Who will reincarnate the electric car?

whokilledtheelect.jpgPlug-in hybrids and electric cars will, I believe, be one of the major solutions to our climate and oil problems — and deserve dedicated attention.

So Climate Progress is happy to introduce Marc Geller, who blogs at Plugs and Cars. He is on the Board of Directors of the Electric Auto Association. He co-founded and Plug In America. Both of us appeared in the film Who Killed the Electric Car. His full bio is here. Welcome, Marc!

The IEEE Spectrum Magazine for November 07 touts on its cover “Battery or Fuel-Cell Cars? A California Cabal Will Decide.” Interesting choice of headlines. Surely a strong argument can be made that something approaching a cabal turned a practical electric-cars-on-the-road mandate into a research and development program for hydrogen fuel cells vehicles.

Carmakers are desirous of delaying the inevitable but problematic move to electric drive. Oil companies shut out of electric markets are exploring biofuels and hydrogen as potential markets they could control. Academics awash in government and corporate grants analyse and research biofuels and hydrogen. The problem with electric is it is here now. Proven, ready to market. No significant need for research. Batteries could always use a nudge, but the 100+ mile battery has existed for over a decade. Price needs to come down by a factor of two at most, not a factor of 100. Economies of scale, baby!

Facts are facts. Not five years ago we had thousands (about 6000) of battery electrics as daily drivers for consumers like you and me and utilities’ fleets like PG&E and SCE. Thanks to Plug In America‘s predecessor, about 1000 of those cars still drive today on the original batteries using existing electric infrastructure. Their owners love them, and when one appears on the used car market it sells for more than the $42,000 original MSRP.

Also today, instead of thousands more electric cars envisioned by the original ZEV mandate, we have about two hundred $1-million-dollar hydrogen FCVs functioning as demo vehicles, limited by the lack of infrastructure, and lasting the limited 2 to 4 year life of their fuel cell stack.

The IEEE article does a decent job of wending through the ZEV morass. Auto makers still want lots of credit for fuel cells, they just don’t want to keep to the agreed timetable. That which they don’t kill (EVs in 2003) they hope to delay (FCVs in 2008).

However plug-in cars, both plug-in hybrids and electric cars, are seeing a resurgence. Every car maker has announced intentions to plug something in. But they certainly don’t want a mandate to do it. Groups such as Plug In America are asking for parity for Zero Emission Vehicles of whatever type. They say the point is ZEV miles on the road. ARB Board member and recipient of millions in fuel cell and hydrogen grants Dan Sperling fears parity will lead auto makers to take the cheaper “easy way,” battery electric cars. “Automakers might abandon their fuel-cell programs,” he said.

“So what” reply proponents of battery electric cars, citing battery improvements that surpass fuel cell advancements and existing infrastructure supplying domestically produced fuel at a fraction of the cost of gasoline. A ZEV is a ZEV is a ZEV, they point out, and even Toyota admits we won’t see FCVs in the showroom until 2030 at the earliest. ARB is meant to put ZEVs on the road, driving, meeting real people’s real needs. Only battery cars can do that near term. CARB could nudge that process along as the ZEV program is revised early in 2008. The IEEE article contains a germ of hope:

…thanks to today’s climate – economic, political and atmospheric – some consumers are ready to trade range for a car that costs less to run and produces less pollution. CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols agrees. “People are willing to take a chance…”

— Marc G.

More posts by Marc can be found at Plugs and Cars.

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11 Responses to Who will reincarnate the electric car?

  1. kerry Butcher says:

    It’s hard to believe that anyone would be proud to have been in that crockumentary piece if lying nonsense called “Who Killed the Eelectric car?”
    I counted 15 major lies in that film, beginning with the preposterous claim that Ed Begley made about the EV-1 being a practical car that could meet the need of an overwhelming portion of the public. A true statement was that the overpriced, inconvenient EV-1 was recently named by Time as one of the worst 50 cars ever made. I note that it had no particular advantage over the Detroit Electric built in 1907. In 90 years of “progress”,
    it still required 8 hours to recharge a car that could barely guarantee a round trip to a destination a mere 40 miles away. $43K for a slowpoke that can’t get you anywhere, but makes you wait 8 hours before trying!!
    Why doesn’t the film admit its lies and come clean about how crappy the EV-1 really was? Chrids Paine is a lying, snot nosed skinny little piece of human garbage that needs a good kick in the balls. If he has any.

  2. Albenme says:

    It’s only too obvious that Kerry has a severe bias against electric cars and Chris Paine and is not very interested in the truth. The truth is that fast charging is available for the EVs of today and even to some extent the EV-1s of times past. The truth is that one doesn’t need to fully charge every time one charges up, depending on the car’s state of charge when starting to charge and how far one needs to go. The truth is that the second generation of EV-1s had a range of about 120 miles. A 120-mile range is certainly sufficient for a commuter car for large segments of metropolitan populations. If longer ranges are needed, a second car for a family that is a plug-in hybrid can fill that need. EVs are ZEVs, which produce no local pollution, alleviating health risks which kill thousands every year.

    BTW, the EV-1 was no slow-poke. It could take many a Porsche off the line.

  3. The EV1 was a beautiful piece of machinery in my eyes. I got to drive the AC propulsion version while the EV1 was still being rolled out and the guy told me I could burn rubber and I thought he was crazy. That was 1997. I’m somewhat of an environmentalist, but why would people want to burn rubber? Such a waste.

    Bear in mind that I am not a car officianado, actually I drive a Xebra, but I am aware of what happened during that period and I think the director of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” did come up short in laying blame. Not sure why but he turns it into a mystery at the end and leaves you hanging. My thinking is that the law of Occam’s Razor always apply: the simplest of competing theories should be preferred over the more complex.

