Watt's Next: Your Thoughts

DESCRIPTIONPhoto: Rachel H

With a large number of electric vehicles in the pipeline (see this new piece in The Economist), my staff EV expert (my brother Brad) and I asked for your wit and wisdom on their prospects. Some of your thoughts on whether EV’s will “clean up”:

I think it is a pretty simple formula for which electric car will dominate. It will be whichever manufacturer can make a comparable electric car (range, size, features) for a comparable price to existing standard cars. The price tag will be the tipping point. — Zachary

Possibly. But though electric cars are currently considerably more expensive than comparable internal combustion models, we are confident that to save the environment the average American consumer will happily shell out thousands of extra dollars.

I’m your “average American consumer,” and there’s no way I’m buying one anytime soon. Long-term cost of ownership is terrible. — Huffman

Or not. But hopefully, the price gap between EV’s and ordinary internal combustion autos will drop over time, as batteries improve (the commonly bandied-about figure is that this is happening at a rate of perhaps 8 percent per year), as economies of scale are attained with larger auto production runs, and as governments introduce or raise subsidies. But sadly, for the moment price will be a major issue.

As for the range question:

Even with all the sprawl of the U.S., the vast majority of people never go more than 100 miles in one trip on any kind of daily basis. — Doug

True. But in the past, drivers have stubbornly refused to accept arguments like this. When they step into the showroom, they want to be covered for any eventuality without really calculating how rare some types of trip are. Think of the SUV owner who absolutely needs a behemoth for the two times she goes camping per year.

The auto companies have laid down very big bets on the minimum range consumers are willing to tolerate. Most are gambling that drivers will accept a range of 100 miles or less for a second, commuter car. G.M. is bucking this trend, going all in on the proposition that the consumer will accept no less than 300 miles. The Chevy Volt provides this by using a small gasoline engine to recharge the battery. If G.M. is right, they, or rather, “we” (since we do own the company) may be poised to cash in.

Several readers expressed concern that electric cars only replace internal combustion pollution with pollution created from the generation of electricity. However:

The argument that EV’s just move the pollution from the tailpipe to the smoke stack has been debunked many times. Please see here for a list of over 40 studies that clearly show that driving an EV is cleaner than a gas car regardless of where you get your electricity. — Paul Scott

And after all, oil refineries are no candidates for LEED green building certificates.

It takes about 7.5 kwh of electric power to refine a gallon of gasoline. An electric car can go 25 miles on that much power. So your conventional gasoline car is already consuming just as much electricity as my electric car. — BBHY

Indeed, EV World ran a feature that said, “The electricity used to refine oil alone would power cars further than what’s in the rest of the barrel.”

A number of readers wrote in about possibilities for alternate propulsion systems that still might give EV’s a run for their money. Natural gas got some mentions, but there is only one model available in the U.S.

There are also still some hydrogen boosters out there. But Matt argues that hydrogen is dead. Due to energy losses at many points in the hydrogen production cycle (for example, when the electricity produces the hydrogen, when the hydrogen is compressed, and when the hydrogen is transferred to the fuel cell):

… you need three times as much power per mile to drive the same distance in a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle as a pure electric vehicle using the same source of electricity. — Matt

The Obama administration seems to agree and has moved to stop funding research (though it seems likely that Congress will restore the money).

And our prognostications on the future of the EV? Brad is putting his bet on the Nissan LEAF. Pure electric cars make engineering sense and Nissan seems to be ahead of the pack and planning big, with a projected capacity of 200,000 cars in 2012 (probably more than all of its competitors combined). Also, Nissan already has a network of dealers and experience making autos, unlike Tesla and BYD. Since Brad is one of the 65 percent of American car-owning households that own more than one vehicle, a commuter car with limited range is not a problem. Nissan, if you are interested in an early adopter in Atlanta, have your people talk to Brad’s people.

And my thoughts? The EV is quite probably the future — but is it our future or our children’s? To a large extent this depends on the price of oil in the next few years. Consumers behave very viscerally, and often not particularly rationally, in response to changes in gas prices. Fury at the pump shoots sales of fuel-efficient autos through the roof, even when, as has been the case with hybrids, the fuel savings will never pay for themselves. With equal speed, consumers who were once lining up for hybrids lapse into gas-guzzling lethargy when the gas price drops.

Thus the gas price in the next few years as EV’s hit the market will have a tremendous amount to do with their success or failure. This makes it all the more imperative that governments give EV’s a boost by raising gas taxes, about which Levitt, Ayres, Dubner and I all periodically hector you.


