The Future of Cars is Electric

Not too long from now, most cars will be electric. Why? Two reasons: because electric cars are far more efficient than any other kind of car, and because they are the ultimate multi-fuel cars. Sound bold, maybe crazy? Read on.

The May 2006 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine got it right in its typical easy-to-understand way. The article was about biofuel, but they compared many technologies in the centerfold sidebar: gasoline, ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, compressed natural gas, hydrogen fuel cells, and, of course, electric cars. They compared the cost of a cross-country drive for each of the cars, all of similar size. The benchmark drive cost is $212 in a Honda Civic. The VW Diesel Golf came close at $230. E85 ethanol (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) came in at $425; methanol cost $619; the hydrogen fuel cell drive cost a whopping $804! Compressed Natural Gas looked pretty good at $110. And the electric car? $60. And the article wasn’t even about electric cars…

Cost per mile is a reasonable approximation of energy consumption. (I set about doing a direct energy consumption comparison in our white paper, but money is a whole lot easier to understand.)

The neat thing about electricity is that pretty much any burnable fuel can be converted to electricity efficiently. Sure, there are quite a few inefficient old power plants from the ‘50s still running, but modern, readily-available technology means that even coal can be gasified and burnt cleanly and very efficiently in a combined cycle plant. This is nice to know, considering that we are sitting on an enormous reserve of coal. If there ever was an OCEC (Organization of Coal Exporting Countries), we’d be Saudi Arabia, so to speak.

General Electric makes an advanced, combined-cycle natural gas generator called the H-System Generator that measures in at 60% efficiency. This plant could easily burn “biogas” produced from biomass (corn or switchgrass, take your pick). If we powered our electric cars this way, the same acreage of fuel crop would transport an electric car four times as many miles than if we made ethanol out of the stuff and burnt it in a piston engine car. Should we decide to allow our cars’ fuel to compete for cropland with food, this difference matters!

But the true beauty becomes apparent when you realize that we can make electricity in so many different ways. I’m putting solar panels on the roof of my house to power my car. Many people have pointed out that nuclear power produces no greenhouse gasses. The shot of the Tesla Roadster in the movie, Who Killed the Electric Car, was taken at Altamont Pass, right in front of a huge windmill farm. We don’t need to decide now which is the “right” technology. Indeed, the answer will likely be a mix of these, combined with some amount of fossil fuels, depending on where in the world we are generating power.

Note, by the way, that we can put a million solar panels on our roofs, we can cover the coastlines with windmills, we can invent amazing tide-powered generators, or clean nuclear power plants, and we will not reduce our dependence on oil by one drop unless we can use that electricity to power cars. Why? Because we don’t use oil to make electricity, so all those cool electric generating technologies do not offset our oil consumption. The fact is that the vast majority of our oil consumption is used for transportation. Trains, planes, and automobiles, folks.

So what’s wrong with electric cars? Why not switch over today? Quite a few of you have nailed it in your comments to this blog already: recharge time. Even with a Tesla Roadster, you would need to stop for a couple of hours on a trip from LA to SF. Even the longest-range EV is not suitable for long road trips quite yet.

You all have proposed several solutions: quick-charging, battery pack swapping, and a gasoline (or whatever) powered auxiliary generator. Though appealing, each of these ideas has very significant technical problems that I will not attempt to lay out here. But there is another alternative suggested by some of you: simply increase the driving range enough. We can’t do it today: 250 miles range was hard enough! But the capacity of batteries – particularly lithium ion type batteries – has increased steadily by about 8% per year for the last couple of decades. All indications are that this will continue into the future, doubling in capacity every ten years. (And there are hints of breakthrough technologies that might speed things up for us.)

Think about it. If your car can go – say – 500 miles on a charge, who cares about stopping for a charge? A 500 mile drive is about 10 hours’ solid driving – more than enough for even a serious road trip. (I know: some of you will talk about crazy trips like I used to take, making it from Chicago to San Luis Obispo in 42 hours flat, but you’ve got to admit that this kind of drive is way down the pointy end of the bell curve!)

Do you remember when your cellphone wouldn’t last through the day? I do. In those days, we were acutely aware of the charge time because we had to recharge while driving in our cars or at work. I remember plugging in to get a bit of charge for my phone in a VC’s conference room while I was pitching a startup idea! But today I bet most of you have no idea how long your phone takes to charge. Is it 3 hours? 4 hours? Who cares? You come home, plug it in, and forget about it. In the morning, you unplug it and go. We just don’t need to charge up during the day so charge time isn’t an issue.

Electric cars will be the same. Once the driving range is enough to make it through the day, we will only ever charge while we sleep. The Tesla Roadster is like that already for most of us, except when we want to take a long road trip. With a 500 mile range, even road trips are covered.

And that means charging stations, like gas stations, are soon to be as obsolete as cigarette lighter chargers for our phones. We will need a charger in our garages, at hotels, and at campgrounds. And that’s it. Nice side business for Hyatt Hotels and KOA, by the way…


Editor's Suggestion: Come and see a Tesla Roadster at Pebble Beach this weekend!


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