Watt's Next?

Did you see the animated film about GM’s bold vision for the future of auto propulsion? Cute cartoon characters lay out the options: electric vehicles, fuel cells, and lots of other exotic technologies. The movie boasts that alternative propulsion may soon free us from the tyranny of the internal combustion engine — or at least the filmmakers thought so when the movie was made for Epcot Center’s World of Motion, 25 years ago.

“Don’t forget, technological superiority alone might not carry the day.”

Since that time, the Berlin Wall has fallen, we’ve fought two wars in Iraq, ICT advances like the personal computer, the Internet, and email have revolutionized our lives by bringing countless Nigerian con scams conveniently into our homes and offices — and we’re still waiting for that miracle engine technology that seems to be perennially just around the corner.

We’ve flirted with ethanol, hydrogen fuel cells, biodiesel, and natural gas, to name a few. But ethanol isn’t efficient and has driven food prices up; fuel cells are too fragile and require energy to produce free hydrogen; natural gas would demand a new fueling infrastructure; and used French fry oil may be plentiful in America (I do my best to increase the supply), but it’s not plentiful enough to produce more than a fraction of the fuel needed.

But now things might finally be changing — thanks to the long-anticipated electric car. With almost every major automaker working on one, electric propulsion may finally be poised to break out. Or is it?
To help find the answer I called in my resident expert — my brother, Brad Morris — to co-author this post. Not only does he spam me with every morsel of electric car news that comes down the pike, but in the sweltering Atlanta summer he refuses to turn on the air conditioner in his hybrid Honda Civic for fear it will hurt his precious mileage. Now that’s commitment.

Electric propulsion holds the promise of less greenhouse gas emissions, fewer moving parts, easier maintenance, lower costs per mile, and better acceleration. It replaces a complicated engine, exhaust system, and transmission with a simple electric motor.

The downside is that plug-in electric cars currently have restricted range, charge slowly, have lithium batteries with a limited shelf life, and are on the pricey side.

But despite false starts (remember GM’s EV1?) it looks like electric’s day may be coming. Other alternative propulsion technologies are slowly falling by the wayside. The price of gas spiked and is rising again; there is continuing turbulence in the Middle East, Venezuela, and Nigeria; and global warming is a deadly and serious concern.

The gasoline-electric hybrid has been a success; 1.2 million Toyota Prius hybrids have been sold worldwide. The next step is plug-in autos that run in part or in full on electric power alone.

Here are some of the contenders:

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And there are plenty more: check out Plug In America’s vehicle tracker, which also has photos of the cars.

With such an across-the-board push, will the electric car triumph? And if so, which of the new plug-ins will offer the combination of cost, battery life, charging time, performance, availability, reliability, marketing muscle, and styling to open up America’s wallets?

These aren’t rhetorical answers; we really want to know your thoughts. Handicap the electric car race in the comments section.

Don’t forget, technological superiority alone might not carry the day. Who would have thought that VHS would beat out the superior Beta and that the Nintendo Wii would sell more units than the technologically more sophisticated Sony Playstation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360?

We’ll publish some of your prognostications next time. No schwag on the line, but if you’re lucky maybe GM will put you in a cartoon.

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  1. Nutjob says:

    I’m old enough to remember the first PC, the first Mac, the Tandy TRS-80 and the original Apple. They were of limited use, but today they have improved somewhat.

    The same goes for the electric car. I won’t buy a fifthly, polluting, technologically backward (ie the internal combustion engine) car that sends a good portion of my money to some despot (in say Venezuela, Russia, Nigeria or Texas), ever. I’d rather bike or take public transport. But electric cars are cool. They will get better and better, hooking into the same industries that print us cheaper computers, cameras, phones and other marvels.

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  2. Peter says:

    I don’t think electric will triumph without significant changes to the way we distribute and price electricity. The MPG estimates come from places with low electric costs and which charge less at night (presuming overnight charging).

    But most people don’t live in places like that. Most people pay the same per megawatt-hour regardless of what time they use it, and most people pay a substantial sum for their electricity at that.

    Electric cars working depends on the electrical production and distribution mechanism being so much wildly more efficient than individual gas motors that it overcomes the costs involved in changing over systems radically. I’m not sure we’re there yet.

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  3. Julie says:

    I too have a Honda Hybrid. When my lease is up in 3 years, I hope there will be a solid electric car on the market. I tend to not trust new technology in cars until it’s been out for a few years. I like the combination of electric with the backup of gasoline if needed, say for road trips.

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  4. rusty says:

    The next step (or was that the should-have-been-first-step?) will be to modernize our electric grid and power generating infrastructure. Otherwise, we’ll have the perfect excuse to miss work: “Sorry boss, but I plugged my car in last night before going to bed — how was I supposed to know there were gonna be brownouts?”

    Also, plug-in hybrids just shift the carbon-burning from the street to the local power plant. Pedestrians and bicyclists might be happier, but large swaths of America are still coal-powered.

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  5. Min says:

    But even coal plants are more efficient than the engines in cars.

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  6. Philippe says:

    Generally I think electric cars will coexist with internal engines for some time. At the beginning it will be mostly a commuter car, because that’s where it makes most sense. Also, they might prove more popular in Europe when distances are smaller and population more tightly packed.

    In France the only hybrids you see driving around are taxis. I expect that taxi stations will soon double as charging stations, so they can even go fully electric (the farthest you’d go in a cab is the airport so autonomy isn’t that useful).

    I don’t know about other European countries, but in France gas is heavily taxed so going electric makes more sense. A liter of unleaded is around 1.30 euro now (1.85$) or 8.3$ a gallon.

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  7. broschultz says:

    As soon as there is an ev equivalent to the original VW Bug, it will take off. 100 mile minium between charges at 55 mph. I hope to have bought my last ice.

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  8. Philippe says:

    Bad math, I used 4.5 liter a gallon instead of 3.7: price per gallon is 6.85$!

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