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Why Electric Cars Will Fail…and Have Already Triumphed


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tesla-roadsterTo press the "accelerator" on a Tesla Roadster 2.5 is to get an intimation of life as a race car driver. In perhaps the signature display of an electric car’s appeal to gearheads, the Roadster instantly applies more than 300 amps of electric current to deliver 288 horsepower worth of acceleration—it’s called instant torque, 273 pound-feet of it to be specific, and it’s something that fossil fuel engines cannot provide due to the demands of combustion. That allows even an unprofessional driver to go from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour in seconds.

"You consume more energy gunning it uphill," says Christy Pineda, Tesla’s sales and marketing manager in the northeastern U.S., while noting that the Environmental Protection Agency estimates a Tesla driven normally has a 393 kilometer range. "You can drive more efficiently or less efficiently. It’s up to you."

Such efficiency is a key selling point for electric cars like the Tesla—one buyer in Tesla’s New York City showroom was there to upgrade from a Prius. But electric cars face an extremely difficult simple physics problem: a lithium ion battery can hold 0.72 megajoule per kilogram, which is why the Roadster packs nearly 7,000 lithium ion cells into its battery pack. A kilogram of gasoline holds 35 megajoules. And plenty of expensive oil remains around the globe to feed our internal combustion machines for years to come.

Pair that with the vast distances often traversed by the average American motorist—a tank of gas will take you from St. Louis to Chicago, for example, while a cost-effective battery that’s also small enough and light enough to perform a similar trip does not yet exist—and it becomes more clear why electric cars have been killed, again and again, starting in the late 1800s.

The Roadster also demonstrates another major hurdle facing electric cars—price. At more than $100,000, the Roadster is a car only for those who can otherwise afford a Ferrari or some other high-end sports car. Hence the fact that roughly 1,700 of them are in private hands in 44 states and 30 countries around the world. Tesla is currently developing its Model S, which will join the Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt as the family friendly electric cars on the road next year. Yet, all of them cost more than $30,000 per car without any incentives.

Strong government support helps somewhat, including as much as $7,500 tax rebate from the purchase price per electric car and a commitment by President Obama’s administration to put 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. Stimulus money has already paid for the installation of more than 1,800 public charging stations nationwide. Of course, one doesn’t necessarily need a dedicated charging facility; a simple 110-volt outlet in a garage will do the trick for a Roadster, for example.

You can "fill up" a battery for $8 to $10 at current electricity prices in New York—compared to more than $40 for 10 gallons of gasoline—though it won’t take you nearly as far. Such immediate fuel cost savings are one of the primary reasons would-be electric car buyers are interested, balanced against the importance of driving range and speedy charging times, according to a recent University of Delaware survey. The same survey noted that it all comes back to cheaper, stronger batteries—without which electric cars will join hydrogen fuel cells in the litany of government favorites that floundered.

The Chevy Volt—and cars like it—offers a different alternative. The Volt employs gasoline combustion to generate electricity to recharge its battery during driving—turning fossil-fuel burning into a battery range extender. And that means the Volt is secretly a hybrid, like the Toyota Prius, albeit of a different flavor. The Prius, and hybrids like it, switches between its electric and internal combustion engines depending on driving circumstances.

All the hybrids deliver fuel efficiency, but so too do more efficient internal combustion engines. The Obama administration has mandated that cars and trucks get more than 35 miles per gallon by 2016, up from an average of just 25 mpg today. And if the goal is to reduce dependence on oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution, then simply improving the efficiency of internal combustion engines still offers plenty of room to grow, along with hybridizing efforts.

There is a symbiotic relationship between electric cars and those that burn fossil fuels. The original electric cars were already hiding in the average gas guzzler in the form of its battery and electric starter. Reversing that relationship—so burning the fossil fuel helps recharge the battery to drive the efficient and powerful electric motor—might prove the ultimate triumph in this field if the Volt proves successful.

