With concerns about soaring gas prices, global warming and dependence on foreign oil, you might think the time is ripe for an electric car. Been there, done that.
Electric vehicles have existed since the 1830’s. Electric motors are mechanically simple, without noise, vibration or gears, and offer high energy conversion efficiency. Maintenance is minimal, with no oil changes, air filters, mufflers, etc. However, the batteries are expensive, and need to be recharged. Since demand is light at night, 20-30 million plug-in vehicles could be recharged without building any additional infrastructure. It would be like waking up each morning with a full tank of gas. Although there are no tailpipe emissions, they are an indirect source of pollution if the electricity is generated by nonrenewable resources like coal.
Between 1996 and 1998, General Motors did make 800 “EV1” electric vehicles available for three year leases. The cars were produced in response to a Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate passed by the California Air Resources Board in 1990. When the mandate was removed in 2003, and the leases expired, GM took possession of the cars and crushed them, despite an offer of $1.9 million from former EV drivers for 78 of the remaining cars.
The film “Who Killed the Electric Car” explores the birth and demise of the EV1. Like most ‘documentaries,’ the film does not deliver an unbiased analysis of the facts. However, it does offer an interesting perspective on the various “suspects” whose actions, or lack thereof, were associated with the end of the EV1.
CONSUMERS: GM claimed that, even though it spent millions on advertising, consumers were not interested in an expensive small car that had a limited range and required 45-60 minutes to recharge.
BATTERIES: When the EV1 debuted, it relied on lead acid batteries, some of which were defective. The first batteries had a 60 mile recharge limit; later versions had a 110-160 mile range. Nationwide, the average person only travels 29 miles a day (Source: Bureau of Transportation). Cars retrofitted with regular laptop batteries can go 300 miles on one charge.
OIL COMPANIES: The oil industry lobbied to build public opposition to an electric car. They saw it as a threat to their monopoly on transportation fuel. Dr. Joseph Romm, Executive Director for Energy and Climate Solutions, said that with 100 trillion dollars worth of business left to be done, “The oil companies have a strong incentive to discourage alternatives.”
CAR COMPANIES: The automotive production and maintenance industry revolves around an internal combustion engine. They resented and lobbied against the California mandate, which they viewed as a cancer. It would also have been somewhat schizophrenic to market the EV1 as a clean, efficient car of the future. That would imply that the rest of their products were dirty polluters using outmoded technology. They did not believe they could profit on electric cars or hybrids, predicting that Toyota would “lose their shirt” on the Prius. Instead of promoting a penny-pinching super green car, their strategy has focused on the more profitable, super-sized SUVs like the Hummer.
In the meantime, Toyota, Honda and others have moved forward to develop hybrids that rely on a combination of gas engine and electric drive chains. They can be fueled anywhere, have twice the range of a regular car, and braking recharges the battery. A modified plug-in hybrid that can be recharged at any 100 volt outlet can get 125-180 mpg, at a cost of about 60 cents a mile. The 2012 Chevrolet Volt can drive gas free on a battery for 35 miles, or rely on an onboard electricity that gets 375 miles on a full tank of gas. Tesla motor is manufacturing an electric roadster that goes from 0-60 in 4 seconds, has a range of more than 200 miles, and will cost less than 2 cents per mile to operate.
GOVERNMENT: Federal policy has tremendous power to shape the future. Without it, we probably would not have seat belts or catalytic converters on cars. In the 1970’s, fuel economy standards increased the average from 12 to 20 mpg. However, there has been virtually no change since then. The government can provide incentives. They have offered a $1,500 - 4,000 deduction offered for electric vehicles. Compare that to the $100,000 tax break offered to small businesses buying a 6,000 lb. + car like a Hummer.
Research in the U.S. is currently focused on hydrogen fuel cell cars. Skeptics do not believe they will be available to consumers for 15-30 years. According to Romm, the average hydrogen fuel cell car costs $1 million, has a limited range, uses 3-4 times the energy of a car powered by batteries, the fuel is wildly expensive, the fueling infrastructure does not exist, and they can not be charged at home or work. On the other hand, electric car and hybrid technology exists now. Two cents a mile sounds pretty appealing compared to current prices at the gasoline pump.