The following is also published at New English Review.
If Big Oil grew weed, Detroit would be making the bongs. Let’s get something straight, the bailout of the US car companies didn’t only happen because the auto industry was lobbying. Even with the famed United Auto Workers riding shotgun, there’s another huge lobby that wanted to see Detroit bailed out: the Oil Lobby. And by Oil Lobby, we’re talking about the dovetailed interests of western oil companies and the middle eastern despots they rely on for access to the most important oil fields in the world.
One statistic: oil accounts for 95% of all transport power in the USA. It only accounts for less than 2% of electricity generation. [Source: James Woolsey in WSJ April 2010].
For years the auto companies have shied away from developing anything that seriously challenges the interests of Oil. They’ve kept bio-fuels at the margin in the US. They’ve poured almost no money into true electric cars or R&D on batteries: almost all the advances we’re now enjoying have come from the field of small electronics. At Big Oil’s behest, Detroit has been turning out cars that match the blueprint set down by Henry Ford more than a century ago. Cars have become faster, safer, heavier and slightly more efficient but have never seriously looked at any power source beyond oil. And probably worst of all, it doesn’t appear anyone has turned their full lobbying potential toward more domestic energy production in the US.
So while it fell to Honda and Toyota to come up with and successfully commercialise the hybrid idea of electric and gasoline working together, it took a lot longer for the US auto industry to be dragged into competition.
Hybrids have proven an adequate stepping stone but they are still dependent on oil and are not much more efficient than the best small diesel cars. The next evolutionary step is to plug them in and drive at least a few miles on grid electricity. Note: I’m not interested in carbon or other climate change issues. What’s important is that generating electricity in bulk gives us non oil options that aren’t available in portable form as well as scale advantages.
So here steps in the much maligned (in US conservative circles) Chevy Volt. Obviously the Volt’s long development was underway before the Obama administration bailed out Chevy. What’s interesting about the Volt is it really has the drive train of an electric car with the electric motor driving the wheels directly. Even when the small petrol engine is needed to extend the range, that mostly supplies power by keeping the electric motor feed with electricity: very different to hybrids. However (unlike the recently in the news exotic Fisker sportscar) the Volt also has the engineering to send mechanical power directly to the wheels. You really have to drive an electric car, even only briefly, to understand it’s a very attractive feeling.
Even more so with a car like the Volt than any conventional car: averages are meaningless. For those drivers who regularly travel 20 miles each way to work, they may run for a year on a couple of gallons of gas. Right now on the VoltStats.net website (where consenting owners allow their cars to upload their raw driving data data) their whole fleet has travelled over 3 million miles at 117 MPG. That’s astonishing and represents a huge reduction in the use of the oil for transport. It is the start of a shift that can spread our transport to other sources of energy. I count 345 drivers who average over 100 MPG.
However, the Volt carries a penalty for having two power sources. It needs to do this because there has been almost zero investment in infrastructure for anything except oil transport. How many mobile phones were sold before someone sank millions into a network of cell towers?
Let’s leave aside the battery and look at why an all electric car makes sense. Electric motors are produced in their millions with varying powers and weights. They are all smaller, lighter and more efficient than internal combustion engines of similar power. They run without generating significant heat and need only rudimentary cooling. They have as few as four moving parts. Many will run without maintenance for years. Electric motors deliver the unobtainable holy grail for combustion engines: full power delivery independent of speed even briefly at 0 RPM. So electric cars don’t need variable gearboxes, complex clutches or any associated workings. Regenerative braking, by taking power out of the motor, both slows the car and recovers otherwise wasted energy back to the battery: this reduces wear on the main braking system.
Again, I’m still putting the battery to one side and here are a couple of the down sides. Heating the car in a cold climate is a problem: with our combustion cars this comes for free because the engine is generating so much heat all the time we actually need to expel it. Electric cars have to artificially divert energy for this purpose which means, counterintuitively, air conditioning is easier than heating.
But today all the weight and cost gains of no gear box, no clutch, simpler engine, simpler cooling and no fuel tank are given over to huge battery packs. The modern lithium based batteries these cars have adopted from electronics are starting to hold enough power and for some peoples’ uses they’re sufficient but we’re just at the start of their automative use. A Chevy Volt is an admirable solution to making EV’s practical but it still carries the penalty of duplicating complexity. And the batteries are very expensive today: sometimes half the value of the vehicle.
With all due respect to Fox News, battery fires are a pretty minor Achilles heel: have you ever seen gasoline burn? Crash a car and bad stuff happens, that’s just common sense. As long as you manage to escape your crashed Chevy Volt within three weeks, you should be at least as safe as any gasoline filled car. And to load the Chevy bailout money onto the first few thousand Volts off the production line is creative accounting of the worst kind. The latest smear? A disconnected, parked Tesla electric sports car has a completely unusable battery. Tesla warned early drivers specifically about this and Nissan say it’s never happened to any of their 20,000 cars, but suddenly it is a big story for Fox. It’s really just a case of a new technology needing new care: we all know not to drive when the oil warning light comes on but we don’t know about the extremes of Lithium battery chemistry.
But what we’re missing is a joined up approach that sees the electric car and especially it’s battery as only part of an infrastructure network: we have that for oil. We have thousands of filling stations, fleets of road tankers, sea tankers and refineries to keep our cars running. I’ve written already about the Better Place battery switching network about to go online in Israel: that’s the kind of thinking we need and it’s outside the box Big Oil has allowed car companies to play in. That is also why it’s progress is hugely important and I suspect why it’s been privately funded. Better Place crucially separates the battery from the car because it allows owners to lease the biggest part of their car that will wear out. And when batteries improve or cheapen, existing owners gain the benefit without worrying that their own batteries are depreciating very quickly.
There is another benefit too: a smart network of lithium batteries, if their charging is centrally controlled, can have a dual purpose. The fleet of cars and batteries can act as a storage system for otherwise wasted renewable power. Every single charge point connected to a battery is monitored and controlled centrally. The rate of charge can be individually tailored or stopped. Better Place receives a minute by minute update from the Israeli electric grid on how much capacity there is spare in the system. They have a proprietary system to prioritise power delivery. A car with a 90% full battery, charging at a place of work that won’t be needed for 6 hours (when it’s driver might only need 40% to get home) can have it’s charging current reduced or cut. A car that has a 5% battery and is a 60 mile drive from the nearest battery switch can keep charging.
This capability is why Denmark, which has invested heavily in wind power, pursued Better Place. The network effect of dual use lithium batteries has a huge potential to wring more benefits from the unreliable renewable power generation they’ve already bought.
Better Place is a network like AT&T while the car companies are the phone manufacturers like Samsung, Nokia and Motorola. The investment is needed in the network but the huge rewards are also there because that is where the relationship will be. The first to build a sensible network that removes range limitations from technically and financially viable electric cars could prove to have a very big hit. And remember: Europe led the US on mobile phones too. Covering densely populated Europe was much easier than sparse US. And Israel led just about everywhere in the technology for mobile phones too. So guess where the first battery switch network for electric cars is.
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