By Rex Roy
The reality is — day in and day out, time and time again, from people whom you’d like to believe — you’re being lied to about electric vehicles. When U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently visited the Detroit Auto Show, she pontificated about Michigan’s green manufacturing future, where solar- and wind-powered factories will soon produce pure, clean electric-powered vehicles.
Representatives from the environmental community take every opportunity to slam the transportation industry for not already being fully electric, giddily pointing to cottage-industry manufacturers of electric vehicles that are doing “the right thing.” Media talking heads (cable and broadcast) routinely castigate auto makers — especially the domestics — for being incapable of producing vehicles Americans want to buy because of a lack of foresight and engineering capabilities. This is all vapid blather.
Regardless, after years of hearing the above, many Americans believe some or all of the following:
Electric cars represent “new” technology.
Gasoline-powered engines are obsolete.
The world is soon going to run out of fossil fuels.
Major manufacturers are holding back readily available technology that would quickly transform the U.S. automotive fleet to electric vehicles.
Small-volume manufacturers of electric-vehicles possess and offer more advanced technology than major manufacturers.
Americans will want to drive the new electric vehicles, whatever they are.
The electric cars coming to market in the next 12 months will greatly impact the world.
We’ll all be driving electric vehicles in five years.
So what’s the truth? Some of you aren’t going to like this. My editor, Reilly Brennan, is prepared to receive requests for my head to be delivered on a silver platter to the nearest Sierra Club meeting. In fact, he doesn’t agree with me on many of these points.
Where appropriate, Reilly’s provided his counterpoint to my 7 “lies.” I’d love to hear which side of the argument you weigh in on.
Lie #1: Electric cars are “new.” Hogwash. Electric cars first trundled around the streets of major U.S. cities in the 1890s. Dozens of manufacturers produced electric cars back then, including Miller, Columbia, and Detroit Electric. Their ease of use compared to gasoline-powered cars was highly valued. Henry Ford’s wife Clara (yes, that Henry Ford, who founded the company that bears his name) even drove an electric car. While unthinkable to modern drivers, operating early gasoline-powered cars was a dangerous idea. Hundreds of people lost their lives crank starting their primitive cars. A simple backfire would whip the starting crank from the person’s hand and fatally clonk them in the head. Despite their popularity through the 1920s, early electric cars suffered the same issues plaguing today’s electric vehicle; range and charging times. An owner could only drive 30-40 miles before an overnight charge was required. This was as inconvenient then as it is today. Electric vehicles fell from favor because gasoline-powered vehicles became easier and safer to operate. Gasoline-powered cars could run further between fuel stops, which, unlike an electron recharge, could be accomplished in minutes as opposed to hours. The Detroit Electric Car Company was among the last manufactures of pure electric cars, ending volume production in 1929. Electric cars vanished because drivers didn’t want them. Gasoline-powered cars beat them out in the marketplace, fair and square. To a great extent, not much has changed. At least, not yet.
Sure, while the overall technology is not new, it’s new enough for virtually every driver on the road today. And, because in pure form it doesn’t burn gasoline (cast aside the issues of how the powerplant gets its fuel, normally from coal in most parts of the U.S.), it’s pretty attractive. Fire wasn’t new (to anyone, ever), but the first caveman to keep a spark alive after a lightning storm drew quite a crowd.
Lie #2: Gasoline-powered engines are obsolete. Gasoline-powered vehicles are the least expensive and most efficient manner to propel cars and light-duty trucks in the U.S. today. Incremental steps in technology have dramatically increased the efficiency of the internal combustion engine (ICE). Consider 1970. Most cars from that year used mechanical ignition systems, inhaled through carburetors, and had fixed valve timing. The catalytic converter, invented by General Motors, was still under development. But today, modern engines utilize computer-controlled ignition spark timing, employ sophisticated fuel-injection hardware, feature variable valvetrain timing, and effective pollution controls. With these and other technologies, modern ICEs are 99-percent cleaner running, and use roughly half the fuel to produce roughly twice as much power as their forbearers from 40 years ago. Also remember that today’s engines do this while powering much heavier vehicles, what with today’s required checklist for safety must-haves and customer features. I recently interviewed Gerhard Schmidt, Ford VP of Research & Advanced Engineering and the company’s Chief Technology Officer. Few people on the planet can speak as intelligently about the future of transportation. We spoke about the future of the traditional internal combustion engine. “We believe that using technology that we’re aware of today, the efficiency of the ICE can be further improved yet another 25-percent,” Schmidt said. Plain old “gas engines” are far from obsolete. Schmidt also pointed out another key piece of information that points to the continued use of ICEs: in terms of energy storage, gasoline is currently twice as energy-dense as the most advanced batteries available today (diesel is even more energy dense). While there will be geometric gains in battery storage technology in the coming years, gasoline remains the most efficient form of transportation fuel. This reality of efficient ICEs running on an energy-dense fuel sets a high bar for new powertrain technologies to jump over. –
I agree with you that ICEs are not obsolete (and technologically have become quite advanced), but their dominance hinges on their built-in infrastructure (lots of gas stations, not electric stations). Any technology used by a large number of people isn’t so much a technology as it is a system. And real-world systems take a long time to switch, as opposed to digital systems which have little to no switching pains or cost (think of how easy it is to switch from Google.com to Bing.com as your internet search engine of choice — it’s just one click away).
