Παρασκευή, 1 Μαρτίου 2013

Who killed the electric car?

Upon hearing the word 'electricity,' I paid closer attention to the vehicle which was going by me at that precise moment and it was easy for me to notice that, in fact, the 'soul' of the movement was indeed electricity.

Abbe Moigne encounters an electric vehicle on the streets of Paris, April 8, 1881.

Who killed the electric car?

Don't be ridiculous. You can't kill the electric car.

It's been around for well over a century.

It's the Frankenstein's monster of automobiledom. No, no, it's the Orphan Annie of automobiledom -- eternally singing "Tomorrow! Tomorrow!"

And tomorrow is only a battery away.

An odd (at first glance) amalgam of greenies, electric vehicle worshipers, energy independence conservatives and La-la Land liberals are all excited about Who Killed the Electric Car? (See the Sony Pictures trailer here) the "documentary mystery" film premiering this week which alleges the "murder" of the EV1, General Motors' electric car that cost the corporation billions and was leased to less than a thousand select customers between 1996 and 2003.

Hate to ruin the plot for you, but, yes folks, according to this film, the sleek little EV1 met the same fate as that myth-shrouded carburetor that could deliver more than 100 miles per gallon (and fueled millions of bull sessions for the past half century or so). It was done in by Big Oil and the Big Auto Makers and the whole gang of muffler shops, service stations, oil change stops, auto parts retailers, shade tree mechanics, engine rebuilders -- the evil spawn of the "infernal combustion engine."

According to the movie, this cabal does not want you to drive around in a silent, clean, cute and responsible vehicle like an electric car. So when a "viable" electric car came along -- brought to you by General Motors no less -- it had to die.

And, oh yes, before I forget, aiding and abetting this crime was, of course, the Bush Administration and particularly its slippery Richelieu, the Vice President. Indeed, this conspiracy is so big and dark that the Smithsonian Institution has removed the EV1 from display at the museum. It now rests in a warehouse somewhere in the Maryland suburbs.

Electric automobiles have been pronounced dead many times over the past century. Automotive history in the U.S. and Europe is littered with their names: Morris & Salom Electrobat, American Electric, Bushberry Electric Dog Cart, Jeantaud, Krieger, Woods, Baker, Detroit, Columbia, Riker, Foster, Rauch & Lang, Flanders, Studebaker, Waverly, Van Wagoner, Standard Electrique, to name a few.

Like strange, silent techno-zombies EVs keep rolling back into the public eye, earnestly appealing to us to ignore basic economics and fall under the sway of their swift, silent, non-polluting mobility. But despite the most ardent labor of various entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers; despite some of the most ingenious inventions, adaptations, modifications and applications of all sorts of technology, EVs have not been able to become the car the public wants them to be.

They have succeeded as purpose-built vehicles -- fork lifts, golf carts, "city cars," airport shuttles and the like. But they have never become the car for the open road, the let's-drive-over-to-the-shore-for-the-weekend car.


Let's go over this one more time, class: Range. Range is the problem. Electric cars do not have sufficient range to be the practical, versatile, every day car most people want.

They don't have range because they operate on batteries -- those mysterious sealed devices that convert chemicals into stored electrical energy. And batteries can't store enough energy to keep an EV going more than 50 or 60 miles, or in rare cases (with experienced drivers and the latest and very expensive nickel-metal-hydride battery packs) 150 miles, before they have to be recharged.

Put it this way. I can drive my wife's big Lexus 55 miles on two gallons (about 16 pounds) of gasoline that cost me six bucks. An electric car like the one featured here could travel the same distance by exhausting its 1000-pound battery pack (lead-acid, costing $2000) which would then have to be recharged. The recharging would take about four hours. I could replace the two gallons of gasoline in about 30 seconds, but I wouldn't have to because my wife's car can easily go another 450 highway cruising miles on a tank of gas.

I have always been fascinated by electric cars. And I appreciate the enthusiasm of EV partisans. But, frankly, I'm a little tired of hearing people brag about heroic 120 or 200 mile trips in their EVs. And how they only had to wait three or four hours before their batteries were charged up enough to go another 100 miles, provided they kept a feather foot on the accelerator.

