Electric Cars Are Just Better

The Future still looks pretty sleek, even if it's a Chevy

Last month I attended the New England Auto Show, and had a chance to see the three mass-market high-electric cars:

  • The Nissan Leaf: 100 mi all-electric range, 24 kWh battery, 80 kW motors, no gas engine, $33K.
  • The Chevy Volt: 40 mi all-electric range, 16 kWh battery, 110 kW motors, 1.4L gas engine, $42K.
  • Toyota Prius Plug-in: 13 mi all-electric range, 5.2 kWh battery, 60 kW motors, 1.8L gas engine, ~$26K.

There were crowds around all three.  They show a nice range of the trade-offs between battery size, range and cost.   The Prius will be the cheapest and the least electric, and the Volt will have the greatest range and best mileage, and is the most expensive.  They were otherwise pretty similar in terms of size and features, and are striving to look as much like old-fashioned cars as possible.

They’re on the expensive side because of the cost of the battery.  The Leaf has the most trouble here, as all pure-electrics will.   People estimate that it’s something like $500 per kWh of storage right now, so that’s a big percentage.  This is actually a good situation to be in, though, because it’s easier to optimize one big part of a system than to have to make improvements to everything.   There’s massive research in batteries right now, and the cost is expected to plunge.   At < $200 / kWh, electrics will be cheaper than gassers.

In the last few months there has been a lot of speculation on whether electric drives will be accepted by the US public.    These three companies have made huge bets that they will be, but even in enormous industries like this no one really knows what people want.

One thing that I haven’t seen mentioned much in all this, though, is how much better electric cars are just as pieces of machinery.   Gas cars have all sorts of nasty features that we’ve gotten used to, and would never accept if a new product came along like them.  For example:

  • They’re slow.   Gas engines have little torque at slow speeds.   They need to be geared down so that the car can start moving at all.  The transmission adds weight, increases the price, costs mileage, and fails horribly. Electric motors have their maximum torque at zero speed and so can take off from standing starts.   The cars above actually limit how fast you can accelerate in order not to startle people, but sportier models like the Tesla can leave gas cars in the dust.
  • They handle badly.  The engine is the heaviest and bulkiest part, and has to be at the front or back.  If it’s at the front, you lose traction on acceleration, and if it’s at the back, you lose it on slippery roads.  The Nissan Leaf salesman pointed out to me that their 600 pound battery was distributed along the bottom of the whole car, so it stays glued to the road.
  • They’re noisy.   If you walk along the street in any American city, you can’t hold a conversation with the person next to you if there are cars driving nearby.    The people inside them don’t notice because of extensive acoustic insulation (which also adds cost and weight), but they prevent anyone outside from being able to think.   The reviewers of the above electrics have all been struck by the difference in noise.   It’s so different that they’ve been forced to add running noises so that the vision-impaired can tell they’re there:  Didn’t America use to be the land of adaptable people instead of the land of lawyers?  Bicycles don’t make much sound, yet people don’t force bike makers to add weird whooshing noises.
  • Gas cars are filthy.  I don’t mean their exhausts, because 50 years of work have finally cleaned those up (except for their CO2, of course), but everything else about the engine is dirty.  The fuel is poisonous if it gets in the water supply, as is the lubricant.   Every gas station is a toxic waste site, and is horribly expensive to decommission.   The waste for electrics is concentrated in power plants, which are much easier to manage.
  • Gas cars need steady maintenance, and still break down all the time.  Would you buy a washing machine where you had to change the oil every six months?  Where the failure of a timing belt turned it into junk?   Millions of person-years of engineering have gone into improving the reliability of internal combustion engines, and they’re still lousy.  Electrics still have lots of other points of failure like the brake systems (although even there regenerative braking will help), but the overall number of moving parts is so much less that it’s bound to be more reliable.   Even semi-electrics like the Prius are noticeably more reliable than other cars, according to Consumer Reports.

This last point relates to why car people are so conflicted by electrics.   It was also one of the most interesting points made in the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Everything down-stream from the purchase of a car is going to be affected by the switch to electrics.   They won’t be able to sell as many parts because they won’t break down as much, and parts have much better profit margins than cars.   Mechanics will need new skills, and there won’t be as many needed.   Nor will there be as many gas stations.  There are a huge number of people involved with maintaining cars, and they’re largely men without college educations.   It’s going to be a big shift in the economy.

Still, I predict that once people actually start driving these things, they’ll wonder why we ever put up with gasoline cars.   They’ll be one of those obsolete leftovers from the 20th century, like paper newspapers and telephones that were stuck in one place.    There’s going to be nostalgia for the roar of gas engines, as there is now for the noise of the defective Harley engine, but most will be glad to be rid of them.

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6 Responses to Electric Cars Are Just Better

  1. Pingback: Scrapping Cars & Recycling Blog » Blog Archive » Electric Cars Are Just Better - Everything and anything to do with recycling old vehicles in the 21st century.

  2. Rich says:

    Nice article, John. Now you have me curious about the ways to improve battery technology. Carbon nanotubes (seriously)? Another thing your article left me wondering about: how long the batteries will last, and what their environmental impact will be, once they are disposed. I suppose the common lead acid battery is pretty straightforward to recycle, as it is done all the time. What about the new batteries?

    • jlredford says:

      My admittedly amateur impression is that we don’t need research breakthroughs to get the cost down. There are several good chemistries now for lithium batteries that advance beyond the old ones used in portable equipment. The newer ones don’t have the thermal runaway problems that would make laptops catch fire, and don’t lose capacity the same way either. The goal now is to optimize the manufacturing process, something the car world knows all about.

      Improvements in weight and size will also come as part of this, but they won’t be that dramatic. Maybe the Nissan 24 kWh battery will go from 600 pounds to 400 as it gets tuned up, but it won’t go to 100 pounds.

      I don’t think it needs to, though. The range problem can be solved in other ways, as the Volt has shown. The key now is to avoid bad first impressions by making the battery as reliable as possible, and then drive hard on cost.

  3. Ed Levy says:

    thanks for the great post. I was talking about electric cars with my electrician and he said that battery disposal would be a major environmental issue. any thoughts?

    • jlredford says:

      Both GM and Nissan have set up recycling programs for the batteries. Businesses are now being created to do it, according to this NY Times piece from last June. The lithium gets turned into lithium carbonate, which has medical uses, and the rest is shredded. Alternatively, you can sell the battery to a utility for use in load-balancing. Their model is the recycling programs around lead-acid batteries, which recover 97% of the lead and detoxify the acid.

  4. Pingback: Electric Vans Already Win « A Niche in the Library of Babel

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