Regardless, both electric and fossil fuel-burning cars are becoming more and more computer-driven (in some cases, literally). Tesla’s power electronics module, which keeps its Panasonic battery cells at the perfect temperature of 23 degrees Celsius no matter the external conditions with the help of liquid coolant, can easily be adapted to maintaining the health of other auto systems. Or the lessons learned from Tesla’s use of carbon fiber rather than steel or aluminum for its body can be applied to both making that advanced material cheaper and applying it to making other cars stronger and lighter.

In the meantime, in a place such as New York City, chock full of stop-and-go driving, one can return an electric green Tesla Roadster to the garage with nearly the same amount of range left as when one set out thanks to regenerative braking—capturing some of the energy used to slow the car—and that’s an advance that works well for hybrids too. It’s electric, it’s green and it’s here to stay, in one form or another.

Image: Courtesy of Tesla Motors





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  1. 1. MadScientist72 3:35 pm 05/20/2011

    The reports of the electric car’s demise may be premature, thanks to Paul Braun at the U of Illinois. His new design for rechargable batteries may allow electrics to recharge in the same time it take to gas up a conventional car. (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=new-structure-allows-lithium-ion-batteries-quicker-charge)
    This could be just what the world needs to make the electric car truly viable!

    Link to this
  2. 2. ay8389 5:05 pm 05/20/2011

    One fact that is often glossed over when discussing electric cars is that we still need to generate the electricity used to charge the car. Since most of our electricity is still generated by burning fossil fuels, have we really made all that much progress?

    Link to this
  3. 3. bruderly 5:13 pm 05/20/2011

    Reports of the demise of the hydrogen fuel cell may also be premature; 3 little electric cars made by a company called Daimler are about to complete a drive around the world to celebrate the 125th anniversary of this pioneering company. The fuel? HYDROGEN. The engine? PROTON EXCHANGE MEMBRANE FUEL CELLS.

    GM, Toyota, Honda, Kia and others are not far behind.

    Link to this
  4. 4. priddseren 5:14 pm 05/20/2011

    What will kill the electric car is electricity rates and taxes. The claim that "filling" my battery off my home’s residental power is not 10 dollars. It is more like 120 dollars thanks to Califnornia’s 400% tax on electric use over a couple thousand KWH a month. Basically if I am using my airconditioner in Spring, summer and fall to cool my house, then filling my battery is insane from me to attempt.

    The other problem is the government is already attempting to find even more ways to confiscate money from the people and they dont want to lose any of their stolen funds, hence the talk and plan to tax per mile driven.

    There is simply no point to using an electric car with the government taxing per mile driven and taxing electricity production so high.

    Not to mention, if "everyone" were forced to switch to an electric vehicle, then there is no net savings of anything as energy production will switch from gasoline to coal or whatever is used and this will be taxed more as the electric "grid" needs to be upgraded and more electric plants are built to accommodate the cars. It is a very likely possibility that all the oil just ends up producing electricity along with coal, hydro and nuclear methods. Or the liberals will do something really insane such as build wind farms and solar farms stretching across the entire great plains or southern deserts to produce power.

    The bottom line is physics, it takes X amount of energy to move a mass a distance. This will never change. All we can do is make the fuel or methods of energy conversion more efficient at producing that amount of energy.

    Link to this
  5. 5. dr burke 6:45 pm 05/20/2011

    The only answer to this is to replace batteries with a nanocarbon
    supercapacitor. Eliminate the battery altogether.

