future will be driving a battery-powered hybrid
narrow and some times cobbled streets of Brooklyn made a
good testing ground for the electric version of the Smart
car. It wasnt long ago that auto engineers were so
nervous about their temperamental electric vehicles (EVs)
that they went along for the ride, but now they mostly just
toss you the keys.
conventional Smart car has been on the market since 2008,
and its won raves for the way it looks and the fact
that it takes up only half a parking space. Not everyone
loves the performance from the one-liter, three-cylinder
engine, however. Thats why the battery Smart made
quite a contrast: Its quiet where the gas car is noisy,
and accelerates smoothly where the latter was balky. And
most important, it doesnt have a tailpipe.
there are trade-offs: The battery Smart, on the road in
the United States in a pilot program of 250 carsbut
headed for mass production in 2012has a range of just
83 miles. And then theres the plug-in thing: A charge
from 20 percent to 80 percent capacity, which some people
will experience in real-world conditions, takes 3.5 hours,
and a full 100-percent charge from zero is less than eight
hours. Derek Kaufman, Smart USAs vice president of
business development, says, It was natural for us
to move to electric drive. Some people assume that because
of the cars looks it was already electric. We intend
to come in with low volume, and grow from there.
cars will be complemented by so-called plug-in hybrids,
which are like todays Prius on steroids: They add
a much bigger battery pack and the ability to go up to 50
miles on batteries alone. The packs charge from the wall,
and if you have a fairly short commute you may never need
to use the onboard gas engine. Plug-in hybrids will be here
are very few battery or plug-in hybrid cars on the road
right now; Tesla Motors has sold around 1,300 of its sexy
and very fast $109,000 Roadsters, but thats about
it. But the hybrid storm is coming. By early 2011 there
will be a flood of new models on the market, including the
Chevrolet Volt (a unique hybrid whose gas engine acts as
a generator for powerful electric motors), the Fisker Karma
(a similar high- performance hybrid), the Coda (a small-battery
sedan), the Nissan Leaf (perhaps the first global EV on
the market), the Wheego Whip LiFe (another small electric,
with a Chinese chassis but an American soul), the electric
Ford Focus and the Think City (a plug-in import from Norway,
but with Ford roots).
EV revolution is global. The Japanese, assisted by co-ownership
of Asian battery makers, are true leaders in the market.
Toyota is fielding a small electric car with 100-mile range,
and also a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell car by 2015. Honda
is committed to electrifying most of its fleet with batteries
and hybrid drivetrains. Nissan, in addition to bringing
out the Leaf battery car at the end of the year, is pioneering
EV charging by signing up cities around the world as partners.
The company is creating the infrastructure for its cars
to succeed in the marketplace. And China is emerging as
an EV contender.
all these cars will be great, and not all will be successes,
but theyre sure to change the way we drive. The electrification
of the automobile is underway, and theres no stopping
it now. When Nissan broke ground on its new 1.2- million-square-foot
battery plant in Tennessee, chairman Carlos Ghosn proclaimed,
Our vision is to lead by marketing affordable electric
vehicles on a global scale. We have a big-picture view of
our clean-energy future.
auto industry is at the most important turning point in
its more than 100-year history. The internal-combustion
engine might be with us for another 30 years, but 2010 marks
the start of its inevitable decline. If the industry reverses
courseas it appears certain to dothen each year
will see further inroads from electric vehicles, and charging
your car will seem as natural as stopping for gas does now.
last time we had choices to make was 1900, when an equal
number of electric, gasoline and steam cars were on the
road and no clear technology winner was apparent. In 1907,
inventor Charles Franklin Ketteringthe head of research
for General Motorsinvented the self-starter for gas-powered
cars, eliminating the dangerous crank, and the die was cast.
By 1911, EV sales were down to 6,000 annually, just 1 percent
of the market.
years since, electric drive has mostly been in hibernation.
In the late 60s and again in the wake of the 1973
Arab oil embargo, some brave souls tried to jump-start electric
revolutions, but two factorsweak technology and the
return of cheap oildefeated them. The EVs of that
period had nearly the same lead-acid batteries as the cars
on the road in 1913, and that wasnt good enough. And
without good, competitive cars, the network of charging
stations needed to support the EVs, and serve as an alternative
to the nations 160,000 gas stations, would never be
decades, effective EVs were stalled by a simple conundrum:
Without charging stations, there was no market for electric
cars; and without cars on the market, nobody was going to
build that network of stations. Now, as start-up companies
vie to set up those networksaided by high-tech smart
grid connectivitya new industry is underway.
new DNA of the automobile is electric, says Larry
Burns, for years General Motors fuel-cell and electric
car guru, and now a Columbia University professor. And
when the EV marries up with the mobility Internet, we will
really have a way to transform the road. Among other things,
well see vehicles that dont crash, that drive
new cars have high-energy- density lithium-ion battery packs,
a huge advance over the old standby, lead-acid. Most of
the cars have 100-mile range, and the likelihood of 220-volt
charging (think of the circuit that runs electric dryers)
means theyll recharge overnight in five or six hours.
Plug your car in and it will interact with the local utility
to optimize late-night charging, when the rates are lower
and the grid less stressed. Your cell phone will tell you
when the car is fully charged. Drive to work, and youll
be able to plug in there, too, and youll even be able
to get a quick top-off if you stop for coffee at the local
of this will happen immediately, and it wont be seamless.
