By on June 14, 2007

after32.jpgThe recent surge in the price of gas has turned this middle-aged man’s mind to thoughts of electric cars. And then I take a walk down the block and get cold feet. Down the street, there’s a driveway with four cars parked end-to-end. The three closest to the garage are electric car conversions, long-abandoned relics from the first two energy crises. The fourth car, closest to the street, is a Camry. Did the owner finally come to his senses? Or is he just waiting for his Tesla?

Over the past 120 years, the battery electric vehicle (EV) appeal has had its ups and downs. In the early decades of the twentieth century, wealthy owners quietly hummed to the opera in their Detroit Electrics automobile. Perched high above a bank of giant lead-acid cells below the floor, they could literally look down their noses (a pathological condition of EV ownership?) at the smoky, belching cars below.

The vehicles’ range was adequate for its time and purpose: 50 to 80 miles, at 20 mph or less.

Improvements in internal combustion engine (ICE) technology, better roads and the advent of cheap gas put the lead-acid EV into deep sleep. Energy crisis I and II gave the first jolt, nudging EV’s out of their technological torpor. Sort of.

In theory, the EV is a compelling package. Electric motors are compact, quiet, clean, reliable and powerful, generating maximum torque from 0 to 8000 rpm. Their efficiency beats ICE hands-down: 90+ percent vs. mid-30’s percent (under optimal conditions). And EV’s can convert de-acceleration back into electricity (regeneration), boosting their net efficiency.

The EV’s efficiency is greatest at low speed, exactly where the ICE engine is at its worst. (They make fabulous city cars and golf carts.) But air drag increases with the square of the speed. The faster you go, the faster the batteries drain their power.

All batteries’ energy storage density is profoundly less then gasoline; especially lead-acids. Ergo, their range is highly limited. The long-dead lead-acid conversions in my neighbor’s driveway (including a huge Cadillac) had a freeway range of twenty or thirty miles.

GM’s EV-1 pushed the lead acid envelope to its limits by using an ultra-slippery body with a Coefficient of Drag (CD) of 0.19. One hundred years of progress had yielded a tripling of cruising speed, but the EV’s range was still stuck at the Detroit Electric’s 60 to 80 miles. Given today’s operating conditions (highways and all), that’s not good enough for regular folks.

The ten years since the EV-1 have issued promising new battery chemistry, especially the lithium-ion cells powering our lap-tops and the much-ballyhooed Tesla Roadster.

The first time I read of the Tesla’s projected 250 mile range, I thought: “200 miles, if things go well.” That’s now the Roadster’s revised official range. Even if the Tesla only gets around 160 miles in normal use, that would still represent a doubling of range in ten years. From a historical perspective, that’s a giant step.

And despite its potential for scalding acceleration and high speed, the Tesla is still inherently highly efficient. The calculations for its 135 mpg “equivalent” claim are EPA-sanctioned, and roughly coincide with a steady speed of about 60mph and the range of 200 miles. So a 120 mph blast should yield about 34 “equivalent” mpg. Guilt-free speeding until busted?

Since the ICE runs most efficiently at wide-open throttle settings, performance cars pay a penalty at lower speeds. The Tesla’s jail-bait capability carries no intrinsic penalty, because the EV motor is almost equally efficient at any speed. But that “efficient” 120mph blast would run down the batteries in 50 miles or less. That alone would improve your odds of not getting busted.

Those range estimates are based on fresh batteries. The dirty little “secret” in Tesla’s closet: li-ion batteries start losing capacity from the get-go. After five years and 50k miles, battery capacity (range) is estimated to be down some 30 percent. Tesla owners can keep moving closer to work each year, or pony up.

Replacement battery pack price is unknown. Safety is unknown. At least one can live in hope that future batteries will be safer, more capable and maybe even cheaper.

Hard-core EV freaks and eco-poseurs are going to love the Tesla, despite the fact it doesn’t have room for a suitcase or a couple of bags of groceries. The Elise, on which the Tesla is based, wasn’t exactly designed for practicality (or 6’4” middle-aged guys like me). Never mind the $100k price.

With cheap hydro-power juice here in the North West, recharging an EV for a couple of bucks appeals. But how about something practical, along the lines of [the first gen] Scion Xb, with decent range, and priced reasonably. Now THAT would make a viable car, I think. And then I take another walk down the street…

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65 Comments on “Who killed the Tesla Roadster?...”

  • avatar

    Paul….you are 6 ft 4 like me? What do you drive? I find that there are precious few cars that I even fit inside, and fewer still that I can see out of or survive in for anything other than short jaunts.

    WRT to Tesla, if someone can make a practical electric car, great. But it should be kept in mind that power comes from somewhere. In these parts, power shortages are commonplace, and that’s with an inconsequential number of e-cars. I can only imagine what would happen to the power grid if even 10% of the population adopted them.

  • avatar

    It's worthwhile to see what Tesla has to say about the battery life of their roadster: The bottom line from them is "we expect more than 100,000 miles of driving range and more than five years of useful life." 

  • avatar

    I can only imagine what would happen to the power grid if even 10% of the population adopted them.

    Luckily for us, we don’t have to rely on your imagination. One of the DOE laboratories performed a study for plug-in hybrids and found that the grid can handle 166 million plug-in hybrids if they were charged using off-peak capacity – i.e. at night.

    See this link for more info:

    Edit: I should admit that full-electric cars might tax the gird a bit more than plug-in hybrids. Still, even if we concede an order of magnitude (which is probably way more than we need to) 16 million full-electric cars is noting to sneeze at.

    Now, whether or not the economics, etc work out is another matter. But the grid won’t be a concern for a while.

