National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: The Electric Car: Part I

While waiting to see if oil prices drop before the final great surge and whether GM and Chrysler can make it through the coming winter in recognizable fashion, I would like to talk a bit about what may or may not be the coming age of the electric car.

With good reason, many are skeptical that electric cars will ever replace more than a tiny portion of the 250 million two-axel vehicles currently registered in the U.S. and the nearly 1 billion registered worldwide. Some skeptics point to the scarce supplies of natural resources, particularly the lithium for batteries, that would be needed to produce millions of these vehicles. Others believe that a fiscal collapse will intervene shutting off the capital and industrial infrastructure needed to build and market these cars. Some doubt that sufficient electricity can be generated and distributed from renewable sources – solar, moving air, moving water, and biomass – to power hundreds of millions of electric vehicles. Finally, there are doubts that consumers would ever buy a vehicle that did not offer comparable, performance, range and bulk to that which they have become accustomed.

The key point, however, is that it sure looks as if we will not have any other choice. Gasoline will soon be too expensive for use in low-mileage cars and trucks. Within the last two years nearly every manufacturer has come to recognize this immutable fact and have announced programs to start building and selling some form of plug-in electric cars. Currently, there are three flavors of totally or partially electrically powered vehicles being developed for sale within the next few years. Our choices will be either a completely electric vehicle, a plug-in hybrid that will travel for some range on battery alone before reverting to a combination of internal combustion and electricity, and the battery powered car with a “range extender” that will carry along an internal combustion powered generator to replenish the batteries after they are depleted.

Should GM survive another 18 months, it is preparing to introduce its much-hyped Chevrolet “Volt” in the fall of next year with wide-scale availability in 2011 or 2012. Some what ahead of GM is Nissan who say they have been testing electric vehicles for over 10 years now and are committed to offering a full-performance electric for sale in the U.S. late next year. While low-speed neighborhood electric vehicles have been available for the better part of a decade, it is only this year that highway speed vehicles are coming onto the market. In China, at least one manufacturer has been trying to sell an electric car for several months now, apparently without much success. Gasoline is still much too cheap to wean drivers off the internal combustion engine, but that day is coming soon. Beijing frequently reiterates its intention to become the world’s principal manufacturer of electric vehicles – who knows, they could well be right.

Last week, Nissan held a press conference to give the automotive press an insight into the parameters and performance of the vehicle the company is planning to introduce 18 months from now. A briefing at the conference offers some insight into what motoring might be like with the first generation of the 21st century’s electric cars.

The new Nissan will be an electric-only, five-passenger compact sedan that is designed to have a 100 mile range at highway speeds complete with all the gadgets and amenities found on contemporary compacts.

The first question asked at the press conference was “Why electric-only and not some form of hybrid which would get around the limited range problem inherent in all electric vehicles?”

Nissan’s answer was interesting. Although couched in terms of emission restrictions, the company apparently sees the end of affordable liquid fossil fuels to be so close at hand that it is time to start building a sustainable system of electric vehicles complete with networks of recharging stations as this is the only option we have for the near future.

The large quantity of energy stored in liquid fuels has meant that for the last 100 years the range of an internal combustion powered vehicle has never been much of an issue. Nearly all cars are designed for several hundred miles and can be refueled in minutes nearly anywhere. Electric cars have many good features; however, the range inherent in contemporary batteries and the recharge times become major issues both of practicality and consumer acceptance. As with an internal combustion engine, the range of an electric vehicle is the sum of many variables including: the number of passengers, speed, terrain, stops and starts, wind, lead-footed drivers, heating, air conditioning, lights, radios and whatever else draws energy from the battery.

Nissan says its claim of a100-mile range for its forthcoming sedan is based on a standard called “California 4”, which is a combination of all these factors. A prototype has yet to be seen, it will be a year or so before these numbers can be verified by independent testers under real world conditions. A Chinese manufacturer is claiming a 60 mile range, but skeptics say that distance is achievable only at a steady 30 miles per hour.

For daily around town use, an electric car might be practical even if preliminary range claims are double what actually prove to be. Ninety percent of us drive less than 40 miles each day so that even without a recharge, a minimum 50 mile range complete with energy-guzzling accessories, such as seat warmers or air conditioners blasting away, might still prove practical.

For some time now, the Society of Automobile Engineers has been working on standards for recharging electric cars. Obviously, if every manufacturer had different styles and standards of connections electric recharging stations would never be practicable. The industry is close to agreeing on 3 “levels” of recharging: 110 volts, which is the standard household circuit; 220 volts, which is available in most houses and is used for large appliances such as electric clothes dryers; and finally a 480 volt circuit, which is beyond the voltage found in most homes and would likely only be installed at commercial, fast recharging sites such as gas stations.

(Continued next week)