One of the biggest hurdles will be recharging cars owned
by people who live in city apartments and work in office
towers. Battery cars will also, at least initially, be more
expensive than their gasoline counterparts. Weve had
100 years of constant improvement with internal combustion,
and nearly the same period of neglect with batteries. Todays
packs are a quantum leap over earlier technology, but theyre
still expensivefrom $15,000 to $20,000. That means
early cars will either be expensive, subsidized or both.
Most people will qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit,
and those in California get a $5,000 cash rebate. Not only
are there subsidies in many states for owning EVs, there
are also compensations such as unrestricted access to HOV
lanes (Florida, California, New Jersey, Utah) and free downtown
parking (Sacramento, California and Salt Lake City, plus
many more). Take the $7,500 federal tax credit for buying
an EV and $2,000 for installing a home charger, then claim
state incentives. These include: Georgia (20 percent tax
credit toward an EVs purchase price or $5,000, whichever
is less), Illinois (a credit worth 80 percent of the purchase
price, or $4,000, whichever is less), Kansas ($2,400 tax
credit), Louisiana (20 percent credit) and New Jersey ($4,000
tax rebate, plus no state sales tax).
think EVs will be drab economy vehicles, but there will
be quite a variety available for sale, from sturdy sedans
to sleek sports cars. Whats more, electric motors
offer a lot of power from a standing start, and some high-
performance versions take full advantage.
Americans are sal ivating at the prospect of switching to
100-percent zero-emission transportation. A March survey
from Accenture shows that 65 percent of those queried would
buy a hybrid or electric car for their next vehicle. But
the revolution is not in a hurry. Few automakers are planning
to blanket the U.S. with battery cars before 2012 at the
earliest. Carmakers have moved beyond tiny pilot programs,
but are still offering only limited availability in the
first few years.
Electrification Coalition, which counts Nissan and FedEx
as members, believes that by 2040, 75 percent of the miles
traveled by so-called light-duty vehicles (cars,
SUVs and small trucks) could be electric. Other projections
are more pessimistic. The Boston Consulting Group, for instance,
sees only limited penetration by 2020 unless
there is a major breakthrough in battery technologies.
pessimists have a point. People, at least in the short term,
are unlikely to pay extra for cars with limited range and
an unfamiliar refueling procedure. Thats why governments,
with one eye on the Gulf oil spill and another on global
warming, have to get together and a) buy a lot of EVs themselves,
and b) ramp up subsidies to consumers. The Obama administration
has provided billions in funding for battery and EV factories,
but hasnt yet introduced any direct subsidies to match
those offered by California ($5,000) and China (up to $8,800).
government has to help, says Charles Gassenheimer,
CEO of Indiana-based battery supplier Ener1 (and chairman
of the Think board). The Japanese government has invested
$100 billion over the last 20 years to build not just batteries
but also the supply chain. Thats why theyre
the leader. Its absolutely crucial that we start putting
money into this now.
booksincluding Bill McKibbens Eaarth (Macmillan),
Hans Tammemagis Air (Oxford University Press) and
James Hansens Storms of my Grandchildren (Bloomsbury
USA)make the case that were already on a global-warming
precipice, looking down at an abyss of huge planetary change.
All three authors conclude that we have to stop burning
fossil fuels. That means no more coal for power plants and
no more gas in the fuel tanks. And we need to do it now
if were going to avoid the very worst effects of climate
change. Were well past the point where we can forestall
it completely. McKibben thinks were already well on
our way to creating a tough new planet, which
is why he spells it Eaarth.
last UN Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen in
December 2009, known as COP 15, was anticipated with much
fanfare but ended in dismal failure. And nobody expects
much progress to come out of the succeeding get-together
in Mexico City this November. The utility smokestacks are
still pumping, the lights are still on and the shiny new
cars are driving onto the lots. By 2020, world oil demand
could go from 85 million barrels a day to an incredible
100 million. The Chinese, who once rode mostly bicycles,
could have 500 million cars on the road by 2030, the Department
of Energy predicts. Clearly, this center cant hold.
heartening that there are so many green cars in the pipeline.
But the pace remains maddeningly slowfar slower than
we need to stop global warming in its tracks (if that were
even possible). Frankly, there are no solutions on the horizon
that get us out of fossil fuels without making some lifestyle
changes. And EVs are part of that changewe wont
be able to take 300-mile range for granted anymore.
great thing about EVs is that they (and the batteries they
depend on) will continuously improve, and so will the electricity
grid. Naysayers like to argue that EVs will simply transfer
the pollution from the tailpipe to the smokestack.
Not so. The truth is that even today, charging an EV from
a 100 percent coal-fired grid is up to 30 percent cleaner
in terms of global warming emissions than running an average
gasoline car. But the grid is almost never 100-percent coal,
even in the Midwest, and new rules will continually reduce
the emissions from that stack, says the Electric Power Research
Institute (EPRI). If plants are fired by natural gas (and
an increasingly large number are) then the result is 40-
to 50-percent better. A nuclear grid is 90- to 95-percent
better. And if the electricity is from wind or solar, its
100-percent better. We really project the grid to
get less carbon-intense over time, says Mark Duvall,
director of electric transportation at EPRI.
may be a long time coming, and the first one you own may
not be everything you want it to be. But these battery vehicles
are the inevitable next step in our more than 100 years
of cohabiting with automobiles.
Motavalli is senior writer at E/The Environmental Magazine,
where this article first appeared. Source: featurewell.com.