  • avatar

    Speaking as a chemist: Battery powered EVs aren’t ever going to happen. And by battery, I mean a chemical battery that we are all used to: Lead-Acid, Li-Ion, Li-Polymer (LiPo), etc. The problem is that converting chemicals into electricity will never be a high energy density. All chemical -> electricity reactions are on the order of 1.5 volts (side line: notice that anything DC you use is a multiple of 1.5 volts? AAA,A,C,D cells = 1.5v. “DryCell” = 6v, “9-volt” battery, car battery = 12v, POTS=48v, etc). You get more voltage by stacking the batteries in series and more current by stacking the batteries in parallel. In the end, the power is the same. Pretty much with a battery, you take some molecule, move an electron (generating your voltage), and make some new molecules. So you pretty much only get 1.5 electron-volts (yes it is a unit of energy we chemists use) per molecule. 1.5 eV of energy is about 150kJ/mol of energy.

    Now when you break bonds, (i.e., burn a chemical such as gasoline) lots lots lots more energy is released. The reason it’s much more is that you’re actually destroying a chemical bond, not just moving an electron from a high energy state to a low energy state. When you burn gasoline, for example, you generate 5500kJ/mol of energy (as a comparison, natural gas is 800 kJ/mol)

    So now I have to explain what a mol is to those who are not chemists. A mol is what chemists use to count particles. When you see mol, just read “a whole bunch of particles”. A chemist uses “mol” in the same way that a baker uses “dozen”, it’s just a gouping of stuff (a dozen=12, a mol=6.02×10^23).

    Now since batteries and gasoline are incompressible solids and liquids, we can as a first estimate assume that a mol of battery chemicals takes up the same amount of space that a mol of gasoline takes up (I could be off by as much as a factor of 2, but I doubt it).

    So now if we have the same volume of space to store our energy, we see that gasoline (5500kJ/mol) is 36 times more energy dense than a battery (150kJ/mol). If we take what this article says and assume EV motors are 3 times as efficient as IC engines, then gasoline still wins by a factor of 10.

    These are all “back of the envelope” calculations, but the main point I want to stress is that batteries are fundamentally limited by nature to a specifc energy density, and you ain’t gonna fix that no matter how much money you throw at it.

    I’m not saying that EVs are bad, we just need a more energy dense way to store the electricity (promising candidates: fuel cells), or an easy way to transmit electricity to the cars (promising candidate: Nickola Tesla’s wireless electricity transmission).

  • avatar

    Hi miked! {materials scientist waves to the chemist}
    Nice explanation.

    A few points. Fuel cells don’t store energy. They take the potential energy in the hydrogen and convert it to electrical energy. If you think that storing electrons in a chemical battery is tough to do in any kind of density try storing hydrogen. It’s a royal bitch. When I was in school there was somebody working on this in my department. If it can be done safely, effectively, and cheaply it’s pretty much the holy grail of energy transportation/storage.

    On the topic if EVs being good city cars, I agree completely, but there is a big problem with this. In most “metropolitan” cities that I’ve lived in (SF, LA, Denver) people generally rent apartments. maybe not so much LA; people don’t live in downtown LA. Anyway, in most of these places, people don’t have garages – they street park. How are you going to charge your EV in this case. Run an extension cord out your window, across the sidewalk and into your car? I don’t think so.

    So, while EVs are perfect for the city, there’s no good way to charge them. Out in the suburbs where you’ve got driveways and garages, the range might not be enough. Tesla’s 200 miles is plenty, but it’s also $100k.

    I really think that plug-in hybrids will be the stepping stone to whatever will replace the ICE in the next two decades or so.

  • avatar

    How about an Elise with a TDI motor?

    I bet such a machine would provide me my dream: A sports-commuter car.

    2 seats, minimal luggage capacity, open top, light weight, efficient motor, lots of torque. It would be fun to drive, capable of both regular, economy driving, and FUN spirited runs through the twisities… all on home-brewed, nonpolluting fuel. What is preventing such a car from being built?

    Yes, I know it won’t win any 0-60 straight-line drag races, but who cares? When is the last time you NEEDED to do 0-60 in 4 seconds? I never have. It would be able to keep up with, and likely beat just about every other car on the road, and certainly all the lumbering heavy SUVs that outnumber us car drivers. As a wise man once said, there is great joy to be found driving slow cars fast. Count me in that camp.

    I don’t need great performance at speeds in excess of 120 MPH. I have spent only minutes of my life at that speed. Conversely I have spent months between 35 and 85 MPH, where a Diesel engine, especially a turbocharged one, is not a handicap.

    So again, why isn’t such a car being sold? It is FAR more useful and practical than these goofy short-range EV dreams!

    Those of us Americans who prefer a compression-ignition power plant are left with nothing but base-package trim sedans from two car makers. Meanwhile goofy and unobtainable EV technology is getting all the press and attention. Something is seriously wrong here.


  • avatar

    I reviewed three different EVs for a certain web site (not this one), all for a week at a time, and always relying on the public charger network — never had a problem. I live in Los Angeles, and have yet to live an an apartment that did not have some sort of parking-related outbuilding where a charger could be hooked up. Don’t get caught in the range game — 100 miles/day with nightly charging is plenty. Remember, you can theoretically have a Ford Excursion with a 600 mile range, but it’ll cost you $185 per fill-up. Not sure what that has to do with anything, I just really wanted to say it. :)

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    NickR: I drive a (gen1) xB, and a ’66 Ford F-100. I fit real well into both.

    The EV-1 CD was a typo, now fixed.

    Drew: I got the info about the Tesla’s batteries losing 10% capacity per year from the bowels of their web site. You have to dig a little. Good point about charging in cities. London is trying to address this, since they’re so big on EV’s (exempt from congestion charges). If you owned your place, and could get the parking reserved, it wouldn’t be the end of the world to cut a narrow trench through the sidewalk to the curb.

    miked: thanks for the more detailed explanation. If gasoline had the energy density of batteries, we’d all be driving around in tanker trucks. It’s only the high efficiency of EV’s that makes them as semi-feasible as they are.

  • avatar


    “Fuel cells don’t store energy. They take the potential energy in the hydrogen and convert it to electrical energy.”

