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Watt's Next: Your Thoughts


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.