    If we are to survive as a species and prosper, we must make paradigm jumps into the future, not piecemeal steps, but leaps of faith to bring the future to us and put people to work creating it. We must stop relying on outside technology to use in electric cars and put supercapacitors in them, with super fast energy release, quick recharge time and a lifetime of at least 10,000 charge/discharge cycels! We have the need, we have the technology, we have the people, what we lack is a visionary to get it done. And the nanocarbon supercapacitor is eco
    friendly and can be reused over and over again, to manufacture other
    consumer goods. It required no special handling or disposal.

    dr burke

    Super energy storage: Activated graphene makes superior supercapacitors for energy storage

    ScienceDaily (May 12, 2011) — Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven
    National Laboratory have helped to uncover the nanoscale structure of a novel form of carbon, contributing to an explanation of why this new material acts like a super-absorbent sponge when it comes to soaking up electric charge. The material, which was recently created at The University of Texas — Austin, can be incorporated into "supercapacitor"
    energy-storage devices with remarkably high storage capacity while retaining other attractive attributes such as superfast energy release, quick recharge time, and a lifetime of at least 10,000 charge/discharge cycles."

    Link to this
  6. 6. JeremyMcGeary 9:06 pm 05/20/2011

    I’ve long felt we’ve been going at the electric vehicle from the wrong end. Why on earth are we trying to imitate the performance of our conventional gasoline/diesel vehicles?
    One of my first summer jobs (I grew up in England) was as a "spare" driver for the Co-op . . a grocery/appliance/furniture chain. One of the things the Co-op did was deliver milk door to door. And for that job it used electric milk "floats."
    I got to drive a few of these things to bring them into the garage for service. NASCAR they were not, but they were absolutely ideal for their job. All the "milkie" had to do was take his foot off the "gas" to stop, grab his crate of milk bottles, deliver them to a group of houses and pick up the empties, jump back on the float, move a few houses up the road, and repeat. I think the floats might have had a hand brake for hills (that was 1966 . . .)
    There must be a huge number of stop-start tasks for which a 2011 version of the milk float would be ideal . . . suburban/rural mail routes, package delivery in cities, even, maybe airport parking shuttle buses.
    A small electric car designed as a "town car" (not that Lincoln behemoth) would be the logical first step toward personal vehicles. Couple that with a membership in a car sharing club/business for those times you need a vehicle for longer trips and I think you have something.

    Link to this
  7. 7. geojellyroll 9:16 pm 05/20/2011

    in March we bought a new Toyota Corolla for 14 thousand, It has a ten year powertrain warranty. 37MPH

    Case closed…the electric car is dead

    Link to this
  8. 8. letxequalx 10:00 pm 05/20/2011

    I don’t want an electric car I have to plug in or change batteries and pay for electricity. Give us ethanol vehicles!

    Link to this
  9. 9. Tlas- 11:54 pm 05/20/2011

    It is important to push fusion power for the electricity, and a good reason to go back to the Moon for helium-3 to fuel the reactors..

    Link to this
  10. 10. jonathan.mills 7:28 am 05/21/2011

    Clearly renewable energy and in particular wind energy will play a big role in meeting our fuel needs. Recharging electric cars and night will sync nicely with our inevitably increased use of Electric cars. When Electric cars have a range of 200 miles and we can recharge our cars in 30 minutes or less, then 400 mile journeys with a coffee/recharge stop every three hours seems plausible.
    I drove 400 miles yesterday and it cost me c.100 dollars (75 Euros). I can tell you for nothing I would have no problem drinking coffee and saving 65 Euros!

    Link to this
  11. 11. JamesDavis 8:05 am 05/21/2011

    Isn’t it amazing that other countries, poor countries can afford to do these things, but a rich country like America can’t? Who and what is our problem in getting away from fossil fuel?

    Link to this
  12. 12. Sasucks 8:53 am 05/21/2011

    I’m agreeing with MadScientist72. A piss poor article. The article writer must be wearing blinders or something. Advances in power storage continue. The electric car will indeed eventually push the ICE car into history.

    Link to this
  13. 13. AVRAVR 6:02 pm 05/21/2011

    The reaction, excitement and words of praise I get every day from people who come up to me and my Tesla Roadster, leads me to believe EVs are here to stay. The car is my daily driver and I haven’t been to a gas station, other than to buy a six pack of beer, in 7 months.

    It is an exhilarating drive and I’m the envy of my friends who are filling up their monster SUV or exotic sports cars with $4.50 per gallon gas. I can go 244 miles for a whopping $4.05. I’m having a solar array installed to eliminate the cost of charging and silence the "long-tailpipe" cult (they are loud, obnoxious and irrelevant).