LP

If a viable option would exist to either charge batteries or swap batteries (much like a propane tank), then the issue of range becomes moot. That will make EV much more attractive for those long drives or drives requiring more kW per mile (air conditioning / hills / TRAFFIC).

Mike D.

My biggest concern would be the auto repair shop network. How much would repairs cost, where would I go for repairs and maintenance?

DaveyNC

My kid MIGHT see electric cars adopted in her lifetime (she's 18), but I won't. And nobody will adopt them until the pricing comes down and the car makers build one that actually isn't embarassing to be seen in.

SB

The ones I have seen fully electric are the TESLAs and they're pretty much out of range for the average American (though they look good). But I am happy to see the proliferation of hybrids, which seems to me is a validation of your point saying that the average people would pay a little more to do their part for the environment.

That said, it probably will be the next generation who gets to see electric cars as a norm though...

Bill Allen

I think the US will be behind the curve on this one. They'll get picked up in the UK etc. where gas prices are out of control. The kinks will get hammered out in smaller markets and then finally the US, China etc. will adopt.

DrS

If you make a longer trip once per month (or two), then you have to add the cost of a rental car to your already higher electric car payments.
Also, if you are not sure you'll be in one place for years, the cost of moving the car, rather than driving it.

Just two more things to point out about why people would consider the range from home a huge inconvienance, that I would come across.

With that said, if they were in my price range, and I owned a house with a garage (big limiting factor!), I'd buy one.

paulwesterberg

I am in the same boat as Brad and agree that the nissan leaf offers an attractive commuter EV at an affordable price.

EVs are inevitable, world oil production peaked in 2005 and prices are not likely to fall as demand increases in china and india and new sources of petroleum such as deep water platforms and tar sands become increasingly expensive.

Everybody has cell phones and laptops that provide decent performance from lithium batteries. Users manage to keep them charged up and will have no trouble plugging in an electric vehicle.

For long distances I am hoping that companies step forward to produce tiny trailers with compact generators or batteries that can be rented/swaped for those times when you need extra range. This could provide new revenue for gas stations as their sales begin to decline.

@mike: EVs have many fewer complicated moving parts and systems and require much less maintenance compared to a combustion drive train.

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jblog

I think the biggest issue, and hardest to solve, is infrastructure for recharging.

Regardless of price point and range, people won't buy them if there's nowhere to plug them in away from home.

Until there are public recharging facilities curbside -- and think about what that would require, in terms of not only running the wire but also calculating billing for the individual driver -- plug-ins haven't got a prayer.

Joe D

One key feature would be a forward-looking plan by the auto companies to replace battery packs as the technology improves (for a fee, of course). If they told me that in five years I could spend $1000 for the latest battery technology, I think I'd be all over that deal.

Oh, and a $400 option to throw a PV array on my roof to which I could hook the car up at home, so it's not even on the grid? Awesome.

Joe D

Oh, and one more thing regarding the external PV cell (or heck, one built into the roof of the car!): Make sure the transformer/inverter is external to the vehicle (just like a cell phone or laptop) so I can hook straight up to the DC source without the loss from DC/AC/DC conversion.

Reza

Just put a price on carbon and let the market do its job. Afterall, if we burn more coal to charge are EV's, we're only marginally better off.

Basho

You have failed to do your due diligence and instead have merely propagated the false statements of EV World (which one would assume has a bias). If you had done a simple Google search of "refinery power consumption" you would find an EIA analysis of this very issue.

It turns out that refineries consume very little grid electricity relative to their total energy consumption. In 1998 the vast majority of the energy consumed in refineries came from byproducts of the refinery process (hydrocarbons whose price is so low that their best use was being burned in the refinery).

Since refineries primary need for energy comes from the need to heat up feedstock it should come as no surprise that they don't use that much electricity relative to their total energy consumption (even homeowners know it is cheaper to heat with natural gas than electricity).

Since refineries don't consume grid electricity it is not a proper apples to apples comparison. An EV requires those KWH (KWH is just a unit of energy) in the form of electricity. Even if that electricity is supplied by a relatively efficient combined cycle natural gas plant it is likely that more than twice the amount of KWH in natural gas will be consumed producing said electricity.

