Sunday, August 6, 2006

How much has Big Auto lied?

Lick My Silent Sports Car ... How much has Big Auto lied? Take a drive in this four-wheel electric orgasm, and find out: This is an opinion column that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 2, 2006. It's a wonderful rant about electric cars, the big car companies, and the movie Who killed the Electric Car?, Who Killed the Electric Car?

He's talking about the new car from Tesla Motors which I've covered: Battery-Fueled Car Will Smoke You and "a world 100% full of Prius drivers is still 100% addicted to oil"

Or, as the column says:

It's a new sports car that looks deliciously like a Lotus Elise and reportedly drives like Michael Schumacher's wet dream and goes from zero to 60 in about four seconds with so much torque and freakishly instantaneous power it makes the gods swoon.

This car, it has a top speed of 130 mph. It has a range of 250 miles. It also has GPS navigation and air-conditioning and air bags and it surely will come with a very badass sound system. It has heated seats and (I presume) iPod integration and Bluetooth. You know, just like a real car.

Oh, and by the way, this car? It's completely silent. It is 100-percent emissions-free. Doesn't even have a tailpipe. Because it has no internal combustion engine of any kind.

I've covered their business plan earlier. However the specs on this car sure are a head turner ... High speed, long range, great looks, it's sure different from the large compromises that previous electric vehicle owners have had to make.

In this guys rant he tries to say the car companies have lied to us. Well, that car wouldn't have been possible a few years ago. The issue here is the battery choice and recent advances in lithium battery construction.

I explained it here: Batteries that pack a punch without a pop ... Different types of batteries carry different amounts of electricity. You measure this in kilowatt-hours per kilogram and kilowatt-hours per liter. The link above has more details on what that means. In practical terms the gasoline to drive a typical car 30 miles can be carried in a gas can, and weighs a couple pounds, while the batteries for an electric car to drive 30 miles might weigh 500 lbs.

However that analogy is too simplified. For lead-acid batteries those batteries might weigh 500 lbs, while for Nickel-Metal-Hydride (NiMH) batteries they might weigh 250 lbs, and for Lithium batteries they might weigh 125 lbs.

The difference is energy density, or the amount of electricity that can be carried in a battery of a certain size. Gasoline has much higher energy density than any type of battery. However lithium based batteries have enough of a higher energy density to cross a threshold where a car driven by lithium batteries is fast enough and can go far enough on a charge to catch peoples attention.

The batteries that are used in the Tesla Motors car weren't available 8 years ago when the car companies were building their electric cars. They had to make do with lead acid and in some cases NiMH batteries. What made the difference is portable electronic gadgets like cell phones, digital cameras, and laptop computers. The same equation of energy density played out with those devices, and those manufacturers were highly incentivised to explore and develop alternatives. Hence, lithium batteries received a lot of attention and research and development, and they are getting better, cheaper, and safer each year.

Safety is important considering stories like: Dell probes incendiary laptop incident, Dell said to have 'dozens' of burned laptop incidents on file, Dell laptop goes up in smoke, Dell laptop smoked in Singapore, Two more laptops light up ... I've seen news articles of peoples cell phones blowing up in their pockets. This video on video.google.com should demonstrate the danger.

However ... Both Valence Technology and a123 Systems have developed new formulations of lithium batteries that are supposed to be extremely safe. In other words, in the near future these newer lithium based batteries will become safe enough, and widely enough produced, to enable car makers to make effective electric vehicles.

At the same time the big car makers are trying to sell us all on fuel cells. But fuel cells are still 10 or more years into the future, they say, and they have been telling us for the last 20 years that fuel cells were 10 years away. So, if the fuel cell promise is always 10 years into the future, then will the promise ever be fulfilled?

With the big car companies stuck in fuel cells as the answer, how will the lithium batteries make it to cars? We can see with the Tesla Motors car the promise of electric vehicles being fulfilled. It's a car that doesn't have to make compromises because the batteries are good enough. But, the question is whether Tesla Motors can grow big enough to make a normal persons car (rather than a rich persons car) for the masses and compete against the car industry and oil industry? In "a world 100% full of Prius drivers is still 100% addicted to oil" I noted that is exactly their plan. That this rich persons toy is just the beginning, that they are plowing all available money into developing further cars for the more typical person.

Another possibility is China or India. Both countries have companies producing electric vehicles today. Perhaps some of those cars could be imported to the U.S. and outfitted with these new lithium batteries?

The Zap! Xebra is an example of this, except it is currently being outfitted with lead-acid batteries. At 40 miles/hr and 40 mile range it's suitable only for around-town use that doesn't require going on the highways. But it is an example of a car being constructed in China, and imported to the U.S.

The Reva, an electric City Car made in India is another example. It's a very tiny two person car, again suitable for city use. It is made in Bangalore India and is being imported to some foreign countries like England.