    The future is here and it is electric. We’ve moved beyond the 110+ year old internal combustion engine, fueled by a commodity that we have no control over and maintenance regime that equals extortion. I cringe when I’m a passenger in a vehicle powered by the ICE. The ride is so boring.

    When I want to go beyond 240 miles, I stop at an RV park to recharge and make new friends. It’s been an amazing opportunity for me, socially.

    At the end of the day, this article will be ignored and no one will remember who Mr. Biello is.

    P.S. I didn’t need the tax credit to afford this car and I despise many subsidies. I donated the $7,500 to charity.

    Link to this
  14. 14. eco-steve 10:51 am 05/23/2011

    Electric cars are Ok for most people who only drive a few miles a day. For long journeys, the solution is the gas car. This has a small biomass pyrolyser on a small trailor, and can run on sewerage sludge. Just ignite it and drive far using the hydrogen gas that the pyrolysis produces. The only residue is charcoal which can be sold as a fertiliser.Such cars were used in France and Australia until the late fifties. The technology has been greatly improved since. Any biomass is suitable for pyrolysis. The system is CO2 negative!

    Link to this
  15. 15. 2nd Opinion 3:13 pm 05/23/2011

    Lets consider the Mitsubishi i miev
    battery=16 Kwh Range=100 miles
    The battery weighs 200 kilograms and the small electric motor adds a bit too. But this is offset by the weight savings of no engine, transmission, rad, oil pan, starter motor, starter battery, gas, or gas tank. Since the US price for electricity was 12 cents per kilowatt, the car should cost about 2 dollars to charge. Seems like a good deal to me especially when oil prices rise.

    Link to this
  16. 16. mgrant 3:58 pm 05/23/2011

    w

    Link to this
  17. 17. mgrant 4:04 pm 05/23/2011

    What about battery change ideas like http://www.betterplace.com? This seems like a fantastic idea as 1) you’re not dependent on any one technology for the battery in the car because as batteries evolve, you get them, 2) it’s quick to change a battery, 3) it’s not car model dependent, can use the same pack in lots of different vehicles, 4) power companies can store excess electricity around the grid in batteries waiting to go into cars. Cars with batteries can be plug-in charged as well. Like the mobile phone network when it was new you could use your phone in cities, then eventually nearly everywhere, it would be the same with these as battery change stations spread out to connect the cities.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Momus 5:01 pm 05/23/2011

    Yes!! Government may have a role in supporting _small_ and _cheap_ electric cars! Mostly for short commuting trips of less than 80 miles and around the town shopping, etc…
    The tax rebates for buyers of $100,000 cars is an abomination.

    And since electric cars are much simpler to engineer (except for batteries issue) and much cheaper to maintain, we could afford to rent a gas guzzler for those rare vacation, cross country trips (or join a car sharing club as you have suggested!)

    The goal should be _cheap_ electric cars within a couple of years. Modified golf carts (with rain/snow protection) would do too for many people if produced in mass and cheap!

    Link to this
  19. 19. tomsax 5:21 pm 05/23/2011

    Electricity is a highly efficient medium for transferring energy. Cars that run on electricity can run on any fuel source: coal, natural gas, hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, waves, anything. An electric car that runs on coal today can run on solar panels tomorrow.

    Because electric cars can (and should) be charged at night, they do not add to peak loads. In areas like California where electric rates go up during peak hours, electric vehicles can be charged cheaply off-peak.

    A 2006 DOE study found that we have enough unused off-peak electrical generation capacity to switch 170 million cars to electric without building a single new power plant.

    Hydrogen fuel cell cars are similar to battery electric cars except that they are far more expensive to produce and are much less efficient to drive. Driving a hydrogen fuel cell car one mile takes three times as much energy as driving a mile in a battery electric car. Although we may someday be able to make hydrogen cars cheaper, there’s no prospect for improving their well-to-wheel efficiency.

