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What’s so great about the electric car, anyway?

August 26, 2009 by Tom Guay
Posted in: Special Report, Technology

electric-car

Not every automaker’s scrambling to jump on the electric vehicle bandwagon. Some notable players are holding back, waiting for technology — and the market — to mature.

Recently, Nissan and GM grabbed some headlines about their plans to develop true electric vehicles (EVs) — vehicles that run on 100% battery power.

Nissan’s big idea is to make its Nissan Leaf cheap enough to be a mass market product. GM’s planning to introduce its Chevy Volt in a year or so. The Volt’s expected to be priced outside the mass market, between $40,000 and $50,000. For this story, click here.

But these bold plans aren’t prompting some of their rivals to do the same.

Toyota, for example, plans to continue to push its highly successful hybrid electric Prius, instead of pushing the EV idea. Reason: According to a recent New York Times report, Toyota just doesn’t think the technology’s ready. The big problem with EVs: limited range.

Honda’s echoing much of the Toyota strategy. It too has developed EVs (click here), but is concentrating on its re-introduction of the Honda Insight hybrid.  Honda’s big strategy is a $20,000 car, undercutting the pricier Prius.

Ford’s not even talking about near-term EV introductions. NYTimes also reports that Ford is waiting for an EV recharging network to develop before committing to EV production. Ford knows a thing or two about EV auto technology. It spent much of the 1990s developing an all-electric version of the Ford Ranger pickup. The NYTimes story is here.

Chrysler’s grand EV idea is a very pricey, two-seat hot rod, the “EV Roadster,” otherwise known as a Dodge Circuit.  Presumably, this car would be introduced late next year or in 2011, depending on what Chrysler’s new owner, Fiat, thinks of the car. If the Roadster/Circuit is built, it’s touted as getting between 150 to 200 miles on a single battery charge.

Also targeting the high-end market is Telsa Motors, which is starting to sell its hot rod EV, the Telsa Roadster.

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28 Responses to “What’s so great about the electric car, anyway?”

  1. Henery Schaffer Says:

    Do you do blogroll exchanging? If you want to exchange links let me know.

    Email me back if you’re interested.

  2. Harold Dickey Says:

    What about recharging circuits for these EVs? Are all the charging systems standardized? Can they be recharged using solar power devices? Are all the recharging voltages the same?

  3. DD Says:

    Energy is energy. Whether a vehicle uses electric energy or gas energy, they are both using resources. The electric energy has to be created by some other source of energy. So, the big question that in my opinion hasn’t been answered is this- What is the difference? Is one that much better for the environment than the other? Is one more efficient to use than the other? Is one more renewable than the other? Obviously, we are being led to believe that EV’s are the answer. Are they really?

  4. Robert Fisher Says:

    Whether you believe in Global Warming or not, we are burning a LOT of Carbon fuels. Reducing that consumption will save all of us money. We don’t need more Carbon guzzling power plants, we need less consumption.

    I don’t know how long before the publications are printed but the most recent Car magazines are still extolling the virtues of the 350 and 450 HP gasoline engines.

    Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz, BMW and many other companies are selling diesel powered cars, mostly in Europe where they are over 50 percent of the cars sold. And they do have performance. Most of them probably are rated at 35 to 50 MPG on the highway. And they don’t explode and burn killing over a thousand people in the U.S. every year, like gasoline does.

    With a primary interest in fuel economy instead of zero to 60 in 6 seconds, the better manufacturers should be able to build a medium sized car such as a Taurus , Toyota or Malibu that would be rated at 50 MPG or better with a diesel engine. And with a battery hybrid, probably at least 70 MPG. If General Motors can only make money with a “large” car, then they could do that with the diesel engine in a Malibu, Cadillac and other larger cars and get probably 40 to 50 MPG. GM’s problem is ignorant and stupid management. GM does build larger diesel engines so the expertise is there. Just get management out of the way. And instead of squeezing every penny out of the cost of manufacturing, try adding pennies, nickels, dimes and dollar to make the cars more appealing to the buyers. GM would make more money on volumes of 500,000 to 1,00,000 models built than the few hundred thousand the “make ” on penny pinching and driving customers away.

    Robert Fisher, Professional Engineer GM retiree

  5. Leon Jameson Says:

    I guess if money is meaningless, these cars are fine. Recent calculations show that, with the cost of electricity for charging and the cost of replacing batteries, driving the Tesla will cost the same as driving a car getting around 4 miles per gallon.

    I have not seen the figures yet, but I assume the Volt and other EV’s will be similar.