    You know what the biggest problem with electric cars is?

    They don’t use gas.

  4. Since the electric car is far from dead, the question, “who killed the electric car?” is mute. The electric car is a near thing, but we will have to learn with its limitations. The rational for the move to electrical autos will be more economic that “green.” Electricity is cheaper than oil, and the price difference can be expected to increase. Watch what happens this Christmas as consumers have to choose between buying Christmas presents and paying of gas to drive their cars to work. There is a market for elerctric cars, and it will grow as the price of gas grows higher.

    Subaru and other Japanese car makers are developing 130 range plug in electrical cars. Current electrical car plans focus on batteries, but ultracapacitor technology is promising and have several advantages over conventional batteries, Ultracapacitor will probably end up being much cheaper than comprobable batteries, recharge far more quickly, will last the lifetime of a car, and do not have overheating problems.

    Urban freight can be transported by electrically powered trucks.

    We have to get use to the idea of recharging our cars every day, A 130 mile range will take care of most of our urban transportation needs, but does not work for long trips. People who want cars that can handle longer trips can choose plug-in hybrids. One advantage to going to Electrical cars (and trucks) in urban settings is decreased health care expenses.

    Air pollution caused by auto and truck emissions are associated with acute respiratory illnesses, and can trigger heart attacks. Many hospital emergency room admissions are associated with high levels of air pollution from auto and truck exhaust.

    Switching to electrical cars is not going to cost us more than buying conventional new cars, and in fact electrical cars and trucks will be cheaper to operate, and will save on medical insurance.

  5. Sortition says:

    Much as I distrust corporate America, I just don’t understand the “EVs are here, but car companies choose not to make them” argument. As I see it, you can be arguing one of two things. Either

    1. No money can be made on EVs (or, say, less money than can be made on ICE cars), or,

    2. Money can be made on EVs, but each and every car company is willingly foregoing that money.

    Neither of those seems likely. Why would Toyota and Honda be willing to be the first to put hybrids on the road but not be willing to try selling EVs?

    It just doesn’t make sense to me. I would be grateful if someone could explain.

    It seems more likely to me that the market for limited range cars is small because most people would like to use their car for the occasional long range trip even if most of their trips are less than 100 miles long.

    (I also have a question about battery life – how come my laptop batteries degrade in a couple of years and the batteries of the plug-in car last forever?)

  6. Charles Barton says:

    Sortition, You raise several interesting issues. Hybrids will not eliminate the use of fossil fuel engines, but given enough battery or capacitor range – say 200 kilometers – the engine will seldom be started, and will almost exclusively used for occasional long trips. Will consumers be willing to forgo the ability to take trips in their cars? I doubt it, even if a gasoline motor costs extra, and is seldom used.

    No one is talking about trucks. Urban deliveries and shipping often involve vehicles that are 100% dedicated to intraurban trips. Given a sufficient capacitor range, there would seem to be no reason why trucks could not forgo mounting even an engine.

    Capacitors have a clear advantage over batteries. They have similar storage potential per unit of weight. They can be quickly recharged. They will probably be cheaper to manufacture given a mass market, and they will last for the life of the car. Range requires weight. Weight is less a problem for trucks than for cars.

    In the past EVs were more novelties, rather than serious transportation vehicles. The cost of gas is turning EVs into serious transportation options at a time when rapidly maturing technology is making them into a realistic option. The EV is well suited for urban use, and the case for them is very strong. They are quieter. Unlike fossil fuel vehicles, EVs emit no toxic pollutants that damage people’s health. They do not emit CO2 directly, and they electricity generation can be CO2 free. Electricity is cheaper to buy than gasoline.

  7. Joe says:

    Less money can be made on pure EVs because they don’t require the constant oil changes and the like that car companies make so much money on. This would not be true of PHEVs.

  8. Paul K says:

    Since most people don’t use the dealer for oil changes it’s absurd to think that factors into car company decisions. Car companies (and aftermarket producers) make money on replacement parts. Car dealers make money on repair services. Electric cars will still need parts, repair and maintenance.

  9. GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz demonstrated that he understands the market GM faces very well:

    Question: “I’m sure you’re familiar with the report from the Department of Energy that stated that the existing utility grid in the U.S. could accommodate approximately 140 million plug-in hybrids right now (our reporter was dizzy from all the new iron around him – the actual number stated by the DOE in the report was 180 million). Has GM been in contact with the DOE or any of the utility companies regarding this conclusion?”

    Lutz: “No, although our research gives a smaller number than the DOE report, but it’s still a pretty big number. That’s the great thing about the Volt or an EV, it runs on something that is cheap and readily available in this country, doesn’t require pumps, pipelines, you know? It’s an even better situation in other countries like France; they have nuclear power that supplies cheap electricity, and if we had that here, we sure wouldn’t need much gasoline or imported oil for cars.”

    At the Los Angeles Auto Show, Lutz gave every indication that he views the EV as the future of GM: “It is aggressive,” Lutz said of the target, “but we’re not going to let up” on development of the concept car’s drivetrain, which combines advanced lithium ion batteries – a still unproven technology – with plug-in capability for recharging from household current and a small gasoline engine to keep the batteries charged on trips longer than 40 miles.

    “There’s a showdown at the O.K. Corral coming” over the competing battery technology of GM and Toyota according to Lutz. “It’s not a short-term effort” to make Chevrolet a global environmental leader, Lutz said. “It’s not an advertising campaign. It’s a global long-term commitment to technology.”

    Well now there you have it from Lutz;s mouth. Did GM kill the Electric Car, or are they betting the company ob it?

  10. wooden trays says:

    Less money can be made on pure EVs because they don’t require the constant oil changes and the like that car companies make so much money on. This would not be true of PHEVs.

  11. Parker says:

    It seems like something is missing, no?