Who Killed the Electric Car?

That was the title of a film previewed before Al Gore’s documentary. The site for the film is here. (Note, the site doesn’t like Opera, so you need to use another browser to view it.) The trailer for the film heavily plays up the whole “the car companies and the oil companies are in cahoots to keep electric cars off the road.” It even features noted “scientific experts” like Ralph Nader and Ed Begley Jr. :rolleyes:

Now, if anybody was going to