    Yes, you’re right. But then in the same sence, batteries don’t store energy, they take the potential energy in the chemicals and turn it into electricity. I was using battery in the sence of an energy storage device. With a fuel cell, you have to spend energy to make the hydrogen (either cracking hydrocarbons, or electrolysis of water). So what you do is spend energy at one location to make the fuel cell and then use the fuel cell as a “battery” to power an EV. At least thats what I was thinking as I wrote the comment.

    “If you think that storing electrons in a chemical battery is tough to do in any kind of density try storing hydrogen. It’s a royal bitch.”

    You are correct that storing hydrogen is a royal pain in the ass. I have seen some neat research where the hydrogen is stored as a metal hydride (commonly Lithium Hydride), so you win by having solid state hydrogen taking up 1000 times less space, and then you also win because you get energy cracking the LiH bond and then you also get energy from H2+O2 reaction in the fuel cell. (Of course then there’s the wase Li you have to deal with.)

  • avatar

    “But how about something practical, along the lines of [the first gen] Scion Xb, with decent range, and priced reasonably. Now THAT would make a viable car, I think.”

    A la:

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    For the time being, storing hydrogen is a problem. The BMW h7 boils off one ninth of its tank per day. In nine days it empty. Forget leaving it at the airport for a week-long trip.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    dexter: You forgot about my words “priced reasonably”. The ebox costs $70k.

  • avatar

    VW needs to build the GX3 concept. that thing was awesome!

  • avatar

    RE: Charging EVs in cities.
    Paul notes that London is dealing with this. I live in Bordeaux (southern France, wine, etc…) and here they allow EVs to park for free in any parking garage AND they provide dedicated spots (the spots are better placed than the handicap spots!) with electrical outlets. Obviously this works because there’s like a dozen cars in the city that are electrical now and on a larger scale it would require some changes, but cities who are interested in increasing the presence of EVs could probably increase the amount of dedicated spots and run more extension cords to those spots. Of course it would be at the expense of those ugly-ass, black-smoke spewing 1980s diesel Peugeots, but someone’s got to get them off the streets.

  • avatar

    Bottom line is that gasoline is way too cheap in the US to achieve demand destruction.

    Even without getting into very expensive vehicles, for most people even on a 30K car the fixed costs are so high that fuel even at 5$/gal is not a factor. Maybe at 10$/gal people would start to change attitudes a little.

    So? why would people risk the huge inconvenience of a very limited repair network and/or the potential cost of a unproven technology.

    Someone like Toyota (hybrids) isn’t going out of business over a few hundred million $, these guys might fold over a few 100K, you never know.
    Doing business with wealthy people/companies is just much more relaxing, because they can afford to do the right thing when something goes south.

  • avatar


    I know it’s not the same, but isn’t Subaru going to have a WRX boxer diesel by the end of the decade?

  • avatar

    Regarding the cost; Tesla needs to recoup millions in R&D costs and they can’t produce a lot of cars (the body is made by Lotus, not GM thankfully), so each car is going to cost a lot.

    Regarding the practicality; who would spent $100k on an electric Aveo, when you could get an Aston for the same price ? A $100k car has to look like a $100k car.

    Regarding the efficiency; one day, be it ten, a hundred or a thousand years from now, we’re going to run out of stuff we can dig up and burn. Everything we do needs to come from a renewable resource even if it’s only 1% efficient when the infrastructure is taken into account. I would argue that extracted petroleum is 0% efficient, because once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Chuckgoolsbee: re TDI Elise. The problem is US emission standards. But clean diesels are coming. A TDI Elise? but it would make an interesting direct comparison to the Tesla. You can buy a diesel Alfa Roadster, and Audi is considering a TDI TT.

  • avatar

    As somebody said, a light, roof-free, no-storage, two-seat commuter car… would be a dream come true for me, too (EV, Diesel, or whatever). And while I’m sure we all have “our maximum price” that we’d value such a product at, I just want to stress how crippling that five-year life is:

    Honda Civic: $15K, 10 year useful life for amortization purposes = $1,500/yr (conservatively).
    Nissan 350Z conv.: $45K, 10 year useful life = $4,500/yr.

    Tesla: $100K. 5 year useful life. $20,000/yr.


    Hence the #2 question: “How much for a new set of batteries?”

  • avatar

    Tesla claims 70% after 5 years. That’s incredibly unrealistic. If you check out it says that with 100% charge (most people will probably have their car charged to full as much as possible) at 25 degrees celcius the battery will lose 20% per year or 32% remaining after 5 years. However if you leave your car parked in the sun it can climb up to 120-140 fahrenheit easily. At that point you’re looking at loosing about 40% in one summer. Compare that to the NIMH which loses only 5% at 25 degrees celcius and you’ll see why Toyota decided not to switch over to Li-Ion with the newer Prius (that and price). Anyone that’s owned an Ipod or a laptop can attest to the fact that lithium ion batteries typically last about 2-3 years tops. So you’re looking at a pretty expensive 3 year service interval in the Tesla. Anyone that can afford one probably won’t care about that (or the environmental damage it causes). This is all about image.

  • avatar
    Glenn 126

    Perhaps we should persuade Toyota to have it’s affiliate, Daihatsu, build the UFE 3 seat Kei car, which gets 170 to 205 MPG from a 660cc engine and full hybrid drive.

  • avatar

    “But how about something practical, along the lines of [the first gen] Scion Xb, with decent range, and priced reasonably. Now THAT would make a viable car, I think.”

    Have you read Tesla’s secret master plan?

    So, in short, the master plan is:

    1. Build sports car
    2. Use that money to build an affordable car
    3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car
    4. While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options

  • avatar

    “Who killed the Electric Car?”

    Lord Physical Reality.

    Someone told me about a year ago that Toyota was going to a Lithium Ion battery in the next Prius. I laughed and said “No, they are not” just for the sole reason compy386 stated above.

