[pagebreak:Electric-Vehicle Derby Still On]

Tesla Motors delivered its first Roadster in February and began "regular production" in March.

But with only a handful of vehicles under its belt - just five, according to an update from the company Thursday - and a price tag ranging from $98,000 to $124,000, the race is still on to be the first to get mainstream electric vehicles to the market in high volumes (see Tesla Production Slower Than Expected).

It's an alluring market.

The United States alone buys about 17 million vehicles each year, so if electric cars made up even 2 percent of those sales, that would comprise a 3.4-million-vehicle market, said Jeff Boyd, chief operating officer for Miles Electric Vehicles, at a transportation conference in Las Vegas this week. And the real market is much larger, extending beyond the U.S. borders, he said.

A small crowd of companies has announced the intent to enter the market soon.

"There's a lot of experimentation going on and it's hard to tell who's up first," Boyd said.

Earlier this week, Nissan said it would bring an all-electric vehicle to the United States and Japan in 2010 - the same year General Motors Corp. is expected to launch its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid - and then expand to large volumes globally by 2012 (see Green Light post).

Fisker Automotive, which is entangled in a trade-secrets lawsuit with Tesla, in January said it would bring its sporty $80,000 Karma to the market in the fourth quarter of 2009 (see Automakers Vie for Green Cred). CNET also reported this week that Fisker is raising $65 million for its second sedan, expected to cost half the price.

Earlier this month, A123Systems' Hymotion began taking Web orders for a kit to convert Toyota Prius hybrids into plug-in hybrids, but hasn't said when it would deliver them (see Can Hymotion Convert the Auto Industry?).

Aptera also plans to begin manufacturing its three-wheeled Typ-1 car by the end of this year, although it hasn't said when the cars will be available, and AutoblogGreen reported last month that Green Vehicles also is "about to emerge" with another three-wheeler called the Triac, capable of 70 mph with a 120-mile range and a price tag as low as $19,995 (see Sci-Fi Inspired Vehicle to Hit California Roads).

Norway's Think Global began trial production in November and expects to launch its small Think City car commercially by June. Sales will start in Scandanavia, Switzerland and France, and the company expects to begin commercial sales in North America in 2009.

At the Alternative Fuels & Vehicle Conference in Las Vegas this week, Miles Electric Vehicles also said it would roll out an electric sedan capable of highway speeds - and priced at between $35,000 and $40,000 - in the fourth quarter of this year (see Miles Sedan on Track).

And Bryon Bliss, vice president of sales and marketing at Phoenix Motorcars, said the company expects to begin producing its four-passenger half-ton pickup truck in June, with deliveries beginning the same month.

The truck can reach up to 95 mph and will travel more than 100 miles on a single charge, using a battery from one of its partners, Altair Nanotechnologies (NSDQ: ALTI). Phoenix also expects to introduce an SUV with a 130-mile range this year, and also is working with its new partner, Electrovaya, to offer an expanded battery pack that can deliver a 200-mile range in the spring of next year (see Electrovaya Gears Up for Maya-300 and Green Vehicles Rev Up with $80M).

Phoenix's vehicles will be more expensive than Miles', with the truck coming in at about $47,000, Bliss said, adding that the cost savings - from not having to buy fuel or get oil changes or smog checks, pays that back in three years, at 15,000 miles per year.

Trucks and SUVs make up the biggest part of the automobile market in the United States, together accounting for more than half of last year's 17 million new vehicle purchases, he said.

[pagebreak:Electric Race: Continued] Customers will have the choice of a battery from Altair or Electrovaya for the same price. While the Altair battery has a smaller range of 100 miles, it will have the capability to recharge in as little as 10 minutes at a higher-voltage outlet. The Electrovaya battery will offer a 200-mile range starting next year - but takes five to six hours to charge regularly and a half hour to an hour using a rapid-charge outlet, Bliss said.

Offering the choice will help the company evaluate what its customers want, he said, and partnering with several suppliers will ensure Phoenix doesn't end up with a battery supply shortage.

With so many companies racing to the market, customers could end up with several all-electric vehicle choices as well. But will the demand match these companies' ambitions?

Thilo Koslowski, lead automotive analyst for Gartner, said earlier this month that he expects the market for some of these new vehicles to remain "fairly niche" for now, and said companies are jockeying for a leadership position so they can attract customers in the small but growing market.

"Not all of these companies will survive," he said, adding that he expects to see merger and acquisition activity in the field starting in the next three to five years.

But Boyd, who said mergers and acquisitions aren't part of Miles' strategy right now, claimed that electric-vehicle companies aren't worried about the size of the market.

"The reason people are rushing to be first is because it's an affirmation of your technology," he said, adding that the first to market would gain the advantage of a good amount of press coverage. "We're in it for the long term because we think not only is there a large market in the U.S., but a large global market. Sure there will be competition, but we think the market is so huge there's going to be plenty of room for people in this space."

The question is whether the market for electric vehicles picks up quickly enough to support all of them - and whether startups can compete with the automakers that are sure to jump into the market if they're successful enough.