Lie #3: The world is soon going to run out of fossil fuels. Predictions about oil shortages were first made just years after the discovery of crude in Pennsylvania in 1859. Leading up to 1950, there were seven oil shortages, each one followed by dire warnings. Things got downright hysterical after the back-to-back Arab Oil Embargos of the 1970s. Oil doomsayers hijacked the collective consciousness and convinced generations of school children (many of whom grew up to be Congressmen) that the world would soon run out of oil. Poll With whom would you agree? Reilly Brennan Rex Roy Soon was supposed to have arrived already. While oil isn’t Earth’s version of the brew in Denny’s bottomless coffee cup, it’s not dry, either. Determining how much oil we’ve got is an evolving science. Our best bet is to measure how much we’re using against the current data of what we’ve been able to locate. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts enough oil and other forms of fuel out to 2035, the farthest anyone is willing predict. Much of that oil will come from domestic sources such as the Bakken Shale Oil Field, which covers sections of Montana, North Dakota, and Saskatchewan, that contains an estimated 3.65 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Drilling has already begun. That’s not all, but it might require some creative poking and prodding of the earth in order to access it. Under the Rocky Mountains lies another two trillion barrels of oil. It’s the largest known oil reserve in the world. For environmental reasons, the field hasn’t been tapped, but that situation may eventually change. No one knows when mankind will consume the world’s reserves of fossil fuels, but given advances in exploration and extraction techniques, it’s not likely to be within the lifetime of anyone alive today. ——————————————————————————– You’re not going to like me after this one, but I think you’re being selfish. So what if oil lasts through our lifetime? As I discussed before, fuel systems take decades to swap out. Do you want your kids or grandkids dealing with oil shortages with no real alternative already in place? I want future generations to be the beneficiaries of my foresight, not my laziness. Also, call me a liberal, but: I’m not sure I’m in favor of harvesting the Rockies because there’s oil down there. At some point we have to make trade-offs and choose what’s more important. Just because there’s an extra piece of cake on the platter doesn’t mean you should eat it.
Lie #4: Major manufacturers are holding back readily available technology that would quickly transform the U.S. automotive fleet to electric vehicles. Conspiracy theorists are fond of stating that Detroit auto manufacturers conspired with “big oil” to kill electric vehicles in order to keep fuel-swilling vehicles in American garages. Pure folly. Anyone who knows the history of The Detroit Three knows that General Motors came into existence as a way to make money and provide an ROI for investors. The fact that the company deals with cars is, on some level, almost incidental. Driven by cold capitalism, it’s improbable to believe that if GM possessed technology to revolutionize electric cars at any point in the company’s history, they would have done so. But GM couldn’t because the technology didn’t exist then. Or now. Similarly, ask yourself this: would the pre-bankruptcy leadership at GM have let Toyota become the world’s largest auto manufacturer if GM had game-changing electric vehicle technology? Of course not. GM’s fault in letting Toyota take charge of hybrid-electric vehicles is perhaps more embarrassing than simply not having the goods: they didn’t see the value in investing in a money-losing technology in order to achieve hybrid leadership. Toyota did (it lost money on every Prius sold up until recently) and in turn established itself as the go-to player in that segment.
I have no real counterpoint to this one. While big car companies get a deserved amount of grief for their missteps, they are also the ones creating most of the heavyweight technologies found throughout the market. This is why free markets are beautiful: at some point, competitive companies are incentivized to make better things. The stronger and faster each car company develops technology for use by consumers, the faster and cheaper we’ll be able to use it.