    Of course the damage done to the environment by manufacturing batteries such as those in the Prius is much worse than any CO2 emissions.

    When looking at “green” the entire picture needs to be considered, not just one facet.

  6. EE Says:

    To answer your questions DD: the answer is YES, YES, and YES. I dont really know what else to tell you, other than go read some articles on the subject. One thing to consider, with our pursuit of higher energy standards will come the development of technologies which will harness greater power. We didnt evolve from riding animals to driving cars without a reason. Dont think the internal combustion engine is man’s last great invention.

  7. Doug Says:

    Robert,

    I totally agree.
    I drove a GM car (Opel) while on a trip to Europe in 2001 – not knowing it was built by GM. It was AWESOME! Solid, quick, exciting – I asked how I could buy one here. It was (allegedly) delivered as the Chevy Cobalt – not even close!
    Also drove an Audi while there in ’00- powered by a diesel engine. Never realized it was diesel until I pulled into the gas station.
    Amazing how the “advances” are backward over here.
    Diesel and the hybrid can get us out of the mess we have created by gasoline.
    Not to mention that my dad regularly achieved 26mpg in his Dodge Cummins-powered 3/4 ton truck on the highway (at 65mph). Now that is a feat.
    Get a clue Detroit automakers, or get out of the way.

  8. LEU Says:

    Gee, Robert got “religion” after he left GM. Where were you when GM was touting muscle cars and 400+ HP Corvettes that passed everything but a gas station?
    My feeling is the public will buy what they want, not what a MFG Co. or government tells them what to buy. We have enough oil to carry us for a long, long tme if government would get out of the way and allow us to drill for it. Then in the next 10-20 years or so, find a solution to the energy problem – without government.

  9. kh Says:

    I concur with RB, regardless of whether or not you believe the enormous about of glaring, unbiased evidence of global warming, it behooves us to reduce carbon emissions either way. The worst case scenario should not have to be 100% confirmed for us to take action in caring for our environment. With people procreating like rabbits around the world even in the poorest conditions, carbon emissions are increasing exponentially. I agree that thought that we can’t force people to buy what they don’t want, but we might as well continue with the technology and selling what few can be sold so that we’re prepared once the dinosaur juice runs dry.

  10. Mariano P. Says:

    From an environmental perspective, electric cars are only going to be good if we generate most of the electricity by not burning fuel.

    It seems very inefficient to burn fuel, make heat, loose energy making electricity at the power plant, then loose electricity over the power lines, convert to storage in a battery, then loose more energy converting it back into mechanical energy to move the car.

    We would reduce our fuel consumption by 30 to 40 % if people would just accept driving lower powered hybrid cars and drive more like “adults”.

  11. Michael Lang Says:

    I love the comments that “Detroit” needs to “wake up”!!
    Stop a minute and think…why would car makers in Europe focus on desiel when our car makers seem to focus on gas????? One of you even mentioned that the Opel was a GM car………..
    CAFE standards are the answer. American car sales require emmission standards far more restrictive than nearly all European markets. Funny…..the “cure” from the last decade is slowing the ability to move to better choices now. If the government would get out of the way, the market would drive to the better solutions much more quickly. Oh and by the way, the question was asked if it was really more efficient to burn coal to create electricity to avoid using gas. The answer is no, and the data is available. It does not support the agenda that is in favor right now, so you will not hear those kind of rational questions asked. With brillent ideas like “Cap and Trade” being offered, the price of electricity is set to triple in less than 5 years…….don’t give up on your old gas guzzler just yet.

  12. Jeff Mohn Says:

    The thing that really makes long-term sense is a non-carbon based fuel. You can do this with electrictity if all the gas and coal fired plants are converted to solar or nuclear. It’s hard to believe the US doesn’t have more nuclear power plants. Our military has been using them for decades now without incident as have many other countries like Japan and France.

    Honda is one of the few companies trying hydrogen powered test vehicles in southern California. This still requires hydrogen which needs electricity to produce, but could provide a way to get cars filled quickly anywhere we have gas stations now. This seems like the a logical fuel source that’s portable, efficient and doesn’t require hours to recharge.

    Whaever the future holds it can’t be a carbon based fuel unless we want to continue to be at the mercy of the middle east and other unstable countries around the world.

  13. Thomas Says:

    Even the best small engines are not very efficient. Power plants are much more efficient than a car. Powering a car using electricity produced by a power plant uses far less energy, produces less carbon dioxide and produces less pollution, even when that power comes from our traditional sources. And, yes, that is still true when you take into account the power that is lost during the distribution and storage of the electricity.

