Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Myth, Legend and Reality

Are Electric Cars for Real?

Tesla Roadster plugged in and charging
220V at home is all most need.
Cars easily charge overnight.
Are electric cars a false promise or a panacea? Actually neither, but myths get in the way of understanding the role that they can and must play in solving our future transportation needs. These myths include:

1. Electric Cars Are Glorified Golf Carts

90% of my driving is between my house and one of three close-by park-and-rides. For most of my needs a glorified golf cart would serve very nicely. However, electric vehicles are increasingly indistinguishable from their fossil-fueled brethren on styling, performance, creature comfort, safety and reliability.

2. Electric Cars Pollute as Much as Gas Cars

Certainly not true in operation. Embodied energy, carbon footprint in manufacture and so forth are comparable, but the bulk of the negative environmental effects of automobiles occur over the lifetime of use, not the short window of manufacture.

3. Electric Car Drivers Will Get Stranded on the Road

Getting stranded is more often the result of inattention, unpreparedness, or folly rather than the equipment. Being stranded is about the driver, not the car.

4. Public Charging Locations Are Critical to Electric Car Success

Only if you plan to drive long distances where you haven't been before. Most people drive less than 40 miles per day and simply charge at home (or at the office.)

5. Electric Cars Are Only For Rich People

This is changing, but admittedly not as fast as would be best. The battery is the big cost, but there's lots of research in this area. Economies of scale will bring down the purchase cost of electric cars. Also, the somewhat higher capital cost is offset by the lower operating cost. (You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.)

6. Electric Cars Will Quickly Take Over the Market

Regrettably not, unless oil costs go to the moon. As gas gets more expensive electric vehicles will become more attractive, but the ramp will be decades long, relatively gradual and punctuated by dips from temporarily cheaper liquid fuels and changes in governmental subsidies.

7. Electric Cars Trade One Foreign Dependency for Another

Unclear, but probably not a big issue. The supply chain for lithium and rare earth elements is a concern, but both are found all over the world, and demand will make many currently moribund operations economically attractive again. There is decades of supply currently and exploration has substantial upside. Finally, possible foreign dependence on relatively stable Bolivia for lithium is vastly preferable to oil from nut-case led Venezuela, despotic Saudi Arabia or corrupt Nigeria.

8. Electric Cars Are a New, Untested Concept

Hardly. People have been driving them for more than 100 years.

9. Electric Car Batteries Are Prone to Explode

This is about as likely as gas tanks or rock-and-roll band drummers exploding. It happens almost nowhere but in Hollywood.

10. Electric Cars Are a Danger to the Blind, Elderly and Children

Sure they're quiet, but as with vacuum cleaners, they can be made deliberately noisy. In future, expect customizable driving noises for electric cars: people will choose from audio effects of a Ferrari, a pack of Clydesdales, Santa's sleigh, etc.

11. The Grid Can't Handle Electric Cars

This is the only one of the 11 myths new to me. Where does this come from? Many people think that electric vehicles will be a boon to the grid as they charge off-peak, at night, which also happens to be when there's a lot of excess wind power available. Furthermore, vehicle-to-grid (V2G) theory is that the distributed storage of millions of car batteries could even stabilize the grid by evening out the variability of such sources as wind.

So, electric cars are not mythical, but they're not yet fully real either. Like a legend, they capture the imagination because they are at least based on something real and satisfy part of our aspiration. It is time to put the myths aside and convert the legendary allure into practical production. Electric vehicles will be a growing component of our overall transportation mix with clear benefits: less pollution, greater energy efficiency, decreased reliance on foreign energy sources, and even better performance. There's also a window of opportunity open now for US manufacturing leadership in what will be a huge future industry. Shouldn't this be an area of increased, rather than doubtful and hesitant government support?

No comments:

Post a Comment