    Today’s battery electric cars are only suited for local driving. Fortunately, the vast majority of our driving is local. 78% of American have a roundtrip commute under 40 miles. Some 60% of American households have multiple vehicles and a place to charge a car at home. If we can replace one car in each of those households over the next decade, we’ll have millions of these cars on the road, reduce our dependence on oil, improve our national security, and reduce our impact on the environment.

    My wife and I have been driving electric since 2008 and can’t imaging giving up the convenience of plugging in, the lower cost of fuel, and the smooth, immediate acceleration of an electric drivetrain to go back to burning gas. As more people learn about the improved driving experience, the demand for electric cars will continue to soar. I predict it will be many years before the automakers can increase production enough that you can just buy an electric car without having to wait months for delivery.

    Link to this
  20. 20. goof56 6:41 pm 05/23/2011

    I am commenting about the need of electric cars still need fossil fuels to recharge battery. Unfortunately the author was not thinking about houses that use solar panels to recharge battery, like I have. The author must need be too addicted to oil to see that possibility. Maybe an intervention is needed. Keep the mind open. Also, we can have battery exchange stations.

    Link to this
  21. 21. goof56 6:42 pm 05/23/2011

    I am commenting about the need of electric cars still need fossil fuels to recharge battery. Unfortunately the author was not thinking about houses that use solar panels to recharge battery, like I have. The author must need be too addicted to oil to see that possibility. Maybe an intervention is needed. Keep the mind open. Also, we can have battery exchange stations.

    Link to this
  22. 22. goof56 6:43 pm 05/23/2011

    I am commenting about the need of electric cars still need fossil fuels to recharge battery. Unfortunately the author was not thinking about houses that use solar panels to recharge battery, like I have. The author must need be too addicted to oil to see that possibility. Maybe an intervention is needed. Keep the mind open. Also, we can have battery exchange stations.

    Link to this
  23. 23. AVRAVR 8:09 pm 05/23/2011

    Come take a ride in my Tesla. You’ll sell the Corolla the next day and never look back. ICE powered vehicles are a bore to drive.

    Link to this
  24. 24. bobgeezer 3:31 am 05/24/2011

    What is so hard about recognizing that electricity cannot be mined or grown: it must be generated, and that is by Coal – dirty, carbon producing Coal.

    My Honda Insight gets 40 miles to the gallon of gas – readily available and declinging in price, and burning NO COAL – meaning I get 40 miles to the gallon, and fill up every two weeks for 10 gallons of gas. . . . about 400 miles worth. If I want to drive to San Francisco, I can do it . . .I dont have to stop 4 times for a "recharge".
    All electric is "all Coal" – let”s be honest and stop paying outrageous prices for minimum value cars that can only go a few miles and then must be recharged – - – with Coal! And that’s not going to change: be honest for once.

    Link to this
  25. 25. arpitraj09 3:35 am 05/24/2011

    ONE OF THE AIMS OF THIS RESEARCH TOPIC WAS TO FIND AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE FUEL DRIVEN ENGINES AND CARS.THE ELECTRIC MAY PROVE TO BE A MUCH SOUGHT ALTERNATIVE WHEN THE WHOLE WORLD IS FOCUSSING ON FINDING ALTERNAATIVE SOURCE OF ENERGY.THE ELECTRIC CARS ARE NOT ONLY CHEAPER BUT ALSO ECO-FRIENDLY. THE ONLY PROBLEM TO DDRESS NOW IS TO SEE HOW TO ECONOMIZE THE WHOLE CONCEPT TO FIT INTO THE POCKET OF THE COMMAN MAN.

    Link to this
  26. 26. Loubarouba 11:48 am 05/24/2011

    If you are so worried about increased electricity bills, why not get yourself a few solar
    panels? or a small vertical-axis wind turbine.
    If you tie them into the grid, then it will help out and reduce your electricity bill, and also will help out the aging electric grid through feeding local energy back into the grid so the gas and coal plants don’t have to, especially during the day when the grid needs the most due to Air Conditioning and whatnot. A SMART grid is also in the works in California I believe.