    Of course, there are many more reasons as well….

    There is no viable alternative to nuclear power and hydrogen or synthesized hydrocarbons.

  • avatar

    I admire Tesla for what they’re doing, but it’s not the EV breakthrough EV nuts should be looking for. I agree that plug-ins are a good compromise that could eventually provide the basis for a real game-changing EV.

    As far as the chemistry is concerned, it’s electron transfer that makes EVs environmentally neutral. Chemical bonds need to be created in order to be broken, and their breaking is where the waste and pollution comes from. Electron transfers may not be high-powered, but they are efficient and don’t destroy themselves.

    At least we’re talking about the right issues. I don’t see why EVs and hybrids have become so politicized; they’re just engineering solutions. So lets talk about the engineering.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    The resaon Toyota gave for not using LiIon cells at this time in the next Prius was safety, not performance. I think they’re (rightfully) gunshy, because of the growing issue about various Toyota recalls. They’re playing it safe for now.

  • avatar

    Great article. and also thanks to miked and drew for the all the good explanations.

    chuckgoolsbee: I have been reading about a Smart Fortwo that has a 45 hp turbo diesel that gets about 70 mpg… i will be buying one of those – i’m not sure how they are to drive, but they look cool, and thats mileage on par with motorcycles – AND you are not in the elements!

    Or make a hybrid thats actually fun to drive!

  • avatar

    A few weeks ago on Jay Leno’s garage, Jay went for a drive with his Baker electric car, which were popular city cars 80 years ago.

    We must give credit to Tesla for coming out with what seems so far as a “credible” electric car at this point.

    Canada has had smart cars for over 2 years, after the usual initial “pent up” demand sales subsided, and have picked up recently with the $ 2,000 rebate from the federal goverment. In Canada the smart car has a diesel engine with 45HP and a 6 speed sequential shift transmission.

    Interesting that Toyota has sold 1 million hybrids, and DCX has lost over 3 billion with smart over 4 years.

    An interesting aspect of electric car proponents is that they seem to have a complete aversion to gas engined cars. At the same time many of these electric cars are demonstrated in “controlled” circumstances, with a variety of reasons for doing so.

    We are all waiting for the day when these electric cars are readely available for independent road tests especially the Tesla.

  • avatar

    Even if the Tesla only gets around 160 miles in normal use, that would still represent a doubling of range in ten years. From a historical perspective, that’s a giant step.

    No, that’s a doubling of range in 100+ years. That’s nothing.

  • avatar

    The THINK Public was an interesting platform – that would have filled the need nicely, way below the 70K of the eBox: images/think_public.jpg

  • avatar

    I’d love to see someone with the financial resources like Toyota step up on this one. If they made a EV Yaris with a range of say, 50+ miles that cost under 20k I’d get one in a heartbeat. That car would work for us probably 300+ days of the year and keeping a second long range, people and stuff hauler is no biggie.

    Like they did with the Prius they’d lose some $$$ on each sale at first, but I bet they would find a way within a few years to start making money on them. By the time the first set of batteries had aged to a range under 30 miles or so they would have hopefully driven the technology to a point where I could buy a replacement pack that was improved in either cost, weight/size, or longevity – hopefully a little of all three. Someone needs to just go for it and trust they will be able to advance the technology and find economies of scale as they go.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    If you check out it says that with 100% charge (most people will probably have their car charged to full as much as possible) at 25 degrees celcius the battery will lose 20% per year or 32% remaining after 5 years.

    That’s my problem with all batteries, they can’t take the heat. Its one thing to replace the DieHard under the hood every three years (in hot climates) but battery packs (Li-Ion or others) will break the bank.

  • avatar

    Wake me up when you have an electric car that can fully recharge in 5 minutes, and when most “gas stations” are equipped with big AC outlets.

    Until then, an electric car is completely worthless to me. (And no I’m not going to spend $30,000 or $100,000 on a 2nd commuter car, just to save $50 a month in gasoline). Pretty sure I’m not alone.

  • avatar

    “Wake me up when you have an electric car that can fully recharge in 5 minutes”

    Enjoy your sleep. It ain’t gonna happen. Another quick back of the envelope calculation (I never did two in one thread before!). 1 gallon of gasoline is about 100,000 BTU of energy which is about 33kWh of energy. Say we want our EV to store the equivalent of 10 gallons of gas, that’s 330Kwh of energy. To charge up 330kWh in 5 minutes would require almost 4MW of power. That’s an insane amount of power. (This is another example of just how energy dense gasoline is). You’re tranferring 4MW of power when you’re filling your gas tank!

    My home has 10-15A circuits at 110V, I don’t know what the standard is for residential supply is, but that means at best – if I maxxed out all of my circuits – I could pull about 16.5kW from the grid.

    So lets say you want to use electron stations instead of gas stations. My gas station usually has about 8 cars at any given time with a maximum of 24 pumps. So that means on average the gas station would need a power source able to supply 32MW on average or nearly 100MW peak. Now, since we need to keep the voltages low enough that nothing arcs when we’re plugging in our cars that means we’re talking 5kV or less (and that’s assuming that they trust John Q. Public around 5kV). So at 5kV each car would be drawing 800A of current. Even though I know what I’m doing around electricity, I don’t want to be anywhere near 800A at 5kV.

    The only way an electron station will work is to have inter changeable batteries that you swap out and they trickle charge. An that means of course you’ll need to have a standard batter size and shape, and you know how fun it is to get manufacturers to agree on a standard.

  • avatar

    Say we want our EV to store the equivalent of 10 gallons of gas, that’s 330Kwh of energy

    But we don’t need an EV to store anywhere near the equivalent of 1 tank of gas for an equivalent range – the whole point is that an EV transforms potential energy into kinetic energy much more efficiently than an ICE does. I forget the exact figures, but I believe from power generation to transmission to charging to motion, an EV is almost an order of magnitude more efficient per gallon of gasoline equivalent than an ICE.