    You can also produce electricity from a variety of sources, but you can only run a gasoline powered car on gasoline…

    Making batteries is not as enviromentally damaging as refining the thousands of gallons of fuel they replace. The nasty chemicals in the batteries are relatively easy to recycle into new batteries. Toyota currently offers a $200 bounty on Prius batteries so they dont end up in the trash when the cars are dismantled.

  14. bill kincaid, p.e. Says:

    I did some casual numbers on the greenhouse gas emissions from a small gasoline-powered car and from a 100% electric charged by the average US power plant. My results showed they are mile-for-mile virtually the same. The one difference is the gas car produces its greenhouse gases at the tailpipe, while the electric car does so at the power generating facility. This leaves out the mercury emissions etc. from the electric plant, which I suspect makes electric cars slightly dirtier than gasoline. However, if we can implement cleaner electricity generation means that could change. Certainly, with a 100,000,000 electric cars draining power from grids all over the country the electric infrastructure would need massive revamping. The question is would the US build sensible, sustainable plants, or would our utilities industry fight for the kind of short-term profiteering that got us to a 2009 where half of all US electricity is still made in dirty, grandfathered old coal plants?

  15. bill kincaid, p.e. Says:

    I should add the age of 100%-gasoline-powered cars, even efficient ones like the Prius, is coming to an end. Gasoline will only get more expensive as the resource dries up. My guess is we’ll see more hybrids with plug-in charging capacity. That would be especially handy if efficient solar roof panels could handle part of the charging to take some load off the power plants. My little car sits in the sun nine hours a day and it just gets hot. Wouldn’t it be great if it could run on electricity, especially if it generated its own? The question isn’t if but when.

  16. Robert Fisher Says:

    As you drive on any Interstate, notice that most vehicles ( including 18 wheelers ) are traveling at 80 to 90 MPH. Obviously most people don’t care about saving energy or the future of oil and that it will eventually be all used up. Notice also that most of our roads are asphalt.

    Be sure to leave a letter in your time capsule so that you can explain to your great great great etc. grandchildren why you had to burn up those irreplaceable Earth generated resources ( including Iron, Copper, Chromium, etc. ) .

    Much as we don’t like the Government to tell us what to do ( they are about as ignorant and stupid as GM and Ford execs ), what would our typical fuel economy be without the Federally mandated CAFE ??

    I have written numerous letters to Auto magazines, legislators, Consumers Reports, etc. advising them of the real potential of diesel power cutting oil usage by 50 percent or more and rarely a response. The primary Federal response is to mandate Ethanol for cars. ( this bought the votes of the Senators and Congressmen/women from the corn belt states ) When the truth ever comes out it will likely show that the use of corn/Ethanol actually uses more oil plus raising the cost of corn world wide . Ten percent Ethanol in your gasoline will mean that you must fill your fuel tank two to three times more a year.

    Biodiesel still needs more testing and evaluating but ideally, plant grown and processed fuels are essentially “green” if it can be properly developed without the Ethanol hype.. If the proper plants and processes could be developed, third world countries could grow their “oil” instead of buying it. In the U.S., a developed biodiesel industry would employ a hundred thousand worker or more and drastically cut our oil purchases from hostile countries. Write to your Federal “representatives” about pushing diesel power and biodiesel. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could grow the appropriate ( efficient) bio convertible plants in your back yard, take them to the local processor and buy back fuel for your car or house. Why not ??

    And when I worked at GM, it was in building /construction not vehicle design. I did buy their 5.7 liter diesel in ’81. In one of the safest cars on the highway at 4500 pounds, it got a real 32 MPG.. But GM management probably heard of the diesel Volkswagen Rabbit lasting over 300,000 miles and that went against their disposability concept.

  17. Robert Says:

    most folks who tout the virtues of electric cars dont acknowledge the fact that the majority of the electricity generated in this country is generated using coal. Has anyone thought about how much fossil fuel is used to get coal from the ground to the power plant? Think about large mining equipment, diesel powered, 4400 horsepower locomotives, 4 to a train, diesel powered……the amount of fuel uses to get a ton of coal to the power line is too significan to be overlooked.

  18. Lampjefe Says:

    I also question the efficacy of EV’s since the electricity must be generated to charge them and it is mainly generated by coal-burning plants. If we pursue the EV’s we need to move toward cleaner power generation as in nuclear. Wind and solar are great ideas but very costly (how often do you see a wind farm running at 100%?). While we are developing cleaner fuels we should be cutting through the red tape to allow us to drill and tap into the oil resources which are available to us so we can reduce our oil costs and stop sending dollars to foreign suppliers.

