Electric cars…

I want a fully electric car.  One that can go 200 km at highway speeds on an over-night charge.  I might accept a chargeable hybrid: one that has sufficient battery capacity to go 100 km or so on a full charge before the gas engine kicks in.

I have decided I don’t want a hydrogen fuel cell car.  I thought fuel cells were a good idea a few years ago.   But now hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are just another way for the oil companies to sell really expensive processed oil.

Batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, gasoline: they are all different ways to make energy mobile for consumption in a vehicle.  Hydrogen *could* be produced without oil, but it won’t be: the fuel oil companies will see to that.  Electricity, however, already has a lot of centralized methods of production that are much more efficient than processing and burning gasoline and hydrogen.   Even coal, the dirtiest of the electricity generating options, can be made more efficient than burning gasoline, and far cheaper than any petroleum based hydrogen will ever be.  The only problem today is how best to store electricity in the car in an efficient manner.

Hydrogen powered vehicles have the same basic problem as electric ones: efficient energy storage.  Hydrogen gas is tough to compress and store in a way that will give the same kind of range as gasoline.  But the advantage to electric vehicles is that they have the *potential* to remove oil from the equation entirely.  And regardless, producing the electricity directly is about three times more efficient then producing hydrogen to put in a fuel cell vehicle which then produces electricity. 

Modern batteries are *almost* good enough for my 200 km range that I’ve noted above.  A vehicle based around such batteries could be built today for about $100,000.  You can order one today, if you want: the technology exists right  now.  Fuel cell vehicles are still hard pressed with current technology to achieve the same range…and the best available today would cost more like $1,000,000.   The industry experts say that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are probably at least 30 years from being practical. 

What prompted this rant?  I just finished watching Who Killed the Electric Car, a documentary mostly about the death of the GM EV-1.  Ten years ago, there was already a fully electric car with a growing support infrastructure available in the United States.  That car was lease only, and when the leases expired GM took every one back.  They then systematically erased all evidence that the car had ever existed, going so far as to destroy every returned car.  Once the cars were all destroyed, GM fought tooth and nail to overthrow the Zero Emissions laws in California.  The final nail in the coffin was when the U.S. Federal Government took California to court to erase their ZEV laws for good.  George Bush and his oil-company crony enriched administration saw to that.

I strongly recommend taking the time to watch Who Killed the Electric Car if you see it in your TV schedule.  It isn’t fun or exciting…but it is thought provoking. 

[tags]electric car, zev, tesla, GM, oil companies[/tags]

8 thoughts on “Electric cars…”

  1. Ive seen that documentary. And it’s every bit as depresssing as you say. What kills me is that an extremely dedicated group of people tried what they could and were absolutely crushed in the most horrific way possible by the government. It stripped all that nice illusion of democracy we have and laid bare the true mechanisms.

    I would love to have one of the those electrics too… they were feasible, incredibly feasible. Questions is… what do we do about it now since, as a Canadian with no true power to influence the governemt? A government who’s balls are in in the grip of the oil companies that are more or less American?

  2. I am an optimistic realist. I would like to think that, given time and sufficient incentive (I.E.: $5 a gallon gas), the average Joe and Jane will take a stand. They will stop driving Hummers, and start looking at hybrids or chargeable hybrids… or maybe even full-on electrics. And the car manufacturers will eventually have to change their product lines. Likewise, the oil companies will have to find new ways of getting rich.

    The problem is that the first reaction of the big players, car companies and oil companies alike, is to resist change. Their whole business model goes in the crapper if people start driving electrics. Look at car manufacturers: a big chunk, maybe even the majority, of their profits comes from servicing cars. Electrics require less service. No oil to change, no crank case, no transmission, no timing chains, spark plugs, etc. That means (potentially) less sweet, sweet profit. Sure, maybe they can sell battery upgrades or other things, but they don’t yet have business models that can accurately predict how much money they can make.

    And then there is the consumer. We’ve convinced ourselves that we need cars that can travel cross-country, even though we rarely go such long distances. We need 4x4s so we can pick up that big item at Revy once every six months. A Suburban is critical so we can haul our 7 kids (??) to the soccer game…yet 90% of the time, its just one or two of us in that rolling barn.

    95% of my driving is within 100 km of my home, so 200 km range would be fine. But that 5%…that’s what stops people. I hesitate: what do I do if we want to go on a road trip? What if the car breaks down some where, and no one knows how to service it? Will it work when the weather gets cold?

