Electric cars: why aren’t we talking about them?

The Economist (Charging around the city: How green and safe are they?) asks about the safety of electric cars on the streets of London. But to me, the big news is that there are electric cars on the streets of London! I mean, how cool is that? I saw a documentary last year called, Who Killed the Electric Car? (wee version here), that documented trials by (Ford? GM? I can’t remember which company) done in California of electric cars in the 1990s. The users were highly satisfied: the cars were just as peppy as regular ones, were nice and quiet, and easy on the repair side because the technology was much simpler than the internal combustion engine. The company then came and took them away, despite the users not wanting to give them up, and apparently scrapped them.

Cheap gas and the SUV revolution may explain the end of those trials, but now that climate change has emerged as a big issue, where are the electric cars? We only hear about hybrids, and nothing about electric cars, in the media and from our governments. Perhaps this is just the preferred alternative transition strategy for capitalism, one that allows Big Oil to keep selling oil, parts manufacturers to keep selling parts for repair. I’m not one for conspiracies, but this silence is just plain odd. If anything we should be engaging in a major industrial strategy push to make these things. People are not going to give up cars, so we need to change the engine.

Wikipedia has a good overview of the topic. There appear to be some challenges, but nothing insurmountable. If government came in and mandated that a growing proportion of sales starting in, say, 2010 had to be electric, with full phase-in 15-20 years later, and reinforced by a fee-bate system that taxed gas-guzzlers to subsidize the fuel-efficient ones, surely our smart engineers could iron out the design wrinkles.

2 comments

  • Reader Marc Lee asks why there’s little talk of electric cars at a time when climate change has emerged as such a big issue. He also brings up the film, “Who Killed the Electric Car,” and the U.S. automakers’ decision to stop their test marketing of these cars. This film was interesting and promoted the viewpoint of those who strongly believe in electric cars…but it did not accurately document why the EV1 and other electric vehicles of the era went away. It wasn’t a case of “who” killed the electric car, but rather “what”…and that “what” was extraordinarily high battery cost.

    I’ve spent time behind the wheel of every production electric vehicle that was test marketed in the U.S. during the 1990s, along with many other developmental models before and since. Over the course of a year-long test, I spent every day driving a GM EV1 and every night charging it with a home charger. Like almost every person who has driven this car, giving it back was not easy since driving the EV1 was just too great an experience.

    Unlike those who leased their EV1s to the bitter end – and I do mean “bitter” since so many fought hard to keep their cars from going away forever – I understand why GM needed those cars back. It’s simple, really. They cost far too much, or at least their batteries cost far too much (in the tens of thousands of dollars), to make them viable as an ongoing commercial product. With no business case moving forward, the prospect of keeping specially-trained technicians available in various areas to service the small number of EV1s out there, maintain a ready stock of specialized parts and electronic components, and in general support a product in the way that any automaker must was just not an economically responsible option.

    When the EV1 was being actively marketed, GM went to extraordinary lengths to interview potential buyers and make sure this limited-range electric car would fit their daily driving needs, and that the electrical service available in their garage, or neighborhood, could support the EV1’s high-power magnetic inductive charger. The process was thus because the last thing GM wanted was the risk of even a small number of profoundly dissatisfied lessees, or perhaps worse, EV1s at the side of the highway with batteries drained because a driver’s needs exceeded the range of this car’s batteries.

    At the end of the EV1’s short life, there were die-hard lessees who rationalized that GM could have sold them their EV1 if offered a waiver of liability – no parts needed, no service required, no warranty expected. But that’s not the way it works in the auto business. GM could no more abandon its EV1 in this way than any automaker could cast away its responsibilities for any other current model vehicle. Plus, considering the extent to which GM went in order to ensure a good match between potential EV1 lessees and their new electric vehicle from the very beginning, having cars on the road with no parts or service to sustain them was a very unreal expectation.

    While the EV1’s disappearance from U.S. highways is the most high-profile example of the passing of a milestone era for electric cars, this isn’t just about GM, and blame shouldn’t be reserved exclusively for automakers. When talking with a Toyota executive recently, the subject of electric cars came up and he reminded me that for a short time, that company’s electric-powered RAV4 EV was offered to individuals long after the automaker’s California Air Resources Board test marketing requirements were met. The number of takers was small. He wondered, “Where were the EV enthusiasts then?”

    An interesting array of limited-production, low-speed, fleet-focused, and special interest electric vehicle models are offered in many countries around the world. However, none are serious competitors to internal combustion engine vehicles…yet. This is likely to change in the future.

    For that to happen, a battery breakthrough is required, not just in energy density but clearly also in cost. Batteries have to be cheaper – a lot cheaper – than those available today to make full-function electric cars work in the marketplace. That same breakthrough will be required for plug-in hybrids that are being designed to operate solely on battery electric power for 20 to 60 miles, and then “conventional” gasoline-electric hybrid power for an additional range of up to 600 miles.

    Like many who are interested in seeing more efficient vehicles come to the world’s roadways, I’m waiting anxiously for this to unfold. But since I’ve closely followed the development of the electric car for so many years, I’m tempering my enthusiasm with the knowledge that regardless of hundreds of millions of development dollars spent over several decades, battery breakthroughs have their own timeline. Nickel-metal-hydride batteries have proven they can efficiently power commercially viable gasoline-electric hybrids today, although not without thousands of dollars in incremental cost. Now we need that additional battery breakthrough that will make the all-electric vehicle – and the plug-in hybrid – an affordable option as well.

    Ron Cogan
    Editor-in-Chief
    GreenCar.com and Green Car Journal

  • “…and the government is serious about alternative cars in the future” Yes, I agree. Zero emission cars such as electric cars, plug-ins & hybrids are becoming much more in-demand these days as it is economical and practical to use. Surely if I’ll get a car, I’ll get EV!

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