    And whats so insane about building wind farms or solar farms? Is it more insane than going to war over liquid energy in the middle east? Wind and solar is free energy, all you have to do is build them and they power themselves, unlike gas, coal, or nuclear where it all has to get harvested and transported plus the building of the power plant and never mind the environmental damage that those three cause. Also there are newer technologies coming into play, such as peizoelectric, and thermogenerators for small scale energy generation, and solar thermal, wave, and tidal power generation for large scale that the US has the potential to use.

    Don’t forget we are only in the infant stage of electric vehicles and a grid that can power a large fleet of them, luckily most charging will take place during the night, at off-peak hours, though. You must realize though that it will take time and money to build up the proper infrastructure but it will get there, especially when demand picks up, with gas prices steadily rising, it will happen sooner than later.

    Just think of the day when we don’t have to breathe in polluted air or have smog advisories, or worry about brownouts and blackouts. A day where you can crank the AC way up on those hot days or not have to worry about leaving the lights on. I would like to hope that day comes soon. All thanks to the sun, moon, wind and the water powering our way of life. :)

    Link to this
  27. 27. Deslauriers 7:53 pm 05/27/2011

    Why does every reviewer look at this as an all or nothing situation? For people with long distance requirements, stay with gas, people with short distance frequent displacements can go electric, and people with both make a call, and rent the other. In my case, as soon as a reasonably priced car with about 150 km of range and recharge time of 3 hours becomes available, I will get one, and when I need more than that, I will rent. And if I’m thinking this way, a lot of other people must be as well.

    Link to this
  28. 28. cautiousguy 10:33 am 04/14/2012

    It is interesting that neither the author nor any of the commentators raise the issue of energy conversion efficiency. While it is true that there is much more potential chemical energy density in gasoline than electrical charge in the battery of today’s electric cars, the typical internal combustion engine is capable of harvesting only 20% or less of that chemical energy, the rest being lost as heat. The modern electric motor, on the other hand is 80-90% efficient. Thus, even though we still must use electricity from existing power plants, using electric vehicles represent a substantial efficiency improvement in the use of our energy resources.

    Link to this
  29. 29. crtune 2:19 pm 12/30/2012

    The analysis must be done on “entire society” and an “end-to-end” basis. Right now, only a small portion of all electric power is provided via flat-out “renewable” sources (e.g. hydro, solar, geo-thermal), and most is from some extractive industry source (uranium, nat gas, deisel), and generators are normally around 35 percent efficient (some more modern schemes exist, but are few in number and all development here is costly in capital terms).

    Distribution systems (those big towers and wires you see everywhere) are also not 100 percent efficient. Thus, by the point at which you put power back into your electric vehicle, there ALREADY has been a huge loss in efficiency, which increases in efficiency due to electric motors cannot, at present, overcome. [I did a rough "end-to-end" and figured EV is around 10 percent less efficient end-to-end compared to gasoline vehicles using end sources at the tanker truck of either gasoline or diesel, going either into a car or into a power generating facility - I ignored distribution losses]

    Also, the batteries are much poorer storage mechanisms than the liquid fuel is (and must be dragged around with the vehicle), and that is by essentially an order of magnitude. Much as I hate to say it, the chemical/petroleum method is likely to maintain sway solely because it narrows and increases the “end-to-end” efficiency of the problem of locomotion right now, and for the near term. Hybrids help, and, of course, increases in efficiency always help, and as we have seen, for certain isolated situations chargeable battery vehicles make sense (they are in every golf course and factory).

    Once a massive change in electricity needs occur, a massive campaign of capital investment in generation must also occur. This is subject to “unit added” inefficiencies (large blocks need to be added, and this cannot be easily fine-tuned). I’d certainly appreciate seeing more “end-to-end” analysis.

    Link to this

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