By Rachel Stern

In the United States, cars and trucks—99 percent of which run on petroleum—use two-thirds of all the country’s petroleum and one-third of all its energy.

At UC Santa Cruz’s “Electric Vehicle Symposium” held this past Saturday, many expressed their desire to lower these statistics by increasing the number of battery-powered vehicles on the road and racetrack.

From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Jack Baskin School of Engineering, industry leaders spoke on the social, political, technological, and environmental implications of electric vehicles (EVs).

Santa Cruz Assemblyman John Laird introduced the symposium, as well as the next “speaker”: a video of George Bush’s Feb. 24 White House speech on the convenience of plug-in hybrids.

“I don’t know if what I say is going to compare,” said Laird, eliciting laughter from the audience.

Electric battery-powered vehicles can currently travel about 100 miles on one battery charge, and last for about 1,000 charges. The EV’s low driving range, short battery lifespan, overnight charging period, and lack of charging stations are causes for skepticism.

However, advances in lithium-ion-based battery technology are allowing EVs to travel as far on one charge as a car can travel on a full tank of gasoline.

Although the light-weight and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are currently about five times as expensive as conventional lead acid batteries, many feel the costs will soon be decreased by an increase in technologies.

“The technology is there,” Laird said. “The question is: how do the policies facilitate the technology?”

EVs can also be powered by fuel cells, which convert hydrogen and oxygen into water to produce electricity.

Marc Geller, the co-founder of Plug-In America, feels that even current EV models hold their own, especially since 90 percent of daily car trips do not exceed 100 miles.

“I’ve heard all the propaganda,” said Geller, who appeared in last summer’s documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” which documented the 2004 demise of General Motor’s (GM) EV 1. “I drove all the way here from San Francisco [and have a third of a battery left]. There’s no denying it.”

Geller advocated plug-in hybrid electric vehicles—which have additional battery capacity and the ability to be charged from an electrical outlet—as an alternative for those worried that their EV battery would wear out.

“It’s an electric vehicle with an insurance policy,” he said.

After the symposium, and before driving back to San Francisco, Geller took eager students for a ride in his Electric Toyota RAV4.

Discontinued in 2003, the iconoclastic SUV is one of about 1,000 currently on the road in the United States.

Ian Wright, a professional racecar driver and founder of Silicon Valley electric sports car manufacturer Wrightspeed, presented the X1 high-performance electric car that he designed.

The X1 is only second in speed to the French-made Bugatti Veyron, which—as the world’s fastest street-legal car—hits the zero-60 acceleration mark a half second faster. The Veyron, however, gets only eight miles to the gallon.

The X1 saves more than gas, Wright said. The X1 currently costs about $100,000—$1.4 million less than the Veyron’s $1.5 million price tag.

Numerous electric vehicles—as well as an $80,000 homemade solar-powered car designed and constructed by attending UC Berkeley Engineering students—sat on display outside of the symposium.

In addition to the X1, the symposium included gasoline-powered cars-turned-electric by AC Propulsion electric boxes, the NmG—an electric car with a one-person occupancy—and light electric vehicles such as bikes and scooters.

Upcoming electric cars include the Telsa Roadster (2007), Subaru Re1 (2009), Mitsubishi Colt EV (2010), and GM’s Chevy Volt (2010).

Geller deemed GM’s announcement of the Chevy Volt as a move to please the public in the wake of the negative press spawned by “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

Vladi Betkor, a graduate student in computer engineering at UCSC, sees the new EVs as having the potential to break into a gasoline-powered society.

But first, Betkor said while examining the cars on display, “It’s a matter of changing people’s expectations of them.”

Matt Bromage, also a graduate student in Computer Engineering, chipped in, “They’re going to need to for the future.”

According to Geller, “Electric cars are the future.”