Lie #5: Small-volume manufacturers of electric-vehicles possess and offer more advanced technology than major manufacturers. The generalized thought is, “These new companies offer electric vehicles now, so they must have technology that the major manufacturers don’t.” This is superficially understandable, but wrong. The only reason major manufactures don’t have showrooms full of electric cars is that the technology doesn’t offer drivers the practicality and value they demand. Advanced technology or a lack of smart engineers is not what is keeping EVs off the road. Here’s proof… Who remembers the General Motors EV-1? GM produced the EV-1 as a way to test new technologies and push the boundaries of electric vehicle development. They succeeded and failed. GM’s team succeeded in building the most sophisticated electric vehicle the world had ever seen. The findings from the EV1 project have influenced nearly every major electric car program since, including the 2011 Chevrolet Volt. However, GM failed to communicate what the giant learned about electric vehicles. GM’s sometimes-inept marketing and PR departments totally botched the PR presentation of program results, and the subsequent termination of the effort and the scrapping of most EV1 units. While GM did “kill” their EV1, all that was learned during the project lives on. The EV1 and the upcoming Chevrolet Volt represent only a fraction of the electric car research conducted by major automakers in the last 50 years. Other makers have examples too, but focusing on GM reveals the company’s 1965 Electrovair II, a highway-capable pure-electric Chevrolet Corvair. In 1966, GM produced the world’s first hydrogen fuel-cell powered electric vehicle, the Electrovan. In terms of accumulated institutional knowledge on EVs, General Motors has likely misfiled more data and findings than new EV makers such as Tesla and Fisker Automotive have heretofore created. For those who don’t know, the $110,950 Tesla rides a chassis derived from a 15-year old Lotus. The lithium-ion battery pack used to power the Roadster is filled with 6,831 individual cells the company didn’t even develop on its own. Regarding Fisker, the most complex system in the upcoming Fisker Karma sedan — expected to cost at least $87,000 — is the engine used to power the electric car’s on-board generator. Who makes the engine? General Motors.
I agree with most of this, but I think that most manufacturers can’t go full bore on electric vehicle creation because they have to worry about creating the other dozen or so non-electrics in their lineup. As you rightfully point out elsewhere, they are in business to serve the consumer and their shareholders. Tesla’s advantage might be its singularity of focus: with nothing but electrics to worry about they can appear to be much faster. (And, with their Government money in hand, they don’t even need to worry about profits for a few years.) It’s only a matter of time until major manufacturers create specific hybrid or electric lineups that have the same focus. Such technology will likely be shared across all brands, but the marketing impact of all-electric could be more powerful in the long run. That means creating a new brand or division to achieve it.
Lie #6: Americans will want to drive the new electric vehicles, whatever they are. It is childishly optimistic to believe that Americans will altruistically drive vehicles that fall into the undefined category of “good for the planet.” Real Americans drive what they want. When they can’t do that, they drive what they can afford.
This is shifting. A CNW report last year noted that in 2009, electric vehicle consideration in the U.S. was at an all-time high. Among general new car intenders, 26.7% said they were “extremely” interested in electric vehicles, 37.6% “somewhat” and 35.7% “not at all.” Those numbers support electric acceptance. It’s just the infrastructure that needs to catch up.
Lie #7: The electric cars coming to market in the next 12 months will impact the U.S. in a measurable manner. While the number of hybrid vehicles is increasing, the Tesla Roadster is currently the only pure electric, DOT-certified pure electric vehicle for sale in the United States as of January 2010. Through December 2009, the company produced and sold 900 cars. In its worst year since 1982, new vehicle sales in the U.S. were 10.4 million units. Tesla therefore accounted for less than 0.00009-percent of sales. Other pure-electric vehicles are expected to follow the Tesla in calendar year 2010 including the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Fisker Karma. Estimates of vehicles produced by each manufacturer range from hundreds to thousands. The Chinese giant BYD plans on bringing their e6 electric car to the US late in 2010, but only expects to sell 300 vehicles in limited markets. Other bit players include the WheeGo Whip. The company hopes to introduce a high-speed version of their already-on-sale neighborhood electric vehicle by the end of the year. These are not numbers that can impact the environment or national energy security. Electric vehicles must be sold by the tens of thousands to have a measurable impact. Electric vehicle sales may follow a similar path as hybrids. With about a decade of sales, hybrids still only account for a single-digit percentage of the market. It will be a long time before electric vehicles make any genuine, measurable impact on the American fleet that contains approximately 240 million vehicles and requires some 18 years to “turn over.”
You’ve got to start somewhere. I do think they will have a big impact, though, as they’ll actually get us thinking about infrastructure needs. The total sales will be small, though.
Alright, naysayer, what does the future really hold for electric vehicles? Despite the aforementioned lies, the future of personal transportation is electric, but that future is decades away. Most importantly, battery and fuel-cell technology must mature so that it can become more effective and less costly. Ford Motor Company sees the gradual growth of alternative powered vehicles accounting for about a quarter of all vehicle production by 2035. Their estimate counts hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery electric vehicles. This leaves three-quarters of all U.S. vehicles motivated by ever-more-efficient versions of the trusty old internal combustion engine. Sorry to burst your bubble. However, the progress will continue to come. As scientists introduce newer generations of batteries, their capacity will go up as their weight, size and cost come down. While this is happening, technologies supporting renewable energy will improve, bolstering the country’s ability to charge the tens of thousands of electric vehicles that will one day account for 1 in 4 vehicles. Your author has driven the Tesla Roadster. If mainstream electric cars are only half as much fun to drive this amped-up Lotus derivative, the future of cars will be even more enjoyable than it is today. And that’s no lie. See post here.