  • avatar

    I forget the exact figures

    I guess the article remembered for me. :) Tesla claims 135 mpg equivalent, which is roughly 6x a decently efficient performance car.

  • avatar

    Brownie, Paul quoted in this article a factor of 3. But even if we go with a factor of 10, it’s still, to use a technical term: way a lot!

    It would mean instead of 4MW to fill up the car, we’d need 400kW over 5 minutes

  • avatar
    Alex Rashev

    I don’t get it, who cares about capacity? I fill up my car once a week. If I had a gas station at home, I could easily survive with a 1.5-2 gallon gas tank 99.9% of the time. Now, considering that your average electric motor can get you 4-5 times farther per kilowatt stored, I only need a half a gallon worth of gas equivalent in order to get to where I’m going. 15KwH is 150 pounds worth of Li-Ions, or 1500 cells. At current prices, that’s about 5-6 grand. It’s totally realistic to have a sub-1500lb city runabout with decent power, 80+ mile range, space for two and even some luggage.

  • avatar
    Alex Rashev

    And I don’t see the need for fast charging times. Your commuter car sits in your driveway/parking spot at least 8 hours each night, that’s plenty enough to recharge the 40 or so miles most of us drive each day – and that’s through a common electric outlet, no less.

    Want fast charge times, unlimited range, and lots of cargo capacity when you need it? Imagine most commuter vehicles replaced by electrics, and then think about how many ICE cars we’ll have sitting around. I bet gas will be 50c a gallon by then, too. We’ll have enough cars and gas to carry us for another hundred years or so, and by then we’ll hopefully have range and recharge problems solved.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    jerseydevil: no Smart diesel for the US; too hard (expensive) to make “clean”; at least for the time being.

    Alex Rashev: you’re describing vehicles available in Europe; but with our onerous crash/safety requirements, its going to be more difficult in the US.

    andyinsdca: I meant “doubling of range in ten years” at freeway speeds, not at 20 mph like the Detroit Electric 100 years ago. At 20mph, the Tesla could probably go 500-600 miles, if not more.

  • avatar

    way a lot!

    Touche. :)

  • avatar

    Nuclear power and diesels – everything else is irrelevant, red herring dead ends, at least in my lifetime.

  • avatar

    Nice job explaning the issues Miked and Drew.

    Seems to me that the technology is moving away from batteries/EV. Lilliputian Systems is building mini-fuel cells to replace batteries in laptop computers! If they achieve that (which they claim to have done), electric cars are toast. They will eventually replace your car’s battery with this unit. Would improve the overall system efficiency by eliminating storage of electricity and providing on-demand power.

    Lilliputian Systems plans to offer generators the same size as today’s cell phone and laptop batteries, but with an increase in performance of at least ten-fold, and possibly as much as fifty-fold.

    Unlike the (m)ethanol driven fuel cells we heard about a while ago, these are solid oxide and use butane (gotta love hydrocarbons for their great energy density) as a fuel.

    Recharging would be instant — just pop in a new butane cartridge. And performance wouldn’t degrade over the generator’s lifetime.

    There’s an article on this in Forbes, but you have to pay for the priviledge.

    Where would this ultimately lead? I can see the car of the future using gasoline (pretty similar to butane) to power the fuel cell. The fuel cell is used to power a highly efficient electric motor. All the benefits of high energy density gasoline and highly efficient electrics combined! And you won’t need a battery anymore!

  • avatar

    Wake me up when you have an electric car that can fully recharge in 5 minutes, and when most “gas stations” are equipped with big AC outlets.

    And this, ladies and gentlemen, explains why electric vehicles will be nothing more than transport for golfers, senior citizens at Leisure World and dreamers.

    The essential problem with electrics is not the limited range, per se, but the fact that once that range has been depleted, it takes hours to refuel it. Any technology that requires a fuel takes more than five minutes to replenish loses whatever practical benefit that it may have and is dead on arrival.

    How about an Elise with a TDI motor?

    If there was a market for such a vehicle and it made economic sense, Lotus would already be building them. There’s no economic benefit to offering an additional drivetrain for what is already a niche market, low volume car.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Pch101 and others: “wake me up when you can have an electric car that can fully recharge in 5 minutes”

    How about ten minutes? The Phoenix and other vehicles using the AltairNanosafe LiIon cells can recharge to 95% capacity in 10 minutes. You just need a powerful enough outlet. Expensive.

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    A company in Germany did put TDI’s in some elises for racing. Try googling Thielert. They also convert a mercedes engine to aircraft use for Diamond Aircraft that is really cool. Turbo diesels are perfect for aircraft in so many ways.

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    In a convenience oriented society as is ours, I’d say that ten minutes is still too long.

    And it’s actually more than ten minutes, when you consider the range. Let’s say for the sake of argument that it takes five minutes to buy a tank of gas, and that you tend to refill when your tank is about one-quarter’s full.

    Now, let’s compare a Prius to the Phoenix truck. The Prius has a twelve-gallon fuel tank and, on a bad day, gets 40 mpg (the EPA rating is actually higher than that, so we are being conservative here), which results in 3/4th’s of a tank of fuel allowing one to travel 360 miles. In contrast, per its website, the Phoenix has a conservative range of 100 miles per charge.

    From here, you can do the math. To drive the Prius 1,800 miles, you would refill it five times, requiring a total of 25 minutes. To drive the Phoenix 1,800 miles requires eighteen recharges, or a total time of three hours.

    Now, I’m sure that you’re thinking, “Ah ha! You would be able to recharge it overnight most of the time, just using the quick charge in a pinch, actually saving time overall, so no soup for you, PCH.” But I suspect that most people will find the nightly/daily plug-in/unplug to be tedious enough that they won’t particularly like it and/or will often forget to do it, while apartment dwellers and the like may not have access to a charger.

    If the electric car gains any traction, I’ll be waiting for the first slew of horror stories about errant drivers who yanked yards of the electrical system out of their homes because they forgot to unplug the car before leaving in the morning. They would put a bit more than just coffee in your cupholder…

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    Actually, I should correct the math above for the Phoenix: If you re”fill” the EV at the 1/4th’s level (should we call that a tank or not?) and you have a range of 100 miles per “tank”, then you need to recharge every 75 miles. Driving the hypothetical 1,800 miles above, you’d be refilling it 24 times, thus devoting four hours (240 minutes) to an activity that would have required 25 minutes if you burned gasoline, instead. (And this assumes that you have access to the 440 volt charger needed for this. Last I checked, the corner gas station didn’t have them.)

    Like it or not, petroleum is here to stay. It makes sense to figure out how to use less of it, but I do believe that betting on the all-or-nothing (EV) proposition is a sure ticket to failure. My bet is that Tesla will always be a labor of love, not a viable mainstream automaker.

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    Unlike the (m)ethanol driven fuel cells we heard about a while ago, these are solid oxide and use butane (gotta love hydrocarbons for their great energy density) as a fuel.

    Hmmm…I haven’t kept up on fuel cell news the last few years, but last time I looked, solid oxide fuel cells operate at really high temperatures – like 300-400 degrees centigrade! Unless something’s changed, I just don’t see it for laptops. Cars? Maybe, depending on the surrounding issues.

    I talked to a GE engineer a while ago about SOFCs on the power-plant scale. They can achieve tremendous efficiency – approaching 80%. But when you try to run them in direct conversion they suffer from sulfur poisoning or carbon buildup pretty quickly. It’s a tough problem, but again if we can crack it we’ll see BIG benefits.

    miked’s comments are right on as far as the feasibility of 5 or 10 minute charging of an EV. Even if the car’s power system can handle it, there’s no way it’s going to happen. You’d need a power source that provides ~20 times the voltage and ~10 times the current as an electric dryer. Just to put it in perspective.

    To use miked’s numbers, each “gas” station would pull 32MW from the grid. Let’s call that 50MW. A nuclear power plant generates about 1000MWe on average. So, a nuke could only power about 20 stations! Let’s say that there are 60,000 gas stations in the US (to pull a number out of the air). That would require about 3000 nuke plants of 1000MWe on average. It’s. Not. Going. To. Happen. Period.

    This isn’t to say that EVs wont happen, but not with a 10 minute charge time. as I said earlier, I really do think that a plug-in hybrid will be a pretty good solution. Say you can go 50 miles on electric. That takes care of the vast majority of trips. If you need to go farther, then the engine kicks in and keeps you going. It doesn’t eliminate gasoline usage, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it cut it by 80%.

    The other thing to keep in mind here is that even if starting tomorrow this technology were in every car sold, it will take a long time to make an impact. The average lifetime of a car in the US is 17 years. So, in 17 years, they could be expected to have 50% penetration. That’s not bad, but that’s a long time.

    This is why people who worry about our dependence on oil are getting really anxious about now. Think about what the price of oil has done in the last few years.

    Keeping that in mind here’s a graph of global oil demand:
    Worldwide oil demand

    Now look at worldwide oil production as of Dec 2006:
    Worldwide oil production

    Notice that the rate of increase (the slope) of production is uncomfortably shallower than the slope of demand growth? Combine this with the long lifetime of cars in the US and you can see why people who think about the future are worried a bit.

    For those of us in the US, this is an interesting and sobering graph:

    US oil and petroleum imports

    Given the first two graphs above, how much longer do you think this thrid graph can go on?

    I’m not trying to scare anybody here, just trying to let people know that the times, they are a-changin. We’ll see $4/gal gas before we see $2/gal of gas, and I’d give 50/50 odds that we’ll see $4/gal before we’ll see $3/gal again. Hurricane season just started…

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    I’ve always been skeptical of EV’s. So far EV’s have failed because 1. physics and 2. consumer preference. In the 80’s and 90’s CARB push to promote EV’s in California was silly at best.

    That said, EV’s might succeed in the future. From an engineering point of view EV’s can work. But the rest depends on economics and consumer preference. Imagine

    1. Gas goes to 8 bucks a gallon
    2. People adapt to the routine of plugging in every night.
    3. Development patterns start to change – shorter trips necessary.

    Will this happen? Maybe maybe not. We have diesels, hybrids, plugin hybrids, all competing soon.

    If gas cost 8 dollars per gallon, if EV cost 20k and have 90 mile range I’d think about it. I live 8 miles from work.

    I think the Tesla is a brilliant idea. Sell to wealthy who will use it as a 2nd or third car. And it does have unique performance – no IC engine can match its smoothness (” like an electric motor”) and few can match it instant torque.

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    What about this:

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    That’s truly a provocative headline but a bit far from the truth. I attended the monthly meeting of SEVA (Seattle Electric Vehicle Society) the day after a conference on plug-in hybrids at Microsoft and judging from that meeting, there are enough people interested in buying the Tesla, that it just might survive long enough to get some of the technical glitches needing to be worked out, worked out.

    Electric cars have struggled because most Americans believe they need more range than they do. Considering that the average commuting distance is 35 miles a day – to and from work – and that most Americans travel alone, how much luggage space there is doesn’t matter. An electric sports car could do that job, and in a way that many people might find enjoyable.

    But again, perception is, as the saying goes, reality. If you ask people, most especially women, why they want some big honkin’ SUV to drive to-and-from work in, they’ll say, “for safety” since they are so many big honkin’ SUVs on the road.

    But if just half of the vehicles on the road were electrics, the size of the Smart car or the Tesla, that wouldn’t matter. Of course, for that to occur, gasoline would have to hit $4.50 or $5.00 a gallon, here in the States. That’ll happen sometime in the next few years and the electric vehicle will probably finally come into its own. Maybe the Democrats should reconsider any more legislation to stop “price gouging.”

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    If the refueling time of an EV is really that big of a deal for that many people imagine a standardized battery pack between car makers. It can be removed and replaced at a ‘gas station’ in a few minutes. There would have to be a very strong mounting mechanism that would refuse to power the car if not completely secured in but this would be doable.

    Perhaps even design the vehicle to take between 1 and 5 packs, trading carge space for range as needed. The packs would probably have to be some sort of lease arrangement.

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    If I were 30 years old right now, I would (with the help of friends/investors) open a Smart/EV dealership which would offer (as a reasonably-priced option) a flexible (1 day, 1 week at a time) 28-day a year free rental of a longer-range vehicle for vacation use, or hauling furniture, hauling ass, etc. Just drop your little car off (we can do maintenance if it’s for a week), and drive away your Hog-O’-Choice. I think it would remove an impediment to adoption of frugal cars (except for the “I have to drive a tank because everyone else does” argument.)

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    If the refueling time of an EV is really that big of a deal for that many people imagine a standardized battery pack between car makers. It can be removed and replaced at a ‘gas station’ in a few minutes. There would have to be a very strong mounting mechanism that would refuse to power the car if not completely secured in but this would be doable.

    The weight and awkward location of such a battery would make this impractical. You could reposition the battery to make this easier, but then you’re sacrificing luggage space or some other design feature that made such a vehicle practical to begin with.

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    While I’m a huge fan of electric cars, the estimations given here for the lifespan of Li-ons is way overrated. My 8 month old laptop has a Lithion-Ion that is currently operating at about 37% percent. Now, I’ve abused this thing six-ways from Sunday, but I think what I’ve put my battery through is probably peanuts compared to what has to happen inside the Tesla.
    It is probably the reason the next Prius is avoiding Lithium Ions, because Toyota’s bulletproof reputation would pretty much collapse if the electric part of the Prius shut down after two years.

    Large, low-leakage capacitors are the future. They can safely charge and discharge at much faster rates. The last 5 years have seen some very promising developments in this area, but it will probably be another decade before we see them in vehicles.

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    I take it no one else sees the Dichotomy of an all electric sports car? No rumble from the engine, no sound of the exhaust, does it even have any gears or is there just a go and stop pedal?

    The Tesla is a novelty for the rich. While I applaud the effort the best we could hope for is some type of break through that a mass market manufacturer could buy. Unless an affordable, reliable, attainable EV is made available to the masses it doesn’t really have any relevance. It’s why the GM’s Volt concept is getting so much attention. The system can run on a variety of power sources and can have an economy of scale that Tesla being a small manufacturer can not. All it needs is some better battery tech.

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    The problem with vehicles that are 100% electric is that you are not solving the problem of fossil fuel consumption. Coal is the fastest growing source of power in the world. And in the USA, nationally, 98% of our electricity is produced through fossil fuels and non-renewable forms of energy: coal, natural gas, large hydro and nuclear. Less than 2% comes from renewable sources like wind, solar, geothermal, small hydro and biomass. So by driving your supposed green electric cars, you’d probably be polluting more than if you just got a Prius or Civic Hybrid. Not only that, but the national power grid is a shambles as proves in California ans New York in the past decade. The power grid is just not up to the task of adding that kind of demand. I hate to say it, but reality killed the Tesla Roadster, long may it remain dead.

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    saabophile: You’re wrong about the relative pollution. An ICE, as currently configured in your average car, is so inefficient that burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, even with transmission loss, is significantly more energy efficient and cleaner. That might not be the case if we were willing to go back to the days when 12 second 0-60 times were good, and 7 seconds was absolutely bonkers.

    Also, nuclear and hydro are not nearly the same as nat. gas and coal. Hydro is pretty much the definition of a renewable energy source. Separating large hydro from small hydro seems arbitrary. As for nuclear, uranium is so abundant in the earth’s crust compared to the world’s energy needs that it is basically limitless, and the waste problem is overblown (but that’s another topic).

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    Drew: Hmmm…I haven’t kept up on fuel cell news the last few years, but last time I looked, solid oxide fuel cells operate at really high temperatures – like 300-400 degrees centigrade! Unless something’s changed, I just don’t see it for laptops. Cars? Maybe, depending on the surrounding issues.
    You are right. What these guys claim to have done, is figure out a way to keep the heat inside the fuel cell, according to the Forbes article, running the temperature up to 1,300°F, if memory serves. I know, the heat has to go somewhere, but we’ll know soon enough if this is big talk or big discovery.

    As far as automotive applications go, it seems that BMW (who else) is already working on using SOFCs: Research is also going on in reducing start-up time to be able to implement SOFC’s in mobile applications. Due to their fuel flexibility they may run on partially reformed diesel, and this makes SOFC’s interesting as auxiliary power units (APU) in refrigerated trucks.

    Specifically, Delphi Automotive Systems and BMW are developing an SOFC that will power auxiliary units in automobiles. A high-temperature SOFC will generate all of the needed electricity to allow the engine to be smaller and more efficient. The SOFC would run on the same gasoline or diesel as the engine and would keep the air conditioning unit and other necessary electrical systems running while the engine shuts off when not needed (e.g., at a stop light).

    The line that grabs my attention though, is the one that reminds me of “Back to the Future2” where the professor refuels with garbage: Solid oxide fuel cells have so far been operated on methane, propane, butane, fermentation gas, gasified biomass and paint fumes. Imagine that: a car that will run on pretty much anything that burns!

  • avatar

    I shall now take this opportunity to rant about one of my favorite villains – Municipal Governments!

    These idiots have created on ramps that require zero to sixty times of 6 seconds or less just to safely get on the highway. Combine that with the increased use of left hand exits at interchanges, and refusal to enforce proper lane use (faster cars to the left, slower to the right), and you get the amped up HP ante that we have today. We don’t need it. People who want it should be able to buy it, but is 250hp really necessary in a family sedan? Is it really enjoyable? Is it worth it?

    I think people who want a sports car that goes fast should be able to get one, but I am not so sure that the rest of the vehicles haven’t gone too far down that road. Hybrids or not, how tough would it be to get 40 mpg out of an accord without a second engine? Not tough at all!

  • avatar

    Regarding battery life. . . Tesla haven’t made any secret of this, they’ve talked about it quite a bit. They claim to greatly extend the battery lifespan (relative to laptops) by controlling the temperature, charge state and rate of charging. It sounds plausible to me, but only time will tell. I’m glad somebody is giving this approach a try, at least.

    Regarding success. . . I believe Tesla will sell all the Roadsters they can make. Keep in mind, that’s only about 2,000 per year at Hethel. That’s peanuts compared to GM (or Toyota, or Ford, or Honda) models made in the tens of thousands. The real test of the company will be their next model, the “White Star” sedan. Until it’s been shown to the public, much of this speculation is moot.

  • avatar

    Way back to the beginning when miked: said that batteries will never have enough energy density to be practical. I say it isn’t so. I’ve been driving a Mitsubishi pickup that I converted to electric just over a year ago. I have driven it to work every day for a year and 3 weeks (except a couple times when I had to take my wife’s ICE van to the shop). I work 7.5 miles away from my house, there’s 15 grocery stores, 2 malls, a Lowes, Home Depot, god knows how many resturaunts within that radius from my house. I average 15 miles a day with occasional excursions that put me at 25 miles a day. The truck can go 40 miles on a charge and I have yet to come home with less than half charge. Its real easy to keep it topped off because it takes me 5 seconds to plug it in when I get home, and if I wanted to, my job would let me plug in there (another 5 seconds to plug in) I could drive around the long 40 mile way to work, take 5 seconds to plug it in and take the same long way home in the afternoon, all for $2.40 worth of electricity. $2.40 worth of gas would barely get me 10 miles in the truck when it was gas powered. Another comment from miked: **You get more voltage by stacking the batteries in series and more current by stacking the batteries in parallel. In the end, the power is the same.** Thats absolutely not true. Last time I checked more voltage times more current equals more power. If you think regular old lead acid batteries are not power dense enough for daily drivers check out the White Zombie, 12 second Dautsun 1200 electric dragster at If you look at the 12V batteries he’s using you’ll find they weigh 13 lbs a piece and can put out 750 amps. Consider that even at a sagged 10.5 volts that 750 amps times 10.5 volts times 30 batteries in series time 2 of those strings you get 472.5KW of electrical power. (divide that by 746 to see how many electrical horse power, hint its 633 HP) And the series wound DC motors launch the car with upwards of 800 lb-ft of torque directly to the rear end ie. no transmission. So now if you divide that (472.5KW) by the 780 lbs all those batteries weigh you get 605 watts per lb. Thats nothing compared to gasoline, but consider that a gasoline car that does 12 second 1/4 miles at 106 mph would never get 100 miles per gallon. (100 mpg for the electric is the equivalent distance an electric will go for the cost in electricity equivalent to a gallon of gas). So they have power. And his car will get somewhere around 35-40 miles on a charge. I have over 6000 miles on my batteries for the year I’ve been driving them. I expect to get another 1.5 to 2 years out of the $1000, 1300 lbs of batteries. But since I save over $1000 a year on the gasoline I don’t buy, I could afford to buy batteries once a year and still break even. But no, 1 year on the regular 100 year old technology, lead acid batteries and they are still going strong. I say they ARE practical, and I’m just a backyard mechanic. What do I know?

  • avatar

    You are correct that storing hydrogen is a royal pain in the ass. I have seen some neat research where the hydrogen is stored as a metal hydride (commonly Lithium Hydride), so you win by having solid state hydrogen taking up 1000 times less space, and then you also win because you get energy cracking the LiH bond and then you also get energy from H2+O2 reaction in the fuel cell. (Of course then there’s the wase Li you have to deal with.)

    You win there too. The Lithium works great to lessen the depression you have from worrying about the “loss” of forest, global warming-oops, I mean climate change, the hole in the ozone layer, psoriasis, halitosis, etc. ;-)

  • avatar

    Miked’s comments about energy density of gasoline vs. batteries are interesting but miss one very important part of the calculation: the engine. An electric engine weights about 1/10th that of a gas engine, which outweighs the gas 10:1 typically (not to mention transmission and pollution control that an electric car also does not need). So assuming you are content to keep the weight of both fuel and motor equal, you’ve got an extra factor of 10 to work with in measuring overall energy density…and suddenly, they’re equal again! And your criticism goes away. (A Tesla devotes twice this weight to its batteries and is still very light, however.)

    On price, today batteries are expensive…and what happens when they wear out? Well: it seems to me they should be rented. Tesla’s batteries (by my calculations) should cost about $25-30k. Amortized over their lifetime, they come to about twice the US price of gasoline per mile (the electricity itself is negligible by comparison). But gas in Europe is twice as expensive…thus, replacing your gas-powered car with an electric should leave you with almost exactly the same overall price per mile or per year total, even counting periodic battery replacements. If batteries are rented instead of purchased (and thus replaced “for free” when necessary), the up-front and per-week costs also start to closely resemble gas engines. Add in the $4000/year congestion charge in London that you don’t have to pay for an electric, and it can be a big savings…even counting those pricey batteries.

  • avatar

    Electric vehicles with good performance exist today. The list includes Tesla Roadster sport car, Electrovaya Maya-100 compact SUV and APX. There are probably more others. They have a range of more than 200 miles. The last two can be recharged in less than 10 minutes.

    The only drawback is the car price, which is high mainly due to battery cost. Battery firms allocate much R&D to lower these cost so a replacement after 5 years should not be that expensive.
    Charging in the street can be done with easy instalation with meters. The payment can be automatic by credit cards like in gas stations. Fast recharge requires special installation but it is needed mainly on the highways

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