    As for diesel, my understanding is that the EPA and AQMD have killed them due to emissions. I don’t have the data but I would bet that the 3-cylinder turbo diesels which are widely used in Europe put out fewer pollutants per mile of travel than a gasoline engine does while giving more HP than a comparable gasoline burner. Let’s look at emissions per mile traveled rather than checking the unit at idle.

    People will buy what they want. The government should not be mandating what we can drive. The auto manufacturers will respond to the consumers’ demands.

  19. Thomas Says:

    Electric cars produce less carbon dioxide than gas powered cars, even when you consider the source of the electricity. Read more about it here: http://www.slate.com/id/2179609/

    And, remember, this comparison used here does not includet the energy used to ship that oil from Saudi Arabia or the energy used by the refinery or the energy used to truck it to your gas station. Electricity is much more efficient.

    Another discussion about the efficiency of gas vs electric: http://truecostblog.com/2009/01/04/electric-vs-gasoline/

    And the maintenance should be much less. See here for a discussion: http://www.weatherimagery.com/blog/electric-vs-gasoline-vehicle/
    Simply put, an electric motor is a lot less complicated than a gas engine. Few parts = more reliability and lower costs. Once electric cars are mass produced, they are likely to be cheaper than gas engines…

  20. Lucas Wires Says:

    These are all good questions to look into concerning electric cars, along with the environmental impact of disposing of millions of giant batteries every year, and the massive upgrade in generating capacity it will take to power them all. My guess is in a few decades at the pace we’re running through our fossil fuels we’re going to have to figure out something pretty fast if we’re going to have any energy at all, clean or not.

    I disagree with the numbers used in the Slate article. The figures for CO2 production from coal were pretty rosey – about 25% low.

    Here are some estimates in pounds of CO2 per kWh for various generation technologies.

    Coal = 2.1
    Oil = 2
    Natural Gas = 1.3
    Gas (combined cycle) = 1
    Solar photovoltaic = 0.1
    Nuclear = 0.013
    Wind = 0.01
    Hydro = 0.007

    Coal is obviously a nasty fuel, and that’s before considering the transmission losses inherent in the electrical grids, the CO2 produced in the mining operations, and the diesel to haul it across the country. An even larger concern is the ancillary pollution from burning coal, because the power industry has been politically adept at keeping the EPA off its back for decades, and has grandfathered in many dirty old plants that produce such huge quantities of mercury one can barely eat fish these days without getting a helping of mercury (especially the pond-raised varieties).

    That said, half the electric in the USA doesn’t come from coal, and gasoline cars offer little hope of either a clean future, or a sustainable one.

  21. Red Neck Granola Says:

    My employer just bought 50 hybrid electric cars in January. Everyone in our fleet maintenance dept hates them. The mechanics have all had to purchase 1000 volt rated hand tools to work on them and they have to wear arc rated clothing and safety gear to do many of the repairs. We have already had to replace two of the highly toxic batteries due to failure and two more due to accidents. Our body shop hates them too. They have had to buy expensive tools and supplies just to work on them, for example a mere drill bit to drill out a spot weld in the hardened alloy cost $80 even with our bulk discount. With these costs and the cost of the extremely expensive parts (like $500 for a rear bumper (20lb piece of aluminum) + $500 for the plastic cover to slip over it) these cars are costing us a fortune. A low speed crash can cost upwards of $5000 and so far this year we have had 10 of them hit most of which have been hit by larger vehicles due to their small size not being seen by the operators of the larger vehicles. Speaking of accidents there is now a much higher risk of dying due to the fact that there is high voltage present within these vehicles that can cause great injury and therefore many first responders cannot begin to assist the victims until the power supply has been isolated by other trained individuals, cutting away at that precious first hour when medical attention can do its greatest good. For now I’ll stick with the idea of clean diesel, Ford makes a car in Europe that exceeds 65 miles per gallon, it burns cleaner than most gasoline cars and it is much safer in a accident due to the low flammability of diesel compared to gasoline and the reduced risk of shock over an electric.

  22. Red Neck Granola Says:

    …Or hydrogen

  23. caswift Says:

    It would be better to see that more programs for boidiesel are funded as it is an actual renewable energy source. I know that people don’t like it because it eats (pardon the pun) into the food supply, but there are so many ideas out there that would not have biodiesel made from the food source. I have read there is a company trying to make it out of garbage… now that is really great because there is not a better renewable resource out there. It would be wonderful for the environment as trash from your house could be processed into fuel. Also there are so many areas of the country where the median grass grows. Plant switch grass there because that can be made into fuel and you would employ people to cut the grass, bundle it up and transport it to the plants for processing, by using the unusable space you are not only getting a renewable fuel source, but you would be creating jobs as well.