And I am weary of how impressively fast EVs are. Of course they're fast. The direct power to the wheels is impressive. But at what cost? A huge drain on the batteries and dramatic decrease in cruising range.

Look, I drove the EV1, and I liked it -- for what it was. But it seemed like an awful lot of technological fuss -- super hard, low rolling-resistance tires, epoxy body construction, plastic panels, magnesium seat frames, advanced electronics -- at, according to one estimate, about $80,000 per car -- just to deliver a driving experience I could pretty much replicate and easily eclipse in a Miata or a Scion or a Honda S2000.

No matter what high hopes one may have for them, electric cars are cars of low expectations. They are, at their best, "only" cars -- cars for people who expect to drive only a few miles, only on generally flat roads, with only themselves or perhaps one passenger, with only light cargo, and only in moderate weather.

In the "urban environment" so cherished by enlightened folks, EVs are adequate to the task. Electric propulsion is wonderful in a closed and somewhat predictable environment like, say Catalina Island. You just silently glide along, accelerate instantly, and have a general feeling of well being. But, alas, we can't all live on Catalina Island.

(I write this fully aware of that handful of dedicated devotees who soldier on with electric cars in freezing temperatures, haul their families in converted electric sedans or vans, and manage fairly long trips.)

I do like the idea of electric cars. And I am always hoping that the latest enthusiasm about a revolutionary battery will in fact be true. But I have also found that too many EV enthusiasts seem to be a little bit contemptuous of ordinary folk who want to pack everyone in the van and go to the gymnastics competition a couple hundred miles away, or throw their dirt bikes into the back of the truck and head for the mountains.

These votaries of the EV religion get real heartburn when they see people barreling around in SUVs and pick up trucks that appear to be empty most of the time. They don't seem to grasp the fact that millions of motorists do not see their cars as spare and ascetic tools to get them from point A to point B. Like it or not, American motorists see their cars as full of potentialities and possibilities, some of which may seldom or never be fulfilled.

Yes, some of them may only make short trips from their townhouse to the organic food store or that global warming seminar at the university. But many, many more of them will more likely pick up a load of drywall at Home Depot or take the guys to a football game with all the impedimenta for a tailgate party piled in the back. They will drive 300 or so miles searching for an antique or a quaint place to eat. They will revel in the freedom of the road and the ineffable "feel" of a big sedan or a rugged truck.

I believe in technology and I believe in markets. If the EV1 was such a great car, its demise, for whatever reason, has merely opened the way for some competitor to build its equivalent or its superior. There are people trying. EV people are always busy, busy, busy with the next big thing. Maybe it will be Tesla Motors, the "new American car company" forming out in the Silicon Valley of California and promising "a performance-oriented electric vehicle with remarkable range, zero emissions, and spectacular mileage."

Maybe it will be Ian Wright, an entrepreneur from New Zealand (and former Tesla employee) who has built a prototype electric car he calls the X1. It is impressively fast. Wright has won some drag races with Porsches and Ferraris and he envisions a high-end ($100,000 a pop) electric roadster. Maybe Commuter Cars, a Spokane, Washington based firm, will hit with its Tango EV. Or there's the little ZENN (zero emissions, no noise) a 25 mile-per-hour top speed "neighborhood car" being built in Canada.

But if any of these builders aspire to the mass driving market they face a formidable barrier. Thus far, the subtle nudging of physics, the endless exploration of exotic materials and fabrication techniques -- the modern day alchemy -- to produce an affordable, quickly rechargeable and robust battery has not borne the hoped for fruit. It has resulted in wonderful advances in, for example, batteries for hand tools and small machines. But in the case of the electric car, the irreverently wise observation still holds:

It's the battery stupid!

It's the battery that prevents EVs from being real players. It's the battery that keeps EVs tantalizingly close to the technological curve but well behind the market's stern curve.

People who go around grousing and moaning about who killed the electric car are people with a schooled ignorance about markets and the realities of physics -- and an intellectual arrogance -- not only about what you and I should drive, but about how we should live.

by Ralph Kinney Bennett is a TCS contributing editor.

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