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Scott

Drivers have been adapting to limited "refill" resources for years. Think about how few gas stations offered diesel fuel back when it was all the rage. Sure, diesel never really caught on, but there were plenty of Betamax users who took the plunge and survived. A few well placed recharge stations (perhaps Costco or Target could offer a "recharge while you shop" option and corner the market) or reserved public parking spots with access to recharging would do it in the short term. Major oil companies will eventually be forced to provide a widespread solution or disappear.

Brent Goldfarb

The electric car will take off when it is cost effective. However, fuel is only about 20% of the cost of ownership (e.g., $8000 for a 2009 Ford Escape, according to Edmond's calculator). If an electric car saves 75% of those costs, that is $6,000. Of course, electric cars have a very expensive component, batteries that generally run more than that. So it is hard to make a car that will actually save money.
Four factors may attenuate this:
1. Lead adopters may just want an electric car. This may get us down the learning curve and reduce the cost of electric vehicle production.
2. The asymptotic costs of producing an electric car may be lower or approach that of a conventional car given that electric motors are simpler than internal combustion engines. In the long run, we will see motors mounted and powering individual wheels directly. This will simplify the design. Indeed I don't understand why this isn't already happening, but I suspect that duplicating the function of the differential electronically is quite difficult. Any engineers that can chime in on this?
3. Simpler cars may be cheaper to maintain. This could reduce the cost of ownership. However, the quality of cars is actually quite high right now - most new cars are not that expensive to maintain. So I do not see this as a advantage of the electric car. And the huge question about the cost of battery life is an unknown.
4. It is possible that innovative business models, such as that proposed by Project Better Place will provide clever ways to finance the batteries, and reduce range anxiety. What is particularly interesting about PBP's business model is that it works with current batteries. So the technological hurdles of batteries may be a bit of a red herring with regard to electric vehicle adoption.

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Garry

As one of the many thousands who have given up on suburbia and moved to a downtown condo with an underground parking garage, the main problem with EVs is that there is nowhere to plug in at night. I'll go with a Prius instead.

Xian

The question nobody has aswered is, the proliferation network of how to charge the cars. Apartment complexes are not going to pay for the electricity to charge your car, nor your work lot, nor shopping lots, the cost of implimenting a network would double the cost of electricity for your car, since I'm thinking it would be metered in a similar style to parking meters, but you have to be careful about 'energy theft'. either a pluglock or an electronic ID chip would need to be put into each plug to prevent such. all companies would have to standarize their plugs, a standard Edison would not work, and depending on the the voltage used 120v or 240v, I would say 240v personally to more efficiently and quickly recharge.

Jeff W

It's a basic chemical reality that liquid oxidizable fuels like gasoline and diesel oil will always have a higher energy density than batteries. The ultimate technical challenge, then, is not to make better batteries, but to figure out how to store energy in synthetic fuels, and let cars burn them in internal combustion engines. Work is already underway on using algae to turn sunlight into biodiesel.

Bob Wallace

Mike D. - re: repairs. The dealers' service people will be trained to repair EVs and PHEVs just as they are now trained to fix new things that come along every year. There's fuel injection, air bags, anti-lock brakes, ....

And independent shops will get up to speed as EVs start to exit warranty. I suspect battery pack and controllers are going to be swap-outs, not any shop will be done on them. Electric motors are electric motors and drive trains are drive trains.

--

Price and environmental concern are not the only tipping agents.

Think back a month or two when many of use were wilting under the hot summer sun as we filled up our cars. And think forward a few months when temperatures are going to be very uncomfortable and accompanied by rain, snow, high winds, etc.

Not that much fun to get out of your nice warm car and pump gas. Takes a while.

Nicer to push a button, drive into your garage, quickly plug in, and be done.

And even if you don't have a garage, think how much nicer to pull up to a charge point where you park and quickly plug in as you go to your apartment.

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Joe Smith

"It takes about 7.5 kwh of electric power to refine a gallon of gasoline. An electric car can go 25 miles on that much power."

This seems dubious - 7.5 KWH ( a measure of energy) equals 10 horsepower running for an hour.

How much can a vehicle weigh if a ten horsepower motor can move the vehicle over a typical road at an average speed of 25 miles per hour? or equivalently a 20 horsepower engine achieve an average speed of 50 miles per hour?

If it can be done, why are we manufacturing gasoline powered cars with over 200 horsepower?

Joe D

Xian @16: Plenty of apartment complexes have utilities included in the rent. Why wouldn't an EV owner simply pay more rent for a plug-in parking space?