Together in Electric Dreams
Chevrolet hopes their plug-in electric – gas powered Volt will become America’s sweetheart. Yet GM’s boldly going where the fully electric vehicle (EV) has gone before. Forget the EV-1. I’m referring to the Baker Electric of 1899. Thomas Edison’s first car (as an owner) was a commercial success, with an effective range of around 100 miles. Today's prototypes, upon which manufacturers are presently lavishing hundreds of millions of dollars, can double that. So what’s the big deal?
The big deal: mass producing a comfortable, affordable electric vehicle (EV) that meets current safety standards, with sufficient performance, durability, driving range and recharge times to make it a viable alternative to existing, highly-developed gas or gas-electric powered alternatives. And that’s without considering recharging logistics.
Simply put, Americans depend on their cars to do too much to depend on current EVs. Even using the latest Lithium-Ion battery technology, electric cars work best for short commutes and errand runs in sleepy suburbs. Unless you can plug-in and recharge at a gas station in ten minutes, the average American owner will have to stash the EV on the weekend and break out the “real car.” Without credible highway capability and/or a quick recharge option, buyers with only enough money for one car will be making a petroleum decision.
Yes, the auto industry’s best and brightest are on the case. Still, absent some miracle battery or materials breakthrough, it will be a long time before America sings the car body electric.
Of all the challenges obscuring America’s electric car future, safety is the biggest stumbling block. Simple physics tells us that the EV’s enemy is weight. Build a tiny EV out of balsa wood and the range issue disappears. Meanwhile, here in the real world, feather light, safe, mid-sized, mass-produced and affordable doesn’t compute.
To wit: the Tesla Roadster is a relatively minuscule, hugely expensive, light weight (carbon fiber) automobile with zero luggage space– and it still struggles to travel 200 miles on a single charge. Even with bleeding edge battery technology, a mass-produced (steel-bodied) mid-size car equipped with the requisite safety structures and devices (i.e. without Tesla’s airbag waiver) doesn’t stand a chance of matching a gas-powered car’s range or convenience. However, remove that barrier…
And you’re in the developing world, where safety takes a back seat to… everything. Which is why the development of the mass-produced EV will occur off-shore.
India’s Tata Motors recently unveiled the revolutionary $2500 Tata Nano. When Tata unveiled their "people's car," they claimed the machine passed frontal and side impact tests– without specifying whose tests they passed. It’s highly unlikely the Nano could meet American or European safety standards. More to the point, Tata immediately announced plans to build an electric Nano.
Ask any golf cart owner; cheap, small and light are the foundations for a successful EV. The Nano will make a perfect EV. It's small and light, thanks to a cardboard front axle and door panels made from ice chips. The machine’s target market isn’t overly-concerned with airbags, cupholders, leg room, highway cruising speeds or huge cruising distances. It's all about purchase price and operating costs.
At the same time, Israel has just announced that it’s partnered with Renault-Nissan to build electric cars. In smog-soaked Tel Aviv, electric cars will shift much of the city’s transportation energy needs to from petroleum to cleaner energy generation sources, like solar, wind, and nuclear power (in Israel’s case, not using petroleum has other political benefits, too). The government’s action guarantees the economies of scale that will make it worthwhile for Renault to test the EV waters. Equally important, the gov’s inclusion will assure the lowering of any safety-related regulatory hurdles.
Phase one of EV mass production will begin in India, Israel, Africa, China and other “developing” countries, where driving conditions are right, the safety requirements are less substantial, and the government is willing to interfere with the market to make it worth a manufacturer’s efforts. And speaking of governmental interference…
Gasoline production and distribution in the developing world tends to be incredibly inefficient, expensive and corrupt (e.g. Zimbabwe’s ongoing gas rationing crisis). If these countries use electric vehicles, their citizens can generate motive power any number of ways on the local level: solar, wind, coal, burning garbage, whatever. So why wouldn’t they “skip” right to electric powered vehicles, and enjoy the economic prosperity that mobility brings? While realpolitik argues against this kind of energy “democratization,” the possibility exists.
America will not be left on the EV sidelines. Once millions EV batteries are field tested, once manufacturers are churning-out large numbers of electric vehicles and their related components, the economies of scale will bring the cost down substantially– and spur more development. At some point, we’ll have our EV cake and put it in a large, comfortable, safe and practical automotive package, too.
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