    I sort of think rechargeable hybrids would be the ideal combination for me. Something like 150 km range on battery, then a small super-efficient motor to provide electric power when the battery starts running low. So far, the only way to get such a car is to buy a hybrid (like a Prius) then have it modified after-market. Since the Prius is already pretty expensive, spending another $5-$10,000 on aftermarket upgrades is a bit hard to justify. Hopefully rechargeable hybrids will be available from dealers in the next few years.

    What can we do to make a change? The government, particularly the U.S. government, has tremendous influence in this regard. The California CARB board and their ZEV laws (since repealed) literally caused the creation of the EV-1…and the death of those laws was a big contributor to the EV-1’s demise. But we can’t change what happens in the U.S.: we can hope that future elections will select legislators with a bit more insight, but my faith in the American voter is at an all-time low.

    What we can do, I guess, is talk publicly and loudly about the options. Shout out our opinions. And where possible, vote with our pocket book. A Prius might not be perfect, but its a step in the right direction. Maybe the next generation of hybrid will be good enough for more than a rare few to buy…and if enough buy it, maybe that will cause a shift in thinking.

    I’m driving a relatively efficient ULEV (ultra low emmissions vehicle) today, but beyond deciding I didn’t need a 4×4 or pick up, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about efficiency. My next car purchase won’t be for six or seven years- I think I’ll give more thought to economy, environmental concerns, and the like next time. I might not buy a hybrid or an electric, but I’d really like to have the *option* to do so.

  3. One thing that you have to get around is the price point … people will not pay as much for a car that can only take them to and from work as they will for a car that can do everything; never mind that they never do anything else. At the present all the eco friendly cars I have seen cost as much if not more than their regular counterparts. Take a Smartcar for example, it costs as much as any other sub compact car, but can only hold 2 people + 2 bags of groceries. Sure you get 50mpg instead of 40, but that alone isn’t really that big of a selling point.

    And of course, the one thing everyone forgets with electric cars is that the electricity has to come from somewhere, and it won’t all be from windmills and solar panels. Any efficiencies you gain in the car are lost as soon as you have to transmit the electricity long distances, so as long as the generating plant is fossil fueled all you are doing is moving the problem.

    Now, if they would let everyone deduct from their taxes the cost of putting solar on their roofs and let them all hook into the grid … then we would have enough local sourced “clean” power to run a lot of electric cars. We would also be mush better able to withstand terrorist attack or natural disaster that might affect the power grid.

    In general, the green movement has to move away from guilt and fear and harness the human love of bright shiny toys. Sell environment friendly tech and *lifestyle* as cool, hip, convenient and cutting edge and people will want to buy it. And money talks. It’s already happening with hybrids, Transit Oriented Development and geothermal heating/cooling for residential housing.

    ( and the bit about the batteries not working well in cold weather is true BTW. )

  4. The power has to come from somewhere, but power from the grid has at least the possibility of being generated from clean, renewable sources. And even dirty sources like coal can, if centralized, have all sorts of high-tech wizardry applied to make them clean(er). You just can not do that with a car burning gasoline.

    And unfortunately, petroleum-derived hydrogen is actually worse- it takes nearly three times the energy to extract the hydrogen that it would take to produce a similar amount of power directly as electricity. And current methods for producing hydrogen would result in a pump-cost of about $10 for the equivalent energy of a gallon of gasoline. We seem to be heading the wrong way with hydrogen fuel cells…

    As for the cost of the car…people will spend $80k to buy a hummer, or $60k to buy a BMW. A pickup truck is $45k. And has room for two people, three if you don’t mind being really friendly. A Prius can have 5 people, and costs about $35k. I don’t see that as unreasonable. What I see as unreasonable is the guy who thinks it is his god-given right to drive all by himself in a suburban or a Hummer up and down highway one in rush hour traffic.

    It is a matter of perspective, I guess. If I need to cart around a refridgerator once a year, does it make sense to buy a vehicle for that one instance a year? Or should I buy a more efficient vehicle, and rent something for that one day a year I need the extra capacity? Why does someone carting 7 people around need a Ford Excursion at 6 mles to the gallon, when they could get a minivan that gets 25 miles to the gallon to haul the same number of people?

