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.


Nutjob

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.

Peter

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.

Julie

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.

rusty

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.

Min

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

Philippe

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.

broschultz

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.

Philippe

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

Paul

The biggest hurdle facing wide adoption of electric vehicles are production capacity and regulations. Vehicles such as the Aptera (www.aptera.com) travel over 100 miles per charge - enough for most commuters - and cost ~$2.00 to 'fill up'.

Paul

No way electric cars will beat out natural gas. I sure as heck don't want to drive one of those tiny cars, when you have huge SUV's out there. Most Americans care about their current safety (getting rear ended by an SUV) than about their future safetey (global warming). I am not exactly sure the carbon effect of natural gas, but its cheaper and much more abundant in the US.

Either way infrastructure will have to change, either for electric or natural gas. Might as well make it for the more efficient energy.

(PS no way in heck with everyone having a electric car, will electricity be cheap) Sure its great if your the only one but increase the demand and it will turn expensive and inefficient.

Uthor

There was an interesting TED Talk about an electric car where you exchange the batteries at drive-up stations on the road (like current gas stations), which means you can "recharge" the car in minutes. That would virtually eliminate range limits on electric cars.

http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/shai_agassi_on_electric_cars.html

Zachary

I think it is a pretty simple formula for which electric car will dominate. It will be whichever manufacturer that can make a comparable electric car (range, size, features) for a comparable price to existing standard cars. Only then will the bulk of people move to electric. The early adopters will support the technology and the higher price tag for quite some time I think. The price tag will be the tipping point.

John

A couple of years ago a long-time racecar circuit cam specialist, Bruce Crower, developed the 6-cycle engine so that a combustion engine could run on a combination of gas and water (yes, H2O). On his modified diesel engine (modified to run gas and water with 6-cycles), he was estimating he could get 30-50% more mileage. Furthermore, building such an engine did not require a very different production process from current combustion engine production.

At a 30-50% mileage gain, wouldn't this be worth it?

The objection to this system I got from an engine engineer at a major European car manufacturer was corrosion from the water. My return question was: isn't materials (especially ceramics) science well enough advanced to 'coat' the water-exposed cylinders and evacuation system so the issue becomes secondary?

John

Another technology that may arrive earlier than many think is hydrogen.

The biggest hurdles are safe storage and producing the hydrogen from water (which requires energy) at a low cost.

Safe storage is pretty much licked by the engineers.

Low-cost production (in your own garage!) seems to be around the corner too. Recent work on low-cost, low energy anodes needed for the production process has reached a breakthrough in a couple university labs.

Forget electric cars. You'll use a solar panel to generate the electricity to produce the hydrogen to fuel your car, and the only exhaust will be water. This will be the death of the oil companies (for cars at least) unless they get into the hydrogen production process.

Bryan Wheelock

The problem with natural gas cars is that eventually that resource will run out as well.

Bruce

My wife hasn't pumped gas for years...she drives an all electric 2002 Toyota RAV4-EV (which is hardly a mini-car). The solar panels on our roof can charge our RAV, power our heat pump/ac and we still only pay $5/mo connect fee to SCE. We like to say we drive on sunshine.

And what electric infrastructure problem? We don't NEED a massive public charging infrastructure to power our EVs I've got outlets in my garage, don't you?

Once gas prices start going back up (and who out there doesn't think they won't) those big SUVs will be dinosaurs.

So let's get the EV wheels on the road first, then worry about optimizing later. EVs are fast, clean and domestically powered. Bring 'em on!!

Gale

Rusty,

Yes, it shifts the polluting from streets to local power plants, but you're forgetting something: efficiencies of scale. It is easier to control the efficiency of the power creation, and the resulting pollution when there are fewer and larger points to clean/control.

Permanent solution? No. Step in the right direction? Absolutely!

Huffman

I'm your "average American consumer" and there's no way I'm buying one anytime soon. Long-term cost-of-ownership is terrible. And what are you going to do when all those used batteries start to pile up? Probably a worse environmental nightmare than nuclear waste, which at least is better controlled.

Cory

Until and unless we move to nuclear power, then we have done nothing more than find a way to move pollution from the tailpipe to the smokestack. Color me unimpressed.

Ultimately, we'll move to hydrogen fuel cells. People aren't willing to wait for hours so their vehicles can recharge. By contrast, we are use to filling up a tank with a fuel and driving off, repeating when necessary.

We just need to find a way to produce massive amounts of electricity in a low-pollution, cost-effective* manner.

*The fact that we need massive amounts of cost-effective electricity knocks out the possibility of solar and wind.

Nick

The electric car will go through its normal birth pains. At first, the range won't be that great but consider how long it took for the gas engine to evolve and we can see, electric vehicles, EV have come a long way in relatively short time.

My car gets 300 miles on a tank and pollutes. My next car will be electric, as I refuse to send more money to criminal regions of the world managed by equally local criminals. I will most likely buy the Leaf, although I am considering the conversion of one of my older and more charming cars. In the meantime, I bike and walk as much as I can while the rising price of gas effects me little. Whenever I have to drive, I hypermile.

If politicians won't hear us, my wallet will speak louder than their rhetoric.

Nick