California is the nation's electric vehicle capital, hands down.
We buy them: 4,645 electric car purchases in 2011, representing nearly 57 percent of the national total, according to Santa Monica-based Edmunds.com.
We build them: Tesla's electric sedan, the Model S, is assembled in Fremont.
We're preparing for them: Electric charging stations are being built up and down the state, as are hydrogen fueling stations for fuel cell vehicles.
Despite that, electric vehicles EVs for short have not yet created a multibillion-dollar, job-filling juggernaut statewide.
By most estimates, the industry has created a few thousand jobs statewide over the past decade, a drop in the bucket in a state that employs millions. And 4,645 EV sales in California last year represent a tiny percentage of nearly 1.3 million new vehicle sales in California in 2011.
Those immersed in the industry have a simple response: Just wait.
They point to an expected tripling in the number of EV models over the next decade, a built-out infrastructure of assembly plants and charging stations, a gradual reduction in prices for electric vehicles and, yes, a massive public education process.
Industry proponents compare its current state to that of the mobile phone industry in the 1980s, when large, clunky phones first came on the market, looking like ultra-exotic devices to many consumers, and priced through the roof.
The proliferation of cellular towers, better phones and public acceptance changed all that: Worldwide mobile subscriptions went from about 12.5 million in 1990 to nearly 5.6 billion in 2011.
"I would say it's very much like what we went through with portable cellphones with the public not quite sure of what to make of things," said dealer John Driebe, who sells multiple auto brands in the Elk Grove Automall.
Driebe's Nissan dealership sells the Leaf, the all-electric, four-door, five-passenger vehicle that can go 70 to 80 miles when the lithium-ion battery is fully charged.
Driebe touts the Leaf's generous lease terms, cheap cost of operation and a $2,500 tax credit, but he's not making a fortune on the vehicle.
"I would say interest has been good. We continue to sell about four to five Leafs a month," he said.
Driebe said many customers don't know what to think about the Leaf on first inspection, but "we've found that once they get in and understand what they're all about, they're very enthusiastic."
Consumers are far more familiar with traditional gas-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius, where an electric motor assists a gas-fueled engine. Californians bought 56,310 hybrids last year, nearly a quarter of all those sold in the United States, according to Edmunds.com.
But Driebe and others believe the Leaf, the Chevrolet Volt plug-in sedan and other all-electric cars will become more popular "as the price of the batteries come down."
Lithium-ion technology continues to evolve, but right now batteries can add about $10,000 to the price of an electric vehicle. A Leaf starts around $35,000 to $37,000.
Mike Tinskey, director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure for Ford Motor Co., also believes lower battery prices will be a game-changer.
"We look at electrification as a marathon, not a sprint," Tinskey said. "A lot will depend on the cost of the battery. There will be more and more customers as we're able to reduce the price From generation to generation, we'll see how much expense we can take out."
California is key to Ford's electric car plans.
The Golden State is one of the rollout markets for the 2013 Ford Focus Electric, a five-passenger hatchback that is the automaker's first full-production, all-electric passenger vehicle. It has range of around 75 to 80 miles and starts around $39,000.
Ford also has partnered with San Jose-based solar power company SunPower Corp. to offer Focus Electric customers a rooftop solar system that generates enough energy to offset the electricity required to charge the vehicle at night.
SunPower said the 2.5-kilowatt rooftop system produces an average of 3,000 kilowatt-hours annually and is geared to customers who drive about 1,000 miles a month.
Ford's deal with SunPower is indicative of numerous EV developments not necessarily earth-shaking but gradually adding to California's electric car infrastructure.
Just this month, for example:
China BAK Battery Inc., China's leading lithium-based battery cells producer, announced a new contract to supply 540,000 cylindrical battery cells to San Dimas-based AC Propulsion, which will use them to power electric cars.
Honda's all-new 2013 Honda Fit EV was made available for lease in key California markets on Friday. For a three-year lease price of $389 a month, motorists get a compact with an estimated driving range of 82 miles.
Flux Power of Escondido announced that its lithium battery technology is powering GreenTech Automotive's MyCar, an electric two-seater touted by former President Bill Clinton.
Also in the mix is the California Fuel Cell Partnership, the West Sacramento-based public-private collaboration that was riding high when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was promoting the "hydrogen highway." Fuel cells convert hydrogen into energy to run electric motors.
"We are still here; we're still moving along," said partnership spokeswoman Chris White. "We're not the new kid on the block anymore, but progress continues to move forward."
White acknowledged that other groundbreaking technologies have stolen some of the Fuel Cell Partnership's thunder, but she added that, in California, nine hydrogen fueling stations are open to the public, another 20 are in use for fleets and nearly a dozen more "are in some form of development."
She added: "We see all forms of technology as potentially helpful."
Arguably, the most concrete public example of electric car potential opened in March in Oregon, just north of the California border.
Oregon, spending nearly $1 million in federal stimulus funds, opened its "electric highway," a 200-mile stretch of Interstate 5 in southern Oregon, with chargers placed 25 miles apart. The quick-chargers can power up an EV in less than 30 minutes.
Oregon's highway is a preview of the future. Charging stations are being installed for what planners say eventually will be a 1,350-mile EV-ready stretch of I-5 from Baja to British Columbia.
Oregon has marketed being first to have such a highway, but industry watchers say the big test will be in California, as there are only about 1,100 electric vehicles in all of Oregon.
CALIFORNIA'S ELECTRIC VEHICLE INDUSTRY
We're No. 1: California is universally regarded as the nation's electric vehicle capital. It accounted for nearly 57 percent of all U.S. EV sales in 2011, plus about 24 percent of the nation's hybrid vehicle sales. Through May this year, 1,239 of the 3,704 EVs purchased nationwide were bought in California.
Alternative power sources: Electric vehicles can be charged from standard household outlets, but solar and hydrogen-fueled EVs also have proven ability.
Newcomers they're not: Electric power was a primary power source in the beginnings of the motor vehicle. In the late 1890s, EVs outsold gasoline cars 10-to-1, according to the Electric Auto Association. That changed in 1910, with high-volume production of gasoline-powered cars on motorized assembly lines.
What's available now: More than 25 versions of EVs are available on the current market. Popular models include the Chevrolet Volt plug-in with a gas-fueled engine to recharge the battery, the all-electric Nissan Leaf, the Tesla Model S premium electric sedan, the Toyota Prius conventional hybrid and the just-released Ford Focus Electric.
Know the lingo: EVs cover a wide range of vehicles hybrids like the Toyota Prius, plug-in hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt and full electrics like the Nissan Leaf.
Charging stations: Electric vehicle charging stations are being built in metropolitan areas throughout the state. In March, the California Public Utilities Commission and Princeton, N.J.-based NRG Energy Inc. entered into an agreement for NRG to build an EV charging network throughout California, representing an investment of about $100 million over the next four years. There are pending legal challenges to the deal.
High anxiety: Besides the comparatively high price of EVs due to lithium-ion batteries, experts say consumers also are reluctant to buy EVs due to "range anxiety," or concern about how far a full-electric vehicle will go before it runs out of juice. EV industry officials say that's history repeating itself: In the early days of the automobile, AAA literature included information on how far apart gas stations were on the nation's roadways.