    I know myself that I find it hard to think in terms of having “enough” for 95% of my needs. 200 km of range covers that 95%, but having to go through the “hassle” of renting or something when I decide I want to go a bit further…I’d rather not have to compromise, I guess. But I’ll give it more serious thought the next time I buy. In half a decade or so, maybe the available vehicles will have caught up with my wants.

    Interesting fact from Who Killed the Electric Car…current laws allow a private business in the U.S. to write off $4,000 for the purchase of a hybrid or electric vehicle. Under the same current legislation, that private business could write off up to $100,000 for the purchase of a Hummer or similar super-sized 4×4. That makes it pretty clear to me that the “green movement” has a point when they say that the hyper-consumers and the big business that feeds them are stacking the deck unfairly.

  5. But, that is where the green movement fails.

    Look how pissed off you get when someone criticizes you for you choice of suburban life. They may technically be correct when they say it would be more environmentally friendly if you lived in a high rise in the core instead, but it certainly does nothing to convince you to move … quite the opposite. You get ticked off that some holier than thou crusader thinks everyone should live the way they do 😉

    It’s much the same with the big SUV’s. People buy those because Arnold drove around in a Hummer. Because it makes them feel strong, powerful, indestructible, or famous and rich. They scream bloody murder when someone threatens to tax their big ride. Now imagine that those same people thought that a green car was uber cool, that it showed they were virile, clever, and oh so chic … that big manly men would come up to one another and say, ” Awesome.” All those people would want, say, electric cars. And imagine the screaming they would make if they couldn’t write off their new toy? Politicians want easy votes, and that would be an easy way to get them… if there is the demand.

    “Good for the environment” can be a selling point, but it can’t be the only selling point, and too often when you look at the marketing for damn near anything it comes down to “cool, exciting, fun” vs “good for the environment.” It’s like good food as opposed to “health food.” The latter will only appeal to zealots and hypochondriacs while the former should be healthy, but people will buy it first and foremost because it tastes wonderful. A good example is Windjammer cruises http://www.windjammer.com/ they market the romance and the adventure, not “we know you’d rather be on a big casino ship but hey, we use less gas.” 😉


    Anyway, thing that bugs me about SUV’s is that you can’t haul anything in them even if you wanted to. You can fit more stuff in a mini van.

    My truck gets used as a truck on average once a week, and sadly has the dings to prove it 🙁 Still, the original plan was for it to be smaller and not to be a daily driver. But stuff happened. Things change a lot in 5 years, but I can’t change vehicles that fast.

    It’s why I ( who travel mostly within what is defined as “urban core” wish we had a proper transit system. Because with decent transit for that 95% we are talking about I don’t even need a friken car at all: hydrogen, hybrid, or electric… and even the biggest gas guzzler trumps an electric if it is sitting in the garage with the engine off.

  6. I’m not part of the green movement. I wouldn’t want to tell people what to drive, or force them to live in a particular place. I don’t think everyone should drive electrics, even though I may one day. But legislation can make the absolute *worst* choice even more appealing (see my comment about the Hummer subsidy).

    The trick is to avoid making driving that gas guzzler even *more* appealing by granting tax benefits for driving the thing. And to take at least some steps to encourage the alternatives. What happened with electric cars in the ’90s was an absolute crime: they had efficient working cars that worked well in their environment, they had standardized charging stations, they had happy consumers. Between the government, the automakers, and the oil companies, they obliterated that opportunity.

    Mass transit is great, but it’s a 30 year project costing fourty or fifty billion dollars out here in Vancouver. That’s assuming the transit authority develops the balls to actually get started. Instead they spend a billion or two and run a route to the airport where no one lives. Today, it would take two to three hours for me to get to work on mass transit, and cost me about $8 for the privilege- each way. And heaven forfend if I should have to get to and from work outside of normal business hours.

    Maybe part of the problem today is too many alternatives. When the really successful mass transit systems were built, in places like London or New York, it was the late 19th century. It was rail, or horses- really, no alternatives. The most efficient alternative (rail) was also arguably the *only* alternative. Once the base was there, expanding it was a no-brainer. Today, you have cars, buses, subways, elevated rail, blended systems with rail and “sign out” rental vehicles…someone has to make choices. Some of the worst choices, such as everyone driving around in single passenger super-sized SUVs, are also amongst the most financially and emotionally appealing. Politically its a lose-lose situation.

  7. Hey sorry to post as unrelated to the thoughts but the blog addy has changed…. go poke Chris for the new addy so you can re-link if you so desire. It’ waiting on his MSN. 🙂

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