June 6, 2012 – Vol.17 No.12
RETHINKING ELECTRIC CARS – PART 11.
by Bruce Mulliken, Green Energy News
When Americans think energy they think oil. They think cars.
Cars. America’s passion. We’ve built an economy around them. Now, it seems the rest of the world is following down the same, well, road.
Car manufacturers love their business. Their products can get them great praise, even as works of art. Their customers can become outspoken fans, loyal to their cars at least while they own them. (At trade-in time, most people switch brands.) Car making is an industry, a business, but it’s more than that. It’s almost like they play in a perpetual contest. It’s like each new model is an entry in a design or engineering competition where the prize is success in the marketplace.
Car making can be painful as well. A model which an car maker might have thought sure to succeed, can turn out to be a dud with drivers. Then there are external forces that can nearly put car makers out of business. Economies can suddenly go sour killing sales. Worse, the blood of life for cars – oil – can skyrocket in price, turning buyers away from showrooms. The volatility of gas prices are a constant thorn in the side for car makers. They’re fed up with the ups and downs of gas. They’ve been bitten once too often.
Car makers are under pressure, as well, to build cars and trucks to run on something other than gasoline or use much less of it. The U.S. government has mandated better fuel economy and wants to raise the bar further. California, which is bigger than most national markets by far, (a market automakers can’t ignore) wants to reduce car emissions down to zero.
Then there are picky buyers. Many don’t like the nation’s addiction to oil. They don’t want cars feed that addiction. Others, often the same people, worry about the environment. They too will make their vehicular choices accordingly. Younger generations pose yet another challenge to car makers. They’re not quite as loving of cars as their parents. A smart phone is more fun and it’s a whole lot cheaper. Younger generations also know cars’ contribution to global climate change. They’ll have no part of that. Other buyers don’t care about all of the above.
For now, the best alternative is to go electric, even if it takes years pry drivers away from oil. Ten years ago car companies shunned electric cars. Now many are embracing them for many reasons:
--- Electricity is the ultimate universal alternative fuel. The electric grid is powered by many fuels or energy sources. If the supply of one source gets too expensive or unavailable, another energy source is waiting in the wings to take its place.
--- The fueling infrastructure is mostly in place. The power grid is everywhere. All that’s really needed is a connection between car and grid.
--- No tailpipe, no tailpipe emissions to worry about. The grid that recharges a car might be filthy. That’s not the car makers worry.
--- Compared with conventional cars, electric vehicles are inexpensive to develop. An existing conventional car can be adapted to electric drive. Electric cars have fewer parts that translates to lower development costs.
--- Electric cars are exciting in their own way. They’re different, cutting edge. The future. Build the cars of tomorrow today.
Yet car makers have an uphill battle convincing drivers to switch. Right now, at the current state of technology, electric car drivers have to make some sacrifices and some significant changes in their driving routine. They’re being asked to spend a lot of money on a vehicle that takes a long time to fuel and still not go very far when its “tank” is full.
Automakers have their work cut for them. But there’s hope:
--- For people concerned about short range, car makers, through dealerships, could offer, for a fee, conventional vehicles for long trips. If the electric car makers don’t want to take on this new business, they could pass it on to rental car companies. Got a trip beyond the range of the batteries? Reserve a long distance loaner through a smart phone, swing by the dealer, pick a conventional car and go.
--- Development of the cars is already easy and will get easier. Innovations like in-wheel electric drive motors will cut parts count. Single computers, instead of many, could operate all vehicle functions. The fewer parts needed to develop a car, the less expensive the end product should be.
--- Vehicles should get lighter for longer range. The materials are out there to do this. The lighter the vehicle the more weight can be devoted to the battery pack. The bigger the battery without increasing vehicle weight the greater the distance the car should go.
--- Competition in the electric vehicle marketplace should force prices down. New start-up manufacturers that make only electric cars and with a goal of increasing sales to survive, will have the best shot of pushing prices down.
--- Electric cars have a unique feature unavailable with conventional cars. They can be plugged into a home renewable energy system, such as wind or solar, then be able to feed back that electricity at off hours or in emergencies. Electric cars could play a role in total off grid power.
Yet if there’s one hurdle to jump before electric cars will get cheaper: Those expensive batteries. It’s the batteries that are halting the success of electric cars. If batteries could be developed that gave the same range of a tank of gasoline, yet allowed the car to be sold at a price equivalent to conventional cars, drivers would put up the inconvenience of long fueling/recharging times. Right now most battery research and development is focused on lithium chemistries. There should be constant research in other chemistries. If batteries got cheaper they could also be bigger with the additional weight offset by reduced vehicle weight. The bigger battery the more distance can be covered.
Car makers seem more committed to electric cars than any other alternative energy technology so far. How long they’ll stay committed is anyone’s best guess. Researchers should be working round the clock on those better batteries. If the battery electric car effort fails, it could take decades to come back.
RETHINKING ELECTRIC CARS - PART 1
If EV’s don’t catch on at a quicker pace, manufacturers might have to go back to the drawing board.
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