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Who Killed the Electric Car?

Professor Bainbridge has an idea. Hint: It wasn't General Motors.

Edward Lee (www):
I thought it was these guys.
8.8.2006 11:40pm
W. J. J. Hoge:
Homer once said, "In this family we obey the Laws of Thermodynamics." I was those laws that killed the EV1. The reason that internal combustion engines dominate transportation systems is their superior efficiency in converting fuel into motion.
8.8.2006 11:57pm
Jeremy:
"Who holds back the electric car? We do...We do..." That song makes so much more sense now!
8.9.2006 12:15am
Erasmussimo:
Mr. Bainbridge is certainly correct that the EV1 was a disaster and a waste of money. Blaming its demise on liberals, however, is childish partisan mudslinging. The market killed the first-generation electric cars, just as the market made SUVs -- and now, with inexorably rising gasoline prices, the market will eventually kill SUVs.

Mr. Bainbridge is not honest when he presents the Tesla sports car as representative of the new generation of electric cars. Yes, the Tesla is horrendously expensive. But there are some other electric designs that have interesting specs. They are not ideal for all driving situations, but for certain applications they can be very worthwhile. Yet he airily dismisses them because the Tesla is too expensive.

He is especially misleading with this statement:

Meanwhile, the market continues to work its magic. Toyota recently announced plans to introduce a new version of its very popular line of hybrids in which the electric motor can be charged from a household outlet. Most estimates suggest a plug-in hybrid should achieve 100-plus mpg fuel efficiency.

Here he applies the performance figures for the smallest hybrids -- no bigger than the EV1 that he disparages -- to the much larger vehicles that sell well. This is used-car salesman talk. In practice, hybridization yields -- very roughly speaking -- a 50% improvement in overall fuel efficiency. In other words, if you build two versions of same vehicle, with the same overall performance specs, and one is all internal combustion and the other is hybrid, you should get maybe a 50% increase in miles per gallon. That's good -- but if you start with a 10 mpg SUV and hybridize it, you end up with a 15 mpg hybrid SUV. A 100 mpg hybrid would be equivalent to a 67 mpg conventional car -- and I think you can imagine how tiny such a car would be.

My guess is that Mr. Bainbridge is deceiving the reader in another way: he's excluding the cost of the electricity for plug-ins and considering only the gasoline cost. That is, if you plug your car into the outlet on the wall to recharge it, you don't have to buy as much gas. This is true, but if you want to calculate it that way, then any car can get infinite mpg!

It turns out that, with the overall efficiencies of the modern designs, it's cheaper to recharge from the wall than refill the gas tank. But simply ignoring the cost of the electricity is not honest.
8.9.2006 1:44am
douglas (mail):

It turns out that, with the overall efficiencies of the modern designs, it's cheaper to recharge from the wall than refill the gas tank. But simply ignoring the cost of the electricity is not honest.

Got a source for that? I was always curious about that, as well as 'is the electricity generation actually cleaner than a new internal combustion powered car?' (which are getting pretty clean). Electric cars are good for certain uses- that's called a niche market, and golf carts already filled it. Biodiesel is another one. It's great for the few who do it, but it can't sustain a large market segment. Why, you ask? Check the cost of vegetable oil at the supermarket vs. gas at the pump, and keep in mind increased demand would drive the cost of vegetable oil up. And, no there isn't enough used french fry oil for everyone, sorry.
8.9.2006 3:48am
Luke:
Plug-in electrics would be fantastic if the US could get over the NIMBY effect and build some nuke plants. Even the lousy French manage to get 78% of their power from nukes. They haven't blown themselves up or produced three-eyed fish yet, so what's the problem? Surely if the French can do it, then we can.
8.9.2006 9:55am
Aultimer:

Limited range and cargo capacity don't matter much if you're a wealthy movie star who can afford two or more cars. You just supplement your EV1 with an SUV. However, most Americans don't have that option.

Hogwash. The average cars per household in the U.S. is 1.8. Average drivers per household? 1.8.
8.9.2006 10:18am
Jack S. (mail) (www):
"Who killed the electric car"? Should the title be "Who killed the EV1"? Professor Bainbridge shows his own "stunning lack of understanding of engineering and economics" by opening his own mouth. (emphasis added).

