Electric Cars In America: Can We Do It? UPDATED

Is This The Future American Auto/Fuel System?
Is This The Future American Auto/Fuel System?

Should America dig deep and go electric? That is a complex question, well worth exploring in depth. But with talk of a major investment in infrastructure to spur the weak United States economy, this may be the very best time to move to an electric car economy.

This week the Financial Times featured an article doubting the feasibility of implementing an electric car/recharging system (to replace gas automobiles) in Europe, suggesting greater fuel efficiency standards and use of hybrid vehicles instead to solve transportation problems there:

[The report] concludes that there is not much future in the much vaunted developed of all electric-powered cars. Instead, it suggests that the traditional combustion engine powered by petrol, diesel, ethanol or new biofuels still offers the most realistic prospect of developing cleaner vehicles. Carbon emissions and fuel consumption could be cut by 30-40 per cent simply by improving the performance and efficiency of traditional engines and limiting the top speed to about 170km/hr. Even that is well above the average top speed restriction in Europe, with the notable exception of Germany. New so-called “stop and start” mechanisms can produce further 10 per cent reductions that can rise to 25-30 per cent in cities. Enhancements in car electronics as well as the development of more energy efficient tyres, such as Michelin’s new “energy saver” technology, are also expected to help reduce consumption and pollution. Overall, the Syrota report says that adapting and improving conventional engines could enhance their efficiency by an average of 50 per cent. It also argues that new-generation hybrid cars combining conventional engines with electric propulsion could provide an interesting future alternative. The report warns that the overall cost of an all-electric car remains unviable at around double that of a conventional vehicle. Battery technology is still unsatisfactory, severely limiting performance both in terms of range and speed. The electricity supply for these batteries would continue to come from mostly fossil sources. [Emph Added].

There are several systemic problems that must be resolved regarding the electric car economy: battery technology must improve significantly for performance; charging architecture must be developed to make it easy to recharge cars after long commutes; national power grids must be able to handle dramatically increased loads; and the electric car must be a viable alternative to other private transportation options. Despite the hurdles to moving away from a petroleum-based transportation system, some companies and countries are nonetheless moving forward with electric cars. Thomas Friedman (yes I know I take some cheap shots at him here, but it is all in good fun) details some efforts by foreign companies to develop an electric car system that are occuring right now:

The Better Place electric car charging system involves generating electrons from as much renewable energy — such as wind and solar — as possible and then feeding those clean electrons into a national electric car charging infrastructure. This consists of electricity charging spots with plug-in outlets — the first pilots were opened in Israel this week — plus battery-exchange stations all over the respective country. The whole system is then coordinated by a service control center that integrates and does the billing. Under the Better Place model, consumers can either buy or lease an electric car from the French automaker Renault or Japanese companies like Nissan (General Motors snubbed [The Better Place’s owner]) and then buy miles on their electric car batteries from Better Place the way you now buy an Apple cellphone and the minutes from AT&T. That way Better Place, or any car company that partners with it, benefits from each mile you drive. G.M. sells cars. Better Place is selling mobility miles. The first Renault and Nissan electric cars are scheduled to hit Denmark and Israel in 2011, when the whole system should be up and running.

The Better Place Electric Car System
The Better Place Electric Car System

Making the United States viable for electric technology would no doubt be a costly endeavor, and its execution poses several inherent social, economic, and political risks risks. But the rewards of the switch could be equally great as well. Switching to an electric car economy would dramatically decrease the amount of oil this country imports. A dramatic decrease in American oil demand would likely cause the price of oil to drop significantly worldwide, and the numerous authoritarian oil-exporting regimes would have less money to finance terror, or even a security apparatus to shackle their citizens, and would be compelled to reform. Could/Would Iran finance Hezbollah if oil was at ten dollars per barrel?

Demand for batteries could spur an entirely new industry in this country, generating thousands of manufacturing jobs. Likewise, the need for increased energy output would require an investment in new power plants (by necessity many nuclear plants, not just the unproven wind and solar plants that Friedman touts in the article), something our antiquated and overtapped power grid sorely needs this very moment. Over the long term, increased energy production and a decrease in oil prices would lower overall energy costs, which would dramatically help Americans on a fixed income (reduced heating bills in the Northeast, for starters).

So think big, and think about an electric car economy, new administration. This is the kind of visionary infrastructure investment that could dramatically change the security and economic status of the United States, much more so than a nationwide big dig.

