car era finally dawning in U.S.?

By: CBS News
By: CBS News

(CBS News) Concern over gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon combined with concern over greenhouse gases have caused consumers to reconsider the electric vehicle. In fact, President Obama is hoping to get people charged up about electric cars by offering big rebates.

But would you ever buy one?

On "The Early Show," CBS News Correspondent Ben Tracy reported that Chris Paine, a proponent of electric cars and documentary filmmaker, has an all-electric Tesla roadster that goes from zero to 60 miles per hour in about four seconds.

But, Tracy pointed out, Paine knows just how long and slow the road has been for electric vehicles.

Paine's documentary, "Who Killed The Electric Car?" chronicled their rise back in the 1890s and then again in the 1990s. Both times, car makers gave up on electric because gas-powered cars were cheaper and went further.

Now, Paine has a new film, called "Revenge of the Electric Car." It shows intense competition among auto companies to mass produce a new era of plug-in electric vehicles. Why? Gas isn't cheap anymore, and climate change is a growing concern.

Paine says most people will make the switch to electric cars to save money, not necessarily for the environmental reason.

He said, "The whole success of the electric car is going to be based $4 a gallon and $5 a gallon gasoline."

Paine owns three electric vehicles, including the Chevy Volt and the new Nissan Leaf. Because of better battery technology, the Leaf can travel up to 100 miles on one charge and plugs right into the wall.

Paine explained, "Like, you'll be at a friend's house, (and say) 'Excuse me, do you mind if I plug in?' ... They'll say, 'How much will this cost me?' (And you'll say) 'Well, I'll be here for three hours, so it will cost you like 75 cents.!"'

it sounds simple, but getting Americans behind the electric wheel isn't. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found 57 percent of Americans won't buy electric, despite pain at pump.

What's behind Americans' seeming hang-up about electric cars?

Paine said, "Most Americans haven't had a chance to drive one."

Carlisa Hamagaki, 36, made the switch. She says she never has to stop at a gas station anymore.

But she knows most people are confused by electric vehicles.

Hamagaki said, "I just shake my head and say, 'There's no miles per gallon, it's kilowatt hours."

Hamagaki no longer spends money on gas, but most electric cars cost about $10,000 more up front than comparable gas cars. That's why the federal government is offering $7,500 tax credits and many states are giving thousands more.

Hamagaki said, "The rebates make it look like any affordable car."

Nearly every major car company is coming out with an electric model, including start-ups, such as California-based CODA. It offers a bigger battery that can go as far as 150 miles.

Phil Murtaugh, chief executive officer of CODA, told CBS News, "At some point, we will run out of oil. So energy security plays a very large part in pushing (electric vehicles)."

President Obama thinks electric cars will help reduce our dependency on foreign oil. His goal? One million plug-in electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

Most experts say that's unlikely.

Dave Sargent, vice president of Research at J.D. Power and Associates, says of the goal, "The vehicles are too expensive for most consumers, and they don't see the benefits. Plus, they're concerned about range."

The government is trying to change that, spending more than $100 million to build thousands of charging stations around the country.

So Paine believes the electric cars' time has finally come -- again.

"I think we are at the beginning of a whole new era right now," he said.

And this time, Paine says he thinks Americans will stay charged up.

"Early Show" co-anchor Jeff Glor added right now there are few models to choose from if you're thinking of buying a plug-in electric car. But auto industry analysts say by 2016, consumers will have many choices -- somewhere between 25 to 30 pure electrics, and another 25-30 hybrids. And, he says, battery technology just keeps getting better.


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