Car Corner
Why don’t we drive electric cars? What kind of electric cars should we drive?

November 1, 2000
By Scott Lewis

This month I would like to speculate on two things. 1) Why we don’t drive electric vehicles, and 2) what would be a better electric vehicle to drive. In this article I get to combine my two favorite passions… cars and computers.

Why don’t we drive them?

In a nutshell, the main reasons we don’t drive electric cars is a) their lack of range, b) their lack of power, c) their inconvenience, and d) their lack of availability. Of course price is a factor, but we could assume that that would work its way out sooner or later.

There are very few electric cars on the market. In fact, I am not aware of any completely electric car I can buy at a dealer here in central Texas. California has laws in place that dictate (nice word, don’t you think) how many zero emissions cars manufacturers must sell in California per year. As far as California is concerned zero emissions means electric. (Don’t even mention all the extra smog the electric factories will pump into the air providing the juice for the batteries, or all those toxic batteries that will end up in land fills someday. No! We will not contaminate this story with rhetoric, such as the total emissions and contamination to our environment by these wonderful little mileage masters.)

You would think that California’s restrictions would force the car companies to spend the development time necessary to come up with a decent electric car. So why haven’t they? For starters, they have... spent the time that is. The auto makers are spending millions, perhaps billions, on electric car development. But the auto industry lagged because they assumed that their biggest hurdle would be solved for them.

Batteries! The auto industry assumed, and reasonably so, that the computer industry would have solved the battery technology problem. Laptops want the exact same thing from batteries that cars want. Enough stored electricity to run a fairly powerful machine for a reasonable amount of time. Also, the ability to quickly and conveniently recharge the batteries.

Unfortunately for the auto manufacturers, computer companies moved toward building laptops that used less and less power to gain decent battery life. The computer industry was moving too fast to wait until some miracle battery technology materialized. So they got better and better at managing the power they had available to them.

Today you can buy a number of laptops that have battery life of about 4 to 5 hours. This is enough for a trans-continental flight. So don’t expect miracles from the computer industry. Once they hit 8 to 10 hours of regular battery life they won’t need to spend much money on improving battery technology further.

But these kinds of power saving features are harder to come by in a car. You still need a certain level of power (in the electric motor) to move a certain amount of mass (the car itself, its batteries, and its passengers) at a decent speed for a reasonable range.

The auto industry has not ignored the idea of saving power. In fact, they have come up with a number of innovative technologies to help. The biggest is regenerative breaking. This technology has the batteries recharged by the energy the brakes absorb while they are working to slow the car down. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of braking done during steady highway driving.

Adding bigger batteries adds considerable weight to the vehicle, hence you need more power, hence more batteries, etc. Catch-22!

Current battery technology is also expensive. Both Toyota and GM sell their electric cars at a loss. In fact, the cars cost the consumer less than the manufacturer pays for the batteries alone. That means the batteries in GM’s EV-1 electric car cost more that the leased (they won’t actually sell it) value of $35,000.

If you expect the auto industry to eat the cost of $35,000 in batteries until the technology improves, you are condemning our entire economy. With current sales of cars and light trucks at over 17 million a year, it would require an up front investment of $595 Billion just for the first year of electric cars. Not even Bill Gates could afford to fund that. And that’s just for the batteries, with a range of about 80 miles.

Is it any wonder why we aren’t driving electric cars? Trust me, the internal combustion engine will be around for a long time to come.

What kind of electric car should we drive?

Honda & Toyota have electric car hybrids. They have a small gasoline engine that runs in concert with an electric motor. The gasoline engine does the minor tasks of moving the car down the road. But when more power is required the electric motor kicks in to provide decent acceleration. In the Honda this combination returns EPA ratings of 61/70 MPG city and highway, respectfully.

It is my opinion that this is the exact opposite of the kind of hybrid we need. The Honda still requires batteries to store energy reserves for the electric motor. This also means sacrificing a back seat to store the batteries. This energy is supplied buy the gasoline engine as it runs.

Why not have a small gasoline (or diesel for that matter) engine turn an electric generator. Think of it like a giant alternator. The gasoline engine would run at a fairly constant speed, and its sole job would be to turn a generator. This generator would provide all the electricity the car needs. Power for an electric motor and all the electronic accessories on the car. The battery would return to its original duty... starting the car. The gasoline engine would be tuned to run at its peak efficiency all the time, requiring little fuel over the miles.

This would provide improvements almost immediately. Auto manufactures could concentrate on building one or two extremely efficient gasoline engines, as opposed to dozens of different engines. A small engine for small cars, and a larger one for large cars and light trucks. They could develop generators of varying sizes to produce the required torque to accelerate vehicles of different sizes and weights.

A win-win situation. Unfortunately, you need to have more than an idea to get a patent. If I had the money to build such a car in my spare time I would. Then I would get rich selling it to the auto industry.

I will have to settle for being able to say this... You read it her first!