Disengage Auto Pilot

Analyzing Politics and Economics in Our Gadget Filled World


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November 01
Sometimes you have to forget what you assume you know and look at things a new to find the truth.

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JANUARY 10, 2012 10:48AM

Do coal fired power plants dream of electric car driver sheep?

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An interesting article was posted on Jalopnik about electric cars. His basic argument is Americans do not want electric cars because they can't use electric cars. He then proceeds to explain how range limitations, high cost, lack of infrastructure, the lack of a truly green power grid, Limited cargo space, and the design of cities all make electric cars wildly impractical. It is an interesting and compelling argument and if he left it there I might not feel compelled to write anything about it, but he ends with:
But today, right now, in the middle of a terrible recession and a miasmatic material hangover from decades of unchecked consumption, I can't look someone in the eye who's about to buy their first car and say, "Look, buy this electric vehicle. It's not very fun. It's not what you want. You can't really haul anything. It's very likely not any better for the environment. But it is very, very quiet. Especially for the hours and hours it takes to charge."
Arguing that electric cars are impractical, okay fine, arguing that people shouldn't buy them because we're in a terrible recession? Well now you've made it an economic question and when you start mixing technology and economics you really need a big dose of disengage auto.

Electric cars have been ten years away from practicality for the last thirty years so it is perfectly reasonable that people have become incredulous about the start of an electric car revolution. Like I said, the author is largely correct in his assessments about the current state of the electric car market, for the purposes of this discussion though I’d like to unpack several of his major points individually: High Cost, Lack of infrastructure, The lack of a truly green Infrastructure, and Range Limitations.

The High Cost of Electric/Hybrid cars
The Honda Civic (28MPG/39MPG) starts at $15,805. The hybrid version is $24,050 (44MPG/44MPG). The Chevy Volt starts at $31,645 or more than double the standard civic. It is clear from these prices going electric is going to cost you. I’m not going to talk about tax subsidies, or costs savings as a result of purchasing less gas, those initial costs are significant, and it takes years to break even in even the best of circumstances. Still the nature of manufacturing and production are such that prices will come down. Not too long ago power steering was a luxury item, but with scale, and refinement the cost of including it became negligible. The key here though is people have to buy it. The cost of these technologies will never go down without early adopters. Sure there are certain people who probably shouldn’t buy one because it costs more than they can afford, but who now would argue against fuel injection engines as impractical.

Lack of infrastructure
Part of the problem with the electric car is our entire society has been centered around fossil fuel consumption for the last century. Moving to an electric car infrastructure is going to take a lot more work than dumping a big battery into a car and calling it a day. The question is though, how do you start. It is the chicken and the egg dilemma. In the first big push of electric vehicles there was little acknowledgement of the lack of infrastructure. The limited range of the vehicles was something that would just eventually be addressed as more vehicles hit the road. In many ways this is still the case, and here the proponents of electric vehicles couldn’t be more wrong. It will take several generations to build up the necessary infrastructure in an organic way like this. In the meantime, while we are waiting for critical mass, we need hybrids-but not the Toyota Prius style car engine with a supplemental electric engine, but Chevy volt type electric engines with gas generators, but more on that later.

The lack of a truly green Infrastructure
There are a bunch of backbiting studies showing that because a lot of American electricity comes from coal electric cars still have a really bad carbon foot print. Given this and the fact that we have stricter emission standards, fuel injection, turbo chargers, wind tunnel testing, and decades of car innovation, it would be easy to assume that comparatively car engines are pretty good at their job. They are not. People turn on a car and love to hear that engine quietly purr, and think it is a lean mean power machine. It isn’t. When I turn on a car and I hear the engine all I can think is god that is a lot of wasted energy. Because that is what sound is, it’s energy. So is heat. And car engines are good at making sound and heat, but really not all that great at pushing cars. At the end of the day the modern car is able to eek out a conversion of fuel to usable energy of about 20-30%. That means every time you put 100 dollars into your car for gas, 70 to 80 dollars of that is wasted in the form of heat and noise. The only way to improve on the efficiency of fossil fuel is to make use of that wasted heat energy, this is possible in large scale power plant productions but impossible in motor vehicle. Coal is certainly not the greenest of techs but to argue that having millions of cars on the road operating at 20% efficiencies is better than cars recharging off of a coal fired electric plant is to misinterpret the data.

Range Limitations
All that said Gasoline has a few major advantages over electricity. Gas is portable, storable, and easily distributed. Until there was a solution that addressed these problems with electric vehicles we would always be ten years away from a true revolution. This is why the Volt, is such a revolutionary product. It is the perfect stop gap technology, more so than the hybrids that preceded it. The advantage of the Volt is its ability to push all the necessary technologies for an electric revolution. with products like the volt battery technology in cars will continue to advance, as will charging solutions. It is also far more efficient to use gas to push a flywheel that recharges a battery than it is to push a drive train. It also opens up the possibility of having exotic charging methods experimented on in real world environments. Right now there is no way to extend the range of electric vehicles other than plugging it in for several hours, but it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine some car manufacturer selling range extender batteries, and once there is a market for range extenders it would be relatively easy to imagine a gas station offering a trade program where dead range extenders are quickly swapped for fresh fully charged ones.

For the author of the article I'm sure his little comment on the economic implications of the purchase of an electric car was just a throwaway line. The thing is the economics of electric vehicles are not. The idea that we don’t want to expand the pool of electric vehicles on the road because we're recovering from a recession doesn't make any sense. Growth in this sector could be huge for manufacturing, financial investment, research and development and infrastructure all things good for our economic woes. Not to mention that it is forward thinking due to the dwindling resource that is oil. People often over value the role technology will play in economic recovery; generally new technology only has a additive effect on existing trends in the economy. Every now and then though a technology is so new it disrupts the global economy. The internet had this effect, fundamentally changing the transportation would also have that effect. Being on the cusp of this change behooves any economy. If you have the money, or just really wish to push your ecological bona fides buy a Chevy volt, and feel safe in the knowledge that you're also helping the economy too.

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You misinterpreted the use of the word “recession”. The writer meant that in a time where every dollar is important, don’t waste your money on a Volt, buy something practical Thankfully, consumers got the message and that is why the average Chevy Volt buyer has an annual income of $175,000. Your post is an excellent summary of why the Volt should be relegated to the ultra wealthy, as they are the only people that can afford something that is “wildly impractical”.