With General Motors, Nissan and Daimler – among others – all racing to come out with electric cars by 2010, it’s clear that electric cars are the solution and will soon be the norm. And we all won’t be driving a Prius either – I’ll have my electric pickup truck in a few years too.
Aside from the support of large automakers, common sense dictates that electric transportation will prevail. Electric motors are generally three times more energy efficient than combustion engines. Electric engines are emissions free (and quiet). The electric grid is the most advanced energy-distribution network ever created and is constantly only a few feet away from us (far more ubiquitous than gas/ethanol/hydrogen stations).
Unlike biofuels, which rely on traditional combustion technology and essentially have been debunked as a long-term solution, electricity already powers everything we use – except our transportation. Without gasoline, today’s transportation fails. But without electricity, modern civilization fails.
The eminent success of electric vehicles depends on four factors: good battery systems, customer confidence, reasonable costs and, perhaps most importantly, customer convenience.
Battery technologies are advancing rapidly. Lithium, nickel metal hydrides and even advanced lead acid products are now capable of great energy storage and have strong recycle lives. Safe, reliable and sturdy battery systems currently exist that provide well over 100 miles on a single charge and technology advances will soon provide comfortable ranges in excess of 250 miles between charges. As the average American travels less than 40 miles per day, electric transportation can and will handle our daily transportation needs and provide the reliability and convenience we have come to expect from our automobiles.
Consumer confidence in electric transportation is growing – aided in no small part by $4 to $5 gallons of gasoline. The first step was the hybrid, which proved to the world that electric power can reduce gas consumption. As announced by most of the major automotive manufactures, most recently Daimler, the next step is the plug-in hybrid, which will run a vehicle solely on electricity with backup combustion-engine capability for those who are still “range afraid.” Finally, within the next two to five, years we will see the re-emergence of pure electric vehicles. (We were successful with this before – remember the EV1?)
Currently, battery costs are one of the main barriers, but these barriers are declining as usage and production increase while new technologies and materials continue to push down costs. New investments in battery technology and production are announced daily. Electricity costs are relatively inexpensive. Given the cost of oil and the economic, geopolitical and ecological effects of our continued reliance on petroleum, electric transportation will be cheap.
Customer convenience will be predicated on the ability to charge quickly while on the road in many locations. (By “quickly,” I mean in 10 to 15 minutes while shopping or eating – not sitting at a Chevron station somewhere). And fast charging, which will make recharging your vehicle a part of your 15-minute coffee break at Starbucks or weekly grocery run, is the key to customer acceptance of electric vehicles.
You will be able to charge your car at home at night in three to eight hours, but never be in fear of “running out of juice” because a fast-charge opportunity will be available right around the corner at Starbucks, Safeway, Wal-Mart or your local shopping mall.
While home charging will make use of the standard 110-volt wall outlets in your home, fast-charging stations, which currently are used to power industrial forklifts and airport ground equipment around the world, will use the power supply commonly found at commercial locations. Fast charging will give retailers an opportunity to offer customers another value-added service or can serve as a loyalty program.
It also will provide consumers with opportunities to refill at more diverse locations. Payment could be as easy as swiping your frequent shopper card, credit card or even your newly issued electric-utility card, so you could refill at your contracted electricity rate.
Project Better Place, along with Renault-Nissan and now Daimler, are advancing the concept of swapping out charged batteries for empty batteries. That is a concept as flawed as swapping out your empty gas tank for a full one in your current car. If you take care of your vehicle and are conscious of the fuel it uses, why would you want to use a stranger’s used energy-storage device every day? Only widespread, intelligent fast charging will make electric transportation viable – not swapping batteries.
Finally, on the issue of replacing millions of small smoke stacks (cars) with a few larger ones (utility plants): We stand a much better chance of producing cleaner electricity (solar, wind, clean coal solutions, nuclear) than we do of creating cleaner fuels for our cars. As a civilization, we have committed ourselves to electricity and we must make cleaner electricity. Let’s go all the way – immediately – and commit to electric transportation.
So while some folks want to portray electric cars as a folly of the latte drinking, tree hugger crowd, I am confident that in the near future I’ll pull my pickup into the local Home Depot and pick up another 250 miles as easily as buying a sack of nails.
This opinion piece is from an independent writer and is not connected with Greentech Media News. The views expressed here are those of the author and are not endorsed by Greentech Media. Jonathan Read is the head of ECOtality, which makes fast-charging systems, among other products.