Monday, August 31, 2009

It's Over: 5 Reasons Why The Electric Car Wins

Original post at TriplePundit

It could take ten years or more to become apparent, but I’ll call it now: the electric car will replace the internal combustion engine.

A caveat: I am not an automotive industry expert. Which is why I’m right. I’m not mired in the details, the past failures, the what ifs or the buts. All I see are the big, obvious things. When it comes to sea change in human behavior, though, obvious matters.

So, since no prediction is worth its salt without an accompanying list, the following are five overlapping reasons why our children will all be driving electric cars.

(By the way, these all assume that business as usual; that is, running cars on gasoline derived from (imported, finite, polluting) oil is unsustainable. If you disagree, you’re at the wrong website.)

1. Momentum, aka, Forget Tesla. “Automotive start-up” may be an oxymoron, but it doesn’t matter. Even if electric car company Tesla and its little buddies don’t succeed, the fact is the big car companies are all developing EVs, or hybrid plug-ins, where the emphasis will increasingly be on the electric part, not the gasoline part.

Meanwhile, a zillion companies, plus many national governments, are furiously developing batteries that are powerful, quick to charge, and inexpensive. It’s practically a new arms race.
And then there’s the burgeoning smart-grid industry, which will make charging those cars even cheaper. “Smartness” will also make managing when and where to charge your car much easier.

2. People get it. I read an interesting op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that predicted the healthcare bill would fail because, unlike Social Security or Medicare, it’s too complicated. People just don’t get it. And while I personally believe in universal healthcare (I’m a freelance writer), I understand the point.

People get electric cars. People get where the fuel comes from: the wall socket – the same place you plug in your toaster or your TV (cars are increasingly appliance-like anyway). People get how electric cars move, too. Most people are at least familiar with the concept of an electric motor, and they’ve seen a Prius in action, if they don’t already own one.
And what people already get, people are more willing to a) fund development of, b) support through government, and c) buy.

3. Biofuel is foreign oil. And so is natural gas. Not literally, of course; but to an economy dangerously dependent on imported fossil fuels, they might as well be. And that’s bad news for these main competitors to electric powered cars.

Without going into the details, it would take a long time for biofuel to replace foreign oil as a source of our automobile fuel. Meanwhile, the price of oil will continue to climb, pushing the price of biofuel up with it. The public, seeing no relief from gas prices, will turn to non-oil alternatives, e.g., EVs.

So the chief selling point of biofuel, that it is a cheap domestic source of gasoline for our cars, is wrong in the short term and moot in the long term. Sure, we might be using biofuel in our hybrids, but those hybrids will be getting 200+ miles to the gallon, and eventually infinity/mpg.

Meanwhile, recent discoveries have pegged domestic reserves of natural gas at 2000 trillion cubic feet, enough to last us 100 years at current rates of consumption. If we use natural gas to power all our cars, however, we will run out a lot quicker. And it’s still a dirty fossil fuel with a limited supply and a wildly fluctuating price related to – you guessed it – oil.

Oh, and by the way: fuel cells are dead.

4. It’s electricity, stupid. Critics of EVs point out that anyone who lives in an apartment building or parks on the street, or ever wants to drive more than 100 miles at a time, can’t have an electric car, because without a recharge it will die.

Good point. But let’s put it another way:
Which would you rather pay for? New infrastructure to develop, extract and/or grow and then pump and/or truck the heavy, expensive “carbon fuel of the future” to gas stations…

…or longer extension cords?

Providing public places for electric cars to charge will not happen overnight, or for free, but the technology is here, it’s simple and it’s easily scalable. The problem of range will be solved either through quick charging batteries, battery-swapping, or an extended reliance on hybrids, until people feel confident they will always find a place to charge.

5. Dawning Obsolescence. Using gasoline to power your car is the 21st century equivalent of heating your home with firewood. I love gathering and chopping wood for a nice cozy fire on a winter night, but if I had to do it all winter, every winter, I would be eager to find a replacement technology.

In the future, people will look back on our once or twice weekly ritual of driving to a gas station and pouring a noxious, flammable and very expensive liquid into our loud, dirty vehicle and wonder what “life back then” must have been like.
By “dirty” I don’t just mean polluting, I mean actually dirty, the dirt that accompanies any vehicle that moves by means of burning things: rocket ships, steam locomotives, Corollas, whatever.

Next time you’re at a gas station, think about it. Is it really so hard to imagine the rubber pumps and hoses, and the smell of gasoline and oil as just so…19th century?

Resistance is Futile.

The EV revolution will not happen overnight. Stakeholders in various competing technologies will not allow their ventures to die without a fight. While problems of range and charging persist, consumers will be hesitant to switch, even as they are squeezed by gas prices. And of course, the shift from gasoline to electric can only happen one car at a time.

But my guess is that the shift to electric cars will happen sooner than we think. Change happens very slowly, and then, all of a sudden, very fast. Think of VHS to DVD, or the road from vinyl records to iTunes – four different technologies in less than 30 years (five, if you count eight-tracks).

The automotive industry is a whole lot bigger than the record business, but that also means there’s more incentive to make the switch to the leading technology. It also means once that technology is in place, there’s more incentive to support it. That technology is electric.


Caroline said...

To be a truly greener/cleaner option, wouldn't this also necessitate our power companies switching to sustainable energy solutions such as wind and solar power? Otherwise you are still burning fossil fuels to produce electricity to power your car, albeit it at a slower rate. For example, in my area approximately 45% of our electricity is generated from coal and 32% from gas. Using electricity to power a vehicle would merely increase fossil fuel consumption in a different area while decreasing it in another. Is there any research on how much of a difference it would make?

I'm really interested in this topic as I am debating whether to buy a 2010 Prius or wait for the rumored plug-in 2011.

Dave said...

Hey Caroline,
Here's a cool study (http://www.pnl.gov/news/release.asp?id=204) that illustrates how much power we waste right now and how a large part of the driving force could be electric today and not require much more power generation. While I agree we need to clean up the grid, it's going to take a while for people to change over so this can happen slowly and we would still see the benefits. As far as cars are concerned, check out the PIA link on the right side of my blog for info on the other cars that are in the works. Personally, I don't think the Prius will be th best way to go, but only time will tell.



2010 Toyota Tundra Video said...

that is probably true. EV revolution will not happen overnight but I guess the shift to EV will definitely happen sooner.