Are Electric Cars Ready for Prime Time? I Think Not

May 4, 2012
The status of electric and hybrid cars.

As much as I love the idea of an electric car, but I am massively disappointed when I see what is going on with them.  They are good basic transportation and amazingly economical.  Yet, they are terribly limited.  Mainly in range.  For so many of you who commute, a hybrid Chevy Volt or all electric Nissan Leaf just does not cut it.  If you live in the suburbs, forget it.  A range of 30 to 100 miles before a recharge is just not practical.  It is a scary prospect for someone who fears a dead battery on an everyday run that is a trivial event for a regular gasoline car.

You know the problem, of course, the battery.  The battery is one of the oldest, if not THE oldest, pieces of electrical technology ever.  Alessandro Volta came up with this in 1800.  And while progress has been made over the years, battery technology has been slow to develop compared to other electrical technologies.  A typical lead acid battery now is almost the same as it was a 100+ years ago and it will no doubt stay that way.  My high school friend who runs Interstate Batteries says so.  Chemistry and physics are hard to change.  You get what you get.

Lithiums have come a long way but still do not have what it takes to power a 2000+ pound car for any length of time.  From what I have read, don’t look for much improvement in the coming years.  What we really need is a major breakthrough of some kind.  And it will probably be chemical not electrical.  How about the power of a Sears Die Hard in a package about the size of a deck of cards?

A look at Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf sales tells the story.  The Volt has a range of about 30 miles before the gasoline motor kicks in or a recharge is needed.  At a price of $40,000, few can afford it. It helps if you can get the $7500 tax credit, but it is not cash in your pocket to offset the initial purchase.  It is a good tax deduct but you only get the benefit of a part of that as you know.  Anyway, if you can meet the $40,000 tag, why not a BMW, Lexus or a big SUV?  (Or how about a luxury pickup truck?  The Ford F150 is the U.S.’s highest volume selling individual vehicle!!)  Since most the luxury car models hit 30+ mpg on the highway these days, who wants a Volt?  A great alternative is the Chevy Cruze which has the same look and platform as the Volt and sells for less than half the Volt, looks and drives just as good and gets nearly 40 mpg on the highway.  Its sales are booming.

Examining electric car sales really tells the story.  The Volt only sells a few hundred per month with the peak month so far being about 1400 units.  Sales have yet to break 10,000 per year.  In an industry that is poised to sell over 14 million cars this year, even 10K is pretty pathetic, less than one tenth of 1 %.  Leaf sales are not much better.  They are not a big hit even with the greenies who have sense enough to know what is practical and realistic.

And BTW, when you buy an electric car don’t forget to factor in a home charger and electricity costs.  Charger prices run from a couple thousand to over $3500 depending on where you live and your home/garage arrangement.  Also don’t overlook the availability of local chargers in your city or at work.  Are there any and where? Think dearth.  And I always wonder what the monthly electric bill is if you add in a car charge every day.   Another “hidden” cost.  Forgetting the charger and the electricity cost is like forgetting the cost of insurance on that new Porche or Corvette.  Duh……  I am beginning to think current electric/hybrid cars (Fisker, Tesla, etc.) are for rich Hollywood people who are part of the extreme “green” crowd.  Niche doesn’t come close to defining it.

The answer, of course, is the current trend, the hybrid.  Some electric with some gasoline backup.  The big trade-off.  The Prius made it happen.  And there are many other models available.  I tend to think of these as compromised cars.  Good gas mileage for sure but you trade off practically for every other aspect like performance, handling, and in some cases looks.  The Prius is the perfect example, an ugly crappy little car but astonishingly popular.  I guess if you are only looking for a transportation appliance and want to make a statement about how “green” you are, the Prius is the answer.   For those of us who are auto enthusiasts and love driving, hybrid cars are not on our lust-after wish list.  You cannot beat a standard gasoline vehicle.

Besides, even with the high gasoline prices, manufacturers have made great progress in efficiency.  Government mandates have also pushed development in fuel economy.  Virtually every new small and medium size car now gets over 30 mpg on the highway and that continues to creep up.  And performance and handling have not been compromised.  Using 4-cylinder engines, turbos and direct injection, mpg requirement is met while continuing to maintain good acceleration and handling.  My 2010 VW GTI has a 4-cylinder 200 hp turbo and runs 0-60 in less than 6 seconds and the quarter mile in about 14 seconds.  Top notch for a cheap car.  And in a recent 3300 mile trip it averaged 34-35 mpg.  Not bad considering it was hauling a load in the huge hatchback space.  The GTI is a great example of balanced performance, price, fun, functionality and economy. And there are others like it.  Zoom, zoom….something an electric cannot “say”.

I still like the idea of an electric car but they are just not practical for most of us.  Governmental and political pressure and incentives forced the industry go build electric and hybrid vehicles.  Maybe that needed to be done.  Auto manufacturers aren’t stupid and I suspect that they already knew what the outcome would be.  Any engineer can figure out how good an electric vehicle will be compared to a gasoline vehicle.  It is almost obvious but I guess going through the process validated what we already knew.  The battery is the weak link and will continue to be.  The outcome may be as it was with the first electric cars in the early 1900s.  They all went away.  That probably won’t happen if our government has any say, but don’t look for big breakthroughs any time soon. 

So what is the answer?  Solar panels on cars?  Wind power?  What about bringing back the idea of a fuel cell car?  Fuel cells are essentially batteries that never need charging.  But they do need hydrogen fuel. Where will we get the network of hydrogen gas stations that will be needed?  That will be even more expensive than a network of car chargers.  It is just not going to happen.

My answer is simply to keep on tweaking the gasoline engine for energy efficiency and search for more oil.  And rethink the idea of a natural gas car.  They have them now and with the recent glut of cheap natural gas it seems like a real practical solution.  Natural gas is inexpensive and readily available (at least in Texas) and less polluting than regular gasoline.  And most existing engines are easily modified to burn it.  Why not?  It is going to be a long time before gasoline cars go away, if ever.  We are not all going to ride bikes and most of us hate mass transportation.  We need a transitional solution that won’t kill off the oil and gas industry and not compromise the transportation options we all enjoy now.  What is it?

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