While the EV1 may not have been practical in the long term it showed that their is possibilities in alternative technolgies. Also note that the EV1 was far from being the first electric car. The battery technology of the day was not up to the job, and it's questionable if it is today. This is by no means a good reason to throw your hands in the air and say I give up though. That by definition is bad engineering.
8.9.2006 10:49am
Bryan DB:
Speaking of "got a cite for that":
"The reason that internal combustion engines dominate transportation systems is their superior efficiency in converting fuel into motion."
A comparison of the torque curves for a gas engine vs. an electric engine shows this to be false.

Douglas asked: "Got a source for that?" regarding the cost of charging a car. All you have to do is multiply your electricity rate times the capacity of the car. I've seen estimates that the electric car costs only about 20% of the cost to run a gas car.
8.9.2006 11:17am
Bryan DB:
And as an aside, how predictable have some authors become? I answered "The Liberals" as soon as I saw the question posed above. Having read the article, I see that's the (utterly predictable) answer.
8.9.2006 11:20am
JohnAnnArbor:
A discussion on the same article went on today at Wizbang. My first comment from there is below:


They engineered and marketed the car wrong, in my opinion. The EV-1 was designed to be a "normal" small car, capable of 100 mph I believe and all sorts of other stats.

They missed the market. What if they made a simple, sturdy electric car that can't go above 50 mph or so? Call it the "little old lady" car. Little old ladies only need to go to the store and the doctor and back. They don't need to get on freeways, and they don't need range over 50 or 100 miles if they plug it in at the end of the day, every day. (That's another dumb thing; the EV-1 had a special charger.) And they'd love the low-maintenance aspects (no oil changes, no shady mechanics trying to sell you unneeded $1000 repairs).

My mom remembers back in the late 1960s an old lady driving around town in a 1910-era Edison or Detroit Electric car. It worked just fine for the lady; it did what she needed for little fuss.

The market would expand slightly if you include older retirees of all stripes. Rent a car for your once-a-year trip, and putter around town in a no-maintenace car the rest of the time.
8.9.2006 11:27am
Medis:
I've seen estimates of an equivalency between plug-ins and gasoline at about $1/gallon of gas. Obviously, though, there is probably room for improvement in the efficiency of plug-ins.

In general, I think it is quite obvious that there will be a sliding scale approach. The lower and more consistent your mileage away from a plug, the more it makes sense to use plug-in electricity, to the point that dumping the internal combustion engine entirely as an unnecessary weight burden will make sense for some vehicles. Conversely, the longer and/or more variable your mileage, the more you might need to rely on internal combustion.

By the way, biofuels are far more promising in the long run than douglas suggests. Obviously, it makes little sense to use products designed to be food to instead make vehicle fuel, and ultimately that applies to vegetable oil in the grocery store, corn-based ethanol, and so on. But if you actually start from the ground up, there are much more promising alternatives. Switchgrass, for example, is far more efficient than corn. More esoteric alternatives may be far better, such as algae. Indeed, apparently algae farms have the potential to generate huge amounts of fuel with relatively limited surface area requirements.

Personally, I am convinced that with enough time and investment, the United States can almost completely eliminate its dependence on foreign oil, and dramatically cut its net carbon output, through a combination of hybrid technologies and biofuels. And those investments would be quickly paid back not only by lowered fuel costs, but also through reduced externality costs (environmental, national security, and so on).
8.9.2006 11:52am
JohnAnnArbor:

By the way, biofuels are far more promising in the long run than douglas suggests.

If the feedstock is trash of some sort, the economics get even better.
8.9.2006 12:14pm
Medis:
JohnA2,

Indeed. These people use smokestack emissions:

http://www.greenfuelonline.com/

I particularly like the idea of capturing excess carbon emissions and turning it into fuel, but the basic logic of using any waste product which contains stored energy as fuel is extremely compelling, and I expect it to grow as an approach.

Incidentally, I should also mention what I view as another prime benefit to investing in this sort of technology--I have no doubt that the United States could sell this technology for a great profit to an increasingly energy-hungry world, particularly to developing economies.
8.9.2006 12:24pm
Erasmussimo:
It's interesting that this discussion lacks the rancor, ugly partisanship, and childish mudslinging that we see in many other topics. There appear to be commentators from all over the political spectrum, and the discussion is mature and civilized. It would appear that electric automotive technology is new enough (in the public consciousness) that the body politic has not yet determined whether this technology is a 'left-wing' technology or a 'right-wing' technology. While I suspect that it will eventually plop down on the left-wing side, there are some arguments that could reverse that outcome, such as:

"Electric cars are a plot by nuclear power plant advocates to justify the building of more nuclear power plants."