Post Script: Friedman, who has supported the auto bailout in earlier columns, interestingly concludes his Better Place-espousing column with this jab at the Big Three:

Do not expect [movement to an electric car economy] to come out of Detroit. Remember, in 1908, the Ford Model-T got better mileage — 25 miles per gallon — than many Ford, G.M. and Chrysler models made in 2008. But don’t be surprised when it comes out of somewhere else. It can be done. It will be done. If we miss the chance to win the race for Car 2.0 because we keep mindlessly bailing out Car 1.0, there will be no one to blame more than Detroit’s new shareholders: we the taxpayers. [emph. added]

UPDATE: Pres Elect Obama is apparently going to propose a stimulus package that approaches $1 Trillion in January, according to this report; that should be more than enough to at least get America started on the electric car economy, no? There might even be enough plata left after working energy independence issues to invest in a bunch of really dumb programs that do not help anyone, or have no lasting positive impact on the country, so everyone could be happy.

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10 thoughts on “Electric Cars In America: Can We Do It? UPDATED

  1. Of the money we have seen thrown around thus far let me ask you this, that 168 billion that our country borrowed to give away to us in the form of an “economic stimulus package” …did it do a darn thing to create jobs or stimulate our economy. NO, nothing. And we borrowed the money from China. This past year the high cost of gas nearly destroyed our economy and society. More people lost jobs and homes as a direct result of that than any other factor in our history. Fannie and Freddie continue to get all the blame. Of all the homes I have seen lost in my area SW FL and believe me I have seen many, none were due to an adjustable mortgage. They were due to lack of work. Families went broke at the pump alone. Then added to that were increased electric rates FPL raised ours 16%. The high cost of fuel resulted in higher production and shipping costs that were passed on to the consumer, in most cases higher prices for smaller packaging. Consumers tightened their belts, cut back, went out to eat less or stopped totally. Drove around on tires that needed replacing longer, some even quit buying medicines they really need. Unfortunately cutting back and spending less results in even more layoffs. A real economical catch-22. And, as we are doing the happy dance around the lower prices at the pumps OPEC is planning to cut production to raise prices. They are even getting Russia in on the cutbacks. Oil is finite. We have used up the easy to get to reserves already. It will run out one day. We have so much available to us. Solar and Wind are free sources of energy. Of course to get the harnessing process set up is somewhat costly it is still free energy. It would cost the equivalent of 60 cents per gallon to charge and drive an electric car. The electricity to charge the car could be generated by solar or wind at least in part and in most cases totally. Why not use some of these billions to promote the set up of alternative energy projects on a national level? Give tax breaks and incentives to promote this. We could create clean cheap electricity, create millions of BADLY needed new green collar jobs, and most importantly get out from under our dependence on foreign oil. We should never allow anyone to have that much control over us as a nation. If all gasoline cars, trucks, and suv’s instead had plug-in electric drive trains, the amount of electricity needed to replace gasoline is about equal to the estimated wind energy potential of the state of North Dakota. What a powerful resources we have neglected. Jeff Wilson has a profound new book out called The Manhattan Project of 2009 Energy Independence Now. I suggest anyone interested in this subject read this book. http://www.themanhattanprojectof2009.com

  2. Sherry,

    Good comment, although I am not so sure about the book. I would say that any proposal to increase energy output immediately that does not include building nuclear plants is disingenuous, though.

  3. Every time I hear about the production of Electric Cars I think it’s a no-brainer. It would create new jobs and opportunities for one thing and for another it is a direction that we have to pursue if we want to live on the planet in the near future in a manner even close to what we are acclimated to.

  4. J Lee,

    I agree 100%. This is also an opportune time to pursue the big investment required to support a transition to electric cars, too, in terms of infrastructure.

    I would rather see the govt take a risk on electric cars then throw this money into a bunch of disparate road and bridge repairs. . .

  5. Pingback: Car Electronics
  6. At this time, none of the major auto manufacturers are senlilg full electric highway-capable cars to the public.There there is a company called ZAP (Zero Air Pollution) who sells a three-wheeled full-electric car called a Xebra that has a top speed of about 40 mph and a range of about 40 miles. List price is about $10,500. They are also working with Lotus on a vehicle called a ZAP-X which they say will have a top speed of 155 mph and a range of 350 miles. No word on the price point yet.The Meyers Motors NmG (No more Gas) (formerly the Corbin Sparrow) is another three-wheeled electric car. It has a top speed of over 70 mph and a range of about 30 miles. It is available for $24,900.There is another company called Commuter Cars who sell a full-electric two-seater called a Tango, the first of which was sold to actor George Clooney. It has a top speed of 150 mph and a range of 60-80 miles. They are not in full production yet. The model available now, the T600, costs $108,000. They plan to make the T200 available in 2008 for $40,000 and the T100 in 2009 for $19,000.A company called AC Propulsion offers a conversion of a Scion xB to full electric. They call their offering the eBox. It has a top speed of 95 mph, and a range of 140-180 miles per charge, the conversion costs $55,000. Tom Hanks bought one of these recently.Finally, Tesla Motors will offer the Tesla Roadster in 2008 for $92,000. (All of the 2007 models have been spoken for.) It has a top speed of 130 mph, range of 200 miles, and 0 to 60 in about 4 seconds.

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