Driving Toward the Future

by Tim Mosso | 2/24/05 6:00am

The time has come to revisit the concept of the electric car. The triple bind of energy dependence, global warming, and toxic emissions should draw the concern of all Americans. The electric car, which has the potential to avert all of these crises, has received a bum rap.

The most vicious criticism of electric cars has come from predictable sources: the auto industry and their associated politicians. In 2002, the auto industry, led by General Motors and Daimler Chrysler, actually went to court to fight the State of California so the industry wouldn't have to build electric vehicles. Incredibly, the Bush administration instructed the Justice Department to enter the fray on behalf of the automakers, which, it should be noted, were not all American companies. Especially curious was the Justice Department's intervention against the right of a state to add emissions regulations to suit its local environmental needs.

Between 1991 and the automaker's victory over California's environmental laws, the industry and its political allies waged a war on the public image of EVs. It was said that EVs aren't practical because their range is too limited and the cars are too small. Critics of EVs claimed that they had no charging infrastructure to support them and that EVs were too expensive. Finally, the stopgap solution of hybrid technology and the distant promise of fuel cells were said to make electrics unnecessary.

The range and size of electric cars would suit the daily driving needs of urban and suburban Americans. In 1995, old lead-acid batteries gave the best electric cars a range of 60 to 80 miles on one charge. By 1999, this range had increased to 150 miles with Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) packs. Today, an experimental electric produced by an independent shop has traveled 300 miles on lithium ion batteries. While the last vehicle is an experimental sports car, the technologies involved are available for license. Even if an EV family sedan or SUV could only travel 200 miles on one charge, that would satisfy almost all drivers' daily needs. Claiming that the public shouldn't have access to electrics because some people drive extreme distances is like claiming that nobody should have a mid-size car because some people tow boats and horse trailers.

There is no reason why electric cars have to be small or slow. Electric motors offer extreme torque and instant throttle response. The only serious ground-up EV design by a major manufacturer was the EV1 by GM. It accelerated at the same rate as a V8 Mustang while featuring all the amenities of a gas-powered car. The NiMH EV1 could be driven around Los Angeles freeways all day without running out of juice. When GM beat California in court, it began repossessing the lease-only EV1s and scrapping them. The last 77 cars are awaiting demolition as you read this.

EVs are not at the mercy of a public charging infrastructure. While it is true that public charging in parking lots would be expensive and difficult to implement, EVs turn every garage into a gas station. There is no more common power source than a wall outlet, period. Given the range that modern batteries can provide, an EV should be able to take in all the power it needs for a day of cruising before it leaves the driveway.

High cost is an issue for electrics, but it's not an insurmountable one. The primary limiting factor is the cost of large lithium ion batteries. Even the cheaper NiMH batteries are unacceptably expensive at this point. However, the same technological advances that roughly tripled the range of electrics between the mid-nineties and today will bring down the prices of battery packs. It was the same with computers, CDs, and the Internet.

No technology ever became more expensive as a result of more research and larger sales volume. There was a time in the recent past when Henry Ford II railed against the airbag as a prohibitively expensive device to protect Americans from their own "stupidity." Today Bill Ford wouldn't build a car without airbags. If Americans don't allow manufacturers literally to insult their intelligence, maybe Bill Ford's kids will be forced to accept EVs.

Hybrid technology is a baby step toward zero emissions, but these cars still burn gas. Even worse, the true value of hybrid power plants has been masked by the use of these plants in very small cars that would still get above-average fuel economy with standard gas engines. The only somewhat large American-style hybrid vehicle on the market, the Ford Escape Hybrid (considered a compact SUV), averaged only 25 miles per gallon when tested by Car and Driver. If Americans want to keep large trucks, hybridization will likely fail to make Suburban-sized vehicles "clean." Moreover, these vehicles eventually confront their owners with the same battery-replacement costs as pure electric cars.

Fuel cells are the auto industry's excuse for not moving beyond petroleum. Even as it showed off its latest fuel cell concept at the 2005 Detroit Auto Show, GM quietly backed off its previous pledge to put fuel cell cars into mass production in 2010. Most industry experts believe that mass-produced fuel cell cars won't be a reality for decades. An occasional concept car, relatively small government research grants, and plenty of press releases create the appearance that the auto industry takes this technology seriously.

Consumer choice and a clean environment are issues that don't have to be incompatible. If you consider yourself a believer in free markets or environmentalism, ask why potential EV1 owners, cash in hand, have been turned away since 1996. Ask why you don't have the choice to buy an electric car. If taken seriously, the potential of electric cars is truly shocking.

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