"Electric cars are a last-ditch effort by opponents of mass transit."

"Electric cars merely transfer the pollution from the car to the power plant."

And to cover my ass, I am not offering this set of hypothetical arguments to denigrate the left. It's trivially easy for anybody to imagine right-wing arguments opposed to electric cars. So far, few on the right have advanced such arguments.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if this matter were never transformed into a partisan issue? Wouldn't it be great if it were discussed only on its own merits?
8.9.2006 12:54pm
tab (mail):
That was an embarassing article. A law professor compares himself to "most Americans." Most Americans drive 200 to 400 miles every weekend? Most Americans don't have two cars? Is he kidding? The EV1 may have been a spectacular failure, but failures are good for the market, even if the failure in question was the product of a central governmental entity forcing private companies to produce an inefficient product.
8.9.2006 1:01pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
They missed the market. What if they made a simple, sturdy electric car that can't go above 50 mph or so? Call it the "little old lady" car. Little old ladies only need to go to the store and the doctor and back. They don't need to get on freeways, and they don't need range over 50 or 100 miles if they plug it in at the end of the day, every day.
John, you missed Bainbridge's point on that issue. Sure, little old ladies only need to go to the store... unless they want to go visit the grandkids. Or drive around all day visiting friends and doing shopping. And god forbid if they forget to plug it in at night, since there's nowhere to charge it except at home. Of course they can rent a car. If they plan ahead.

It's not that you're wrong as a logical matter, but most people want to have flexibility. They don't want to buy a product that they know ahead of time limits them so much. ("I'm going to buy my own car... but if I want to drive somewhere far, I can't use it? I have to plan ahead and rent a car? And you want me to pay more for this?") And keep in mind that the people who use cars least -- your proverbial little old ladies -- don't realize much benefit from buying electric. If you don't put many miles on the car, you aren't buying much gas or polluting much.

The only people who I could see doing this are very urban people -- Manhattanites and a few other cities, perhaps -- who really very rarely drive, and who are actually used to renting a car for long trips.



By the way, biofuels are far more promising in the long run than douglas suggests. Obviously, it makes little sense to use products designed to be food to instead make vehicle fuel, and ultimately that applies to vegetable oil in the grocery store, corn-based ethanol, and so on. But if you actually start from the ground up, there are much more promising alternatives. Switchgrass, for example, is far more efficient than corn. More esoteric alternatives may be far better, such as algae. Indeed, apparently algae farms have the potential to generate huge amounts of fuel with relatively limited surface area requirements.
But biofuels aren't that promising. That is, as a technology they may ultimately be feasible, but as a market product, they're not, because there simply isn't enough. See this article, which points out that if we stopped growing food in the US and just grew biofuels, we still couldn't replace our oil usage.
8.9.2006 1:03pm
Erasmussimo:
David, I agree that the electric car's primary application is in urban environments, where low speeds are the rule, small size is important for parking, and total trip length is short. An average of 1.8 cars per household means that there are lots of households with two or three cars. In such households, it makes a lot of sense to have one small car for short trips that don't require a lot of cargo, and a larger car for longer trips or more cargo. If we think in terms of trips, a huge number of trips taken in this country are short, have a single person, and involve little or no cargo. The electric car is ideal for such trips. Another good application is short- to medium-range commuting. Drive to work, drive home, picking up a gallon of milk along the way, then plug in the car when you get home.
8.9.2006 1:26pm
SouthernJD (mail):
If the electric car is viable, then why hasn't anyone started a company to sell electic cars?

GM didn't kill the electric car, the MARKET did. No one wants an electric car and if people did want an electric car, there would be people starting businesses to build one. So far, not one person has enough faith in the electric car to plunk down the cash to start their own company, instead they whine and complain and come up with conspiracy theories. Either start and build a company to prove there is market demand, or shut up and stop making propagandist movies.
8.9.2006 2:36pm
Jack S. (mail) (www):
The Washington Post article cited above by David Nieporent is the line that just about every major newspaper in the US has pushed. It ignores other technologies and solutions(such as biodiesel and how about getting our SUV's to run diesel instead of gas so they get 20mpg instead of 10?)

Growing corn will not completely supplant the US or world fuel needs but it is a start. There are other methods being researched to produce organic oils as well as ethanol from cellulose which has a higher yield, will grow just about anywhere and will not compete with the food products market. Organic oils are already being massed produced for the food and drug markets via microorganisms that are found in your favorite pond (see Martek Biosciences).

It sure is easy to say "It won't work" without providing an alternative solution. I think that's what people mean by "thinking inside the box"

Maybe if journalists actually tried a little research on Google they'd actually turn out an article worth the paper it's printed on.
8.9.2006 3:20pm
exfizz:
I agree with WJJ Hoge that gasoline + internal combustion is a potent combination and will likely remain an important technology even as it forms the basis of ever more exotic hybrid systems, but I think that WJJ Hoge overstates the case when he claims, "internal combustion engines dominate transportation systems [because of] their superior efficiency in converting fuel into motion."

Of all "transportation systems", cars are the only ones that commonly use internal combustion.

Not trucks (diesel)
Not ships (diesel-electric or nuclear-steam turbine)
Not airplanes (turbine)
Not trains (diesel or electric)
And not power generation systems (steam turbine)

The more these guys care about efficiency and the more options they can afford to look at, the further they move away from IC.

Again, gas+IC is a terrific base technology for cars, but I don't think you can use science to claim it is the ne plus ultra.
8.9.2006 4:09pm
exfizz:
I should add that of course exfizz's own car runs on a Mr. Fusion(TM) home energy system fueled by stale beer and banana peels.
8.9.2006 4:12pm
Medis:
David,

That column is based on an analysis of the admittedly inefficient corn-to-ethanol path. They are right that it probably makes little sense to replace corn-for-food with corn-for-fuel.

But when considering alternatives to corn, the column assumes that the maximum yield/acre is twice the corn-to-ethanol yield, that all alternatives will have to use cropland, and that there will be no reduction in consumption through things like hybrid technologies. None of those assumptions are warranted.

Algae farms, for example, could potentially have biodiesel yields/acre hundreds of times higher than corn-to-ethanol, and could use land unsuitable for food crops. In fact, algae farms would do best in the desert, and could potentially use salt water. And even something like switchgrass could be grown on lands not currently used for food crops, because it is a far more efficient plant and requires much less attention.

Moreover, as we discussed above, there are lots of waste products that can be converted to biofuel, including things as esoteric as smokestack emissions. There would be almost no overlap in these cases between fuel production and food production.

In short, an analysis of biofuel production pegged to corn, with an assumption that the best we could do is replacing corn with a slightly higher-yielding crop on the same land, is deeply flawed.

Second, there is no reason to assume that our current consumption of liquid fuels is immutable. Hybrid technologies work, and hybrids with plug-ins work even better. There is no reason that we can't cut our use of liquid fuels (or at least dramatically slow the growth rate of our use of liquid fuels) using these technologies.

To add a final political note: unfortunately, the focus on corn is largely a byproduct of corn-for-ethanol having been a political football for quite a while now. But that is just an example of why governments should not be trying to micromanage these issues.
8.9.2006 4:15pm
Medis:
Erasmussimo,

Exactly. Once you start thinking of patterns of use, you end up with three basic scenarios: in the middle is a vehicle which will use plug-in electricity for short trips and IC for long trips, and thus will need both a large plug-in battery and an IC engine. On one side of the middle is a vehicle which only makes short trips, and for that vehicle, an IC engine is going to be an unnecessary weight and cost burden. On the other side is a vehicle which only makes long trips (or a bunch of short trips with no chance to plug-in, like a taxi), and for that vehicle a large plug-in battery may be an unnecessary weight and cost burden.

It is likely that a family with only one car will opt for the middle course. But a family with two or more cars has a lot more options--they could, for example, have one car that they will only use for short trips, and another more flexible car. In that scenario, they get the benefit of dumping the unnecessary weight and cost of the IC engine in the short trip car, while preserving the flexibility provided by the other car. In fact, if they had a "weekday" car and a "weekend" car, they might be able to dump one IC engine and one plug-in battery respectively, getting the added efficiency of both ends of the spectrum.

In short, there is no reason to assume a one-size-fits all approach to plug-in technology. And this is something Americans are already accustomed to doing--many families have different sorts of cars for different purposes.
8.9.2006 4:31pm
rmark (mail):
The market didn't create the SUV, CAFE standards did. Car companies stopped producing full size station wagons, instead moving to truck based frames which were not included in car fleet mileage standards. SUV's are useless, give me a late 1960's or early 70's 6 cylinder station wagon with fold down seats for a flat floor and wide enough for plywood.
8.9.2006 4:55pm
SouthernJD (mail):
Once again, there is a lot of talk about "alternatives", but no one is willing to put their money down on the table to do it. Why, because no one will buy the product. Heck, if a San Fran venture capitalist is willing to plunk down $100 million on some start tech company, why is no one willing to spend the money on "alternative" cars?! All this talk about one car, two car families, and patterns are useless unless you have an entreprenuer to step up to the plate and produce a product. And right now, no one has faith in any "alternative". Finally, all the fancy talk, and talk of potential solutions does not put a vehicle on the road, only action.
8.9.2006 7:19pm
Medis:
SouthernJD,

I think your model is right, but your facts are wrong. Hybrid car sales have been steadily increasing. Not surprisingly, that means consumers are about to have many more hybrid models to choose from, which likely will further accelerate hybrid sales. Unexpected uses are also arising--I read recently about how the military is interested in hybrids not only for fuel savings, but also because it effectively turns every vehicle into a rolling generator.

Meanwhile, last I read all the major car companies were working on plug-in technology. And there are already aftermarket companies coming out with plug-in kits for existing hybrids like the Prius (see "Edrive").

In short, an unmet demand for alternatives to IC seems to be there, and it is in fact driving investment. And one of the breakthroughs was the "hybrid" approach, which ironically seems to lead to quicker adoption precisely because it allows for more gradual steps.
8.9.2006 7:46pm
Jack S. (mail) (www):
SouthernJD, what are you talking about?

You mention "alternatives" so I assume you mean electric and any other non petroleum based fuel.

So after toying with Google for a few minutes here's a few references

Iogen Cellulose Ethanol

See "Iogen Gets Boost from Goldman Sachs. Wall Street firm invests $30 million in cellulose ethanol leader."

Oops..sorry that's not 100 million.

Galveston Bay Biodiesel

Check out press releases, Chevron is throwing money at them.

Read the latest issues of Business Week, BP and Shell are both touting major initiatives into biofuels.

There is also EBOF.OB (Earth Biofuels) that has a current market cap of over $600 million. I guess someone gave them $100m.
8.9.2006 7:58pm
JohnAnnArbor:

but also because it effectively turns every vehicle into a rolling generator.

I read a year or so back about plans by GM to eventually build a full-size pickup hybrid that could act as a generator. They were thinking contractors would love it.
8.9.2006 10:22pm
Medis:
So, I just read that Walmart is looking to offer E85 across the United States.

I guess they see demand out there as well.
8.9.2006 11:35pm
Jam (mail):
Internal combustion engine still delivers the best energy-to-motion.
The market is much better in determining when to go to another fuel.

But ... why recall and destroy something already produced and available to consumers? What economic good would that destruction achieve?

According to Dr. Gordon Prather we already have a vast supply of alternative fuel: methane.
8.10.2006 11:56am
apeweek (www):
Hi everybody. I came across this thread, and thought you might want to hear from someone who drives an EV.

I bought a used one and fixed it up. Total cost, $6000. Old technology, so my range is limited. But the batteries are cheap. About $800, and with care, they can last me nearly 8 years. That amount is about what my other vehicle costs just for oil changes.

My electric utility has a special 'EV rate' of 2.5 cents per KWH. I get about 4 miles per KWH, so my 1300 miles of monthly driving only costs me $8. Yes, EIGHT dollars. In my other 18 mpg car, that would cost me $224 for the gasoline.

Picture of my car here:

http://www.austinev.org/evalbum/775

Look around that site, you'll see other used EVs.
8.11.2006 1:25am
W. J. J. Hoge:
exfizz:

As an electrical engineer, I'm not an expert on mechanical engines, but aren't diesel engines internal combustion? Thus, large trucks (and my VW TDI) do use internal combustion engines. So to Toyota hybrids. Of course, steam engines, whether piston or turbine are external combustion types, but note that locomotives have been transitioning from external combustion (steam) to internal combustion (diesel/electric hybrid) over the past 60 years. Internal combustion rules on land.

I'll grant that ships and large aircraft use external combustion systems, but the majority of the aircraft in the world use internal combustion engines to spin their props. Most airplanes are not expensive enough for the additional cost of a turbine engine to be worthwhile.
8.11.2006 10:51am
douglas (mail):

By the way, biofuels are far more promising in the long run than douglas suggests.

I don't believe I made any sweeping statements about all biofuels- I think ethanol has promise, but biodiesel has rather restricitve limits. Electric only cars have many issues, and I think will be limited. What happens to all the old batteries that get replaced every 6-10 years? Is it really cleaner than today's gas engines, or is it simply moving it to energy powerplants?

The big issue no one has touched on yet is the infrastructure question. For electric car buffs, if more people get electric cars, what happens on the next really hot day in California, where we barely have enough power as it is? Can we build a few nuke plants? As for biofuels, ethanol has much potential because it would use the same or converted refining, distribution and retail infrastructure as gasoline. Anecdotal successes such as apeweek's are great for him, but does it autmatically follow that you can extrapolate that out into millions of units successfully? Of course not- it's possible, but there are BIG problems.

It might also amuse you to know I've given quite serious consideration to a biodiesel car... but I still don't think it's a mainstream solution.

Oh-

My electric utility has a special 'EV rate' of 2.5 cents per KWH.

It's nice to know we subsidize your transportation. What would it cost at actual market, if the demand went up with more electric cars on the road?
By the way, in many places in California, you can plug in FREE and get a space right in front.
8.12.2006 4:45am
apeweek (www):
Hi Douglas, I'll try to address the points you raised.

-Infrastructure: not as much of a problem as it seems. EVs charge at night, during off-peak. There's plenty of nighttime electricity to go around for quite a while (one estimate I read said 30 to 50 million EVs.) Acceptance of EVs would be very slow, in any event, with planty of time to increase capacity. This is also the answer to the 2.5 cent/KWH rate I get from my utility. This is not some government subsidy program - this is an attempt by my utility to encourage off-peak use of electricity. I'm sure electricity would/will get expensive if more people drive EVs. Worst case scenario, though, is I put up my own solar panels or windmill, and get it for free.

-Old batteries: There's substantial financial incentive to recycle them - my lead-acid batteries have a total of $170 of deposits on them. The newer tech LI-ION batteries aren't considered an environmental hazard by the EPA or most municipalities (because the lithium is stored as a stable salt.) There will be incentives to recycle these, nonetheless. Luckily, EVs don't generate used motor oil or coolant, which are more serious environmental concerns.

-Pollution: Powerplants do create pollution, but much less is generated to move an EV the same distance as a gas car, first because of the greater efficiency of EVs, and secondly because only a portion of our electricity is generated from polluting sources. Plus the clean proportion of electricity will improve over time.

I agree that neither my EV case, nor your consideration of a biodeisel car are 'mainstream', but some of us have to be pioneers. An old used EV like the one I drive, for instance, has battery maintenance issues that would annoy most people. (Monitoring charges, refilling water levels, etc.) To me, it's worth it to be able to drive past gas pumps. But it's really a hobby as much as it is a car.

That's why it's a shame that the major automakers don't want to be involved, because that's the only way to get the latest technology.

Ironically, a few fellow hobbyists have lately been able to get some cutting edge EV batteries from China. Example:
http://www.everspring.net/product-battery.htm

China is pursuing EVs much more seriously than we are. And there's good reason for that. Oil supplies won't be able to keep up with China's growth. Plus, much of the world's Lithium batteries are made in China, giving them an unbeatable price. One of these Chinese EVs will be available here in the USA next year - it gets 200 miles per charge, and does 80mph. MSRP is $28500:

http://www.milesautomotive.com/products_xs200.html

The question I have next is: What if cars like this succeed? Where does that leave the Detroit auto companies?
8.13.2006 6:28pm