Jun 11, 2008

Electric Cars: They Need Gas

Here's an idea: Let's put a battery in a car and skip all that business with gasoline. We plug it in, charge it at home at night and run it all day. Has anyone thought of this? Well, yes--a long time ago.

Electric cars have been around in some form for about a century. They have a little problem, however. No battery is powerful enough to push 3,000 pounds far enough to make the electric vehicle worth $30,000. Battery-operated motors work in golf carts, in factory forklifts and in some buses that have room for lots of batteries under the floor and that never stray very far from recharging plugs at their base stations. They do not work in all-purpose passenger vehicles.

Fans of electric cars argue that people drive on average only 20 to 40 miles a day and that we can build one that will run that far, enough to take you to work and back. But we don't pay $30,000 just to go to work and back. We buy cars because they are versatile tools. They will take us to work and also from New York to California. They will carry 1,000 pounds of people inside and 500 pounds of stuff in the trunk or cargo area. They will run across the Mojave Desert, and, as I have said here before, when your kid turns blue at 2 a.m. on the coldest morning of the year, that car will start and get you to the hospital. That's why it is worth $30,000.

When you begin subtracting what that car can do, it loses value. If a car's only utility is "it will get you to work and back," then it's not worth much at all, because any junker can do that.

Ignoring where the plug-in electricity would come from, electric cars would be wonderful if they could get that oil monkey off our back and end tailpipe pollution forever. Despite some progress on the technology, they are not coming all that soon.

Auto companies are betting on lithium ion batteries. These will push a car 40 miles or 200 miles, depending on who is bragging. Renault/Nissan has committed to building an electric car in volume for Israel, with charging stations across the country. The company also says it will sell a few in the U.S. and Japan by 2010 and be in serious production two years later.

The trouble is that no one has yet demonstrated that lithium ion systems are viable in a real world, mass market automobile. These batteries still produce too much heat and are costly. Israel's small size finesses the range limitation of electric vehicles. Nissan (nasdaq: NSANY - news - people ) hopes to fix the problem with how long it takes to recharge the batteries with a removable battery pack that an attendant could swap out at an electric fueling station. The car owner never owns the battery power pack but pays a monthly charge.

Still, Nissan, which has talked of an electric car range of 124 miles, now says it is thinking of "range extender auxiliary engines." That sounds as if the company is backing off pure electrics and into the direction of plug-in hybrids. The Nissan idea of removable battery packs is interesting, but get serious. How long will it take the Israeli station jockey to put down his cellphone and get to the job? In this country, fuel stations are usually self-service.

General Motors (nyse: GM - news - people ) also aims to have its plug-in hybrid electric car, the Chevy Volt, ready in 2010, or near that date. A lithium-ion battery pack runs the vehicle 40 miles or so, and when it runs out of stored electricity a small gasoline engine goes on and powers a generator that creates electricity that powers the wheels. Drivers can recharge the batteries at home at night.

Existing hybrids, such as the Toyota (nyse: TM - news - people ) Prius, have electric motors and small batteries but really run on their gasoline engines for the most part. Their point is not powering the car off the electric grid but rather reclaiming the energy wasted in stoplight idling and braking. To help prolong battery life, these hybrids never fully discharge or recharge the battery. Toyota, however, promises a plug-in hybrid that will recharge at night too.

Problems: Lithium battery packs probably will cost $5,000 or more, and range numbers are all over the lot. Rumor has the Chevy Volt, not in production yet, costing $40,000. Remember, too, cars must run perfectly. Rebooting at 60 miles per hour could mean crashing into a highway post.

You probably have read of other electric cars from small companies. Most are like big golf carts, but there is a real car here and there. The best known is from Tesla Motors, which boasts that its $109,000 two-seat sports car will have a range of 220 miles. A car-magazine tester drove a Tesla for 90 miles. That is not bad, but battery people question the system's reliability. I recall honest efforts by true believers from Preston Tucker to William Lear (the Lear (nyse: LEA - news - people ) Jet), who tried to build a steam car. There is so much that can go wrong.

Electric cars just are not here yet. Range, reliability and cost are still problems. Few readers of this column will ever own one. But maybe, someday, these cars will make sense.

by: Jerry Flint

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