Monday, May 27, 2013

The electric car divide

Some weeks ago, a colleague of mine spotted a Tesla Model S in the wild. It sparked a debate because he is already driving a Chevy Volt, and I'm in the camp of not being willing to make concessions in order to own an electric car.
The problems are multiple, as I see it. For less than $20,000 I can buy a turbodiesel VW that can easily do 700 or more miles on a tank, and at the end of that range, be refilled in 3 minutes and do another 700 miles. Or for $70,000 I can buy a Model S that - as much as Tesla don't want it to be, is a fashion-statement boutique car. Yes it's a good commuter car and yes it's good for use around town or other low-mileage jaunts, but would you really blow that much money on a commuter-scooter?
Tesla make interesting claims about their range but again you're making concessions to get to that range. IF you only have one person in the car, IF the weather is just right, IF there are no traffic jams, IF you don't use the radio, IF you're not driving at night with the lights on, IF you can find a charging station, IF it has a fast charger, IF you can make it there in the first place and IF you have an hour to waste recharging it. IF you don't want to travel further than 250 miles. IF you don't mind turning AC or heating off when you're running out of range. IF, IF, IF. Too many concessions.
The Tesla S controversy sparked by the NYT reporter in February this year is the tip of the iceberg. Tesla told the reporter to drive a very specific route under very specific conditions. He didn't - he deviated a little - as you might do when you're driving - and the weather didn't cooperate (it wasn't "optimal" for the car). The reporter ended up stranded. Motor Trend's long term Model S struggles to get 235 miles to a charge - considerably shorter than the 300 mile range it's quoted as having. These are known problems with batteries and have been for decades, nay centuries. Altering the load, duration of load, or environmental conditions all have big impacts on battery life. In a regular car I don't need to worry about running out of range because I'm running the heater or the A/C .....
For electric cars to be acceptable to the masses, they need to overcome the biggest single problem - recharging. Sure you can pay money and have a charging station put in at home and yes you need to remember to plug it in every night. But when you're out and about, you will need to charge it at some point and that's where the problems start. Nobody has an hour to spare nowadays - least of all hanging around some sketchy filling station. Those are the last places you want to spend any time (it's why pay-at-the-pump is such a blessing. You can fill up without ever having to go inside the filling station). But with an electric car, you're destined to be stranded at a filling station for at least 30 minutes - more if you need a full charge or if the few charging points that they have are already occupied. There have been proven technology demos of cars with swappable battery packs ( - that's an awesome solution because you drive up, the robot changes the spent battery pack for a charged one, and you drive off. The problem there is that none of the car manufacturers can agree on a standard battery pack so that doesn't look like it's going to go anywhere.
Some proponents of pure electric cars argue that companies like Tesla will put in free charging stations. They won't. Remember the old adage about something seeming to good to be true? Why would Tesla motors eat the (considerable) cost of charging all their customer's cars for free? They're a publicly traded company, meaning they're run for the benefit of the shareholders, meaning you're not ever going to get anything out of them for free. Don't kid yourself. Elon Musk's primary goal is not to make you feel good - Tesla are in the business of keeping their shareholders and hedge funds happy (which it seems they do partly by reporting VINs registered rather than numbers of vehicles sold - Tesla's claimed 4,750 sales figure for Q1 2013 actually turned out to be 3,125 in reality). Look to Europe if you want to see the electric car charging future. Charging posts in parking lots and roadside stalls, that you either pay a monthly subscription to use, or simply swipe your credit card through to use them. Trust me - it's not free now, and it'll never be free in the future.
Electric car manufacturers are very keen (and proud) to point out that their vehicles 'zero emissions'. That's PR doublespeak. No, your car itself doesn't emit any pollutants, but the car is absolutely not 'zero emissions'. It needs charging, right? So a power station, somewhere, is creating electricity to charge the car. In the US that means either coal or oil (because people here are frightened of nuclear, and we have no federal renewable energy policy to speak of). So whilst your car might not be emitting pollutants locally, you are still contributing to the plume of unpleasantness that comes out of the smokestacks of power stations. There is one caveat though - if you're smart enough to have solar panels or a wind farm on your property, and that power is used to charge your car, then and only then can you properly be in smug mode about zero emissions.
Speaking of the electricity generating and distribution infrastructure, think about this for a moment. Right now we suffer rolling blackouts and a crumbling system of decades-old power plants and HV lines. Imagine that now we add all the extra demand to that system to charge millions of electric vehicles. How's that going to work out? What happens when you have a days-long power cut - that's not uncommon even in America. Your car is dead, you have no electricity to charge it - you're screwed. Protagonists will point out that "millions of electric vehicles" aren't suddenly going to appear overnight, and that as they gradually do take to the roads, the power infrastructure will grow to meet demand. Reality check; in the last ten years, the US hasn't built many (if any) new power stations. We have, however shut a few down. We haven't had a new nuclear station here since 1979! Demand is up, supply is down. How's that going to change just because people are now driving electric vehicles? If you don't think this is an issue, again look to Europe. Barely anyone has electric cars in the UK yet now the government want to mandate "smart" home appliances that can be remotely turned off when peak demand is too high - Mandatory remote appliance control.
The only realistic short-term solution to electric cars is to have some other mechanism in the car of supporting the electric load. Hydrogen fuel cells or small petrol or diesel generators are the best bet. But they need to be uncoupled completely from the drivetrain so that the only function they perform is battery charging. Volvo's 2007 ReCharge technology demonstrator was the best option - four in-wheel motors and a diesel generator. It removed all the complexity of the gearbox and transmission (and for the most part, the brakes too) which in turn made the car considerably lighter.
My views on electric cars tar me with the brush of being a luddite to a lot of people. I prefer to think of myself as a realist. I'd buy a diesel-electric vehicle in a heartbeat as long as it was normally priced. But nobody makes one and nobody is planning one. Given that premise, I have actually investigated the all-electric Fiat 500 and all-electric Ford Focus as in-town commuters (because I have a real car for real-world stuff) but two things put me off - (1) you can't easily buy them in America (virtually zero dealer inventory) and (2) the price is an absolute joke - $43,000 for a Ford Focus with less an 80 mile range? Are you bloody kidding me?
Pure-electric vehicles, whilst they may be our future, are currently still an extremely niche market for (probably) rich owners who don't mind owning compromised vehicles. Until they're down to normal prices, with a full infrastructure of charging stations or battery-swap stations, with an upgraded national power supply grid, they'll continue to be the wet dream of hedge funds and investment bankers. Which is odd because electric cars have been available to the mass market for 7 years now and we're still waiting for the prices to come down.....