Plug-in cars are coming with concerns, questions

There has always been considerable historical controversy about the famous Midnight Ride of Paul Revere on April 18, 1775. In the outskirts of Boston, historians credit Revere with riding to Concord and warning American settlers that "The British are coming... the British are coming."

In the 235 years that have elapsed since that time, Great Britain has become one of the most loyal allies of the United States.

Today, we literally stand at the edge of another revolution: motor vehicle technology.

Recently, BMW announced that, following along the path of the $110,000 all-electric Tesla Roadster, it intends to make the second highway-legal electric vehicle on the American road, and in meaningful numbers.

BMW intends to produce an all-electric plug-in Mini Cooper that will be called the Mini-E. While the Mini-E is not available in showrooms, BMW is using 450 specially selected Mini-E drivers who will lease their cars, initially, for $850 per month. The Mini-E can go more than 100 miles on a single charge and has no tailpipe emissions.

In a nation with 246 million internal-combustion engine vehicles, other automakers seem ready to roll out more "plug-in" or electric vehicles before the end of the year.

In an attempt to attract average Americans, Nissan will roll out its $30,000 Leaf subcompact in October or November. General Motors will offer its Chevrolet Volt plug-in around the same time. The plug-ins are coming.

Aside from practical issues, plug-in automakers are continuing to cut costs and improve battery performance to make the vehicles more attractive to average consumers. Auto analysts say a lithium-ion battery pack powerful enough for a plug-in subcompact adds $10,000 to $12,000, or more, to the manufacturer's costs.

Perhaps cost isn't the only issue, either. In the frigid climates of northern U.S. states, lessees of the Mini-E have complained that the power gauge fell to zero after just driving the vehicle 55 miles, when it is designed to complete 100 miles on a single charge. The villain: cold weather. BMW acknowledges that a vehicle's range can drop as much as 30 percent in frigid weather.

But these significant cost and climate obstacles aren't preventing automakers from jumping into the plug-in market. BMW also announced that its next electric car, called the ActiveE, will undergo consumer testing this fall and may be ready for mass production and the showroom in 2011.

And so, it is crystal clear: The plug-ins are coming. What remains unclear is this: How are they going to pay their fair share for the use of the city streets, county roads and the highway system?