  24. Robert Fisher Says:

    Hydrogen is a high energy fuel but might require an expensive and heavy storage tank. If, depending on the location, there were sufficient Hydrogen fueled cars that didn’t want to leave the local area, wind generators dedicated to splitting water in to Hydrogen and Oxygen, it would be Green. Might require less voltage regulating equipment. But what do wind generators cost ?? The Oxygen could also be used to enhanse combustion of Carbon fueled power generators.

    The same generating systems could be used for ocean wind/wave action generators. Let the Hydrogen generators run all day and weeks and periodically transfer the Hydrogen to a transport ship.

    What would the cost comparison be for the different types of generators.

  25. Steve Says:

    The largest stumbling block to electric cars is performance. Everyone expects the EV to perform identically to a conventional car (normally a sports car). Of course, this greatly drives up the price. Of course, most commuters in big cities crawl through bumper-to-bumper traffic while sniffing each other’s tail pipes.

    I recall that even in the 70’s the Chevy Camaro had a 4-cylinder option (don’t know if they sold that many!)… if EV are to be successful, they most likely need to be an option on nearly all models that a company makes. If I need a mini Van, then I’m not going to purchase a 2-seat sport car or a sub-compact. And if I don’t have the income, I’m not going to spend 30k+ on a new car.

    As for the emissions and efficiency arguments, just remember the fuel you purchase has all the costs factored in (the don’t ship coal for free, do they?). Those who say we need to factor in cost such as “protecting the oil fields” forgret that even if the military left the mid east, we would see 0 dollars saved on our taxes (they would spend it elsewhere), after all, we saw no real reduction in taxes after the military sharnk 50% from it’s peak days during the cold war.

    As for emissions: it is far easier to monitor & regulate a single smoke stack, than thousands of tail pipes. Though “progressive” states like California does try (and I sarcastically assume the emissions inspection is also free).

    Cap & Trade. Just another way for middle-men (CEO types) to grab your and my money. Liberals will feel good. A very few get rich. And you and I will pay for it. And with zero effect on global warming (does it really matter where the plant is located?).

    The bottom line is people don’t think.

  26. Steve Says:

    The largest stumbling block to electric cars is performance. Everyone expects the EV to perform identically to a conventional car (normally a sports car). Of course, this greatly drives up the price. Of course, most commuters in big cities crawl through bumper-to-bumper traffic while sniffing each other’s tail pipes.

    I recall that even in the 70’s the Chevy Camaro had a 4-cylinder option (don’t know if they sold that many!)… if EV are to be successful, they most likely need to be an option on nearly all models that a company makes. If I need a mini Van, then I’m not going to purchase a 2-seat sport car or a sub-compact. And if I don’t have the income, I’m not going to spend 30k+ on a new car.

    As for the emissions and efficiency arguments, just remember the fuel you purchase has all the costs factored in (the don’t ship coal for free, do they?). Those who say we need to factor in cost such as “protecting the oil fields” forgret that even if the military left the mid east, we would see 0 dollars saved on our taxes (they would spend it elsewhere), after all, we saw no real reduction in taxes after the military sharnk 50% from it’s peak days during the cold war.

    As for emissions: it is far easier to monitor & regulate a single smoke stack, than thousands of tail pipes. Though “progressive” states like California does (and I sarcastically assume the emissions inspection is also free).

    Cap & Trade. Just another way for middle-men (CEO types) to grab you and my money. Liberals will feel good. A very few get rich. And you and I pay for it. And with zero effect on global warming (does it really matter where the plant is located?).

    The bottom line is people don’t think.

  27. LEU Says:

    Red Neck makes a good point. The consequences of switching to alternative forms are often worse than the current situation. Politicians (read: liberal DemocRATS) are all keen in doing something, but never can they see the consequences beyond their initial “feel good” reasons. In the example above, the politicians and enviro-whackos have destroyed the diesel option mentioned because they forced us to use the ULSD fuel in the US. Just like when removing lead from fuel caused us to burn more of it, and then the catalytic converters caused us to burn more than previously. And if you think it is bad now, wait until they force cap and tax down our throats – job losses, higher prices, etc., but little effect on the phony “global warming” they scream about.

  28. Robert Fisher Says:

    Are there any Doctors, Scientists, Engineers, Chemists, or any other technical and scientific knowledgeable people in Washington ??? But how many lawyers ???

    Next time you are sick, want to know about Global Warming, the best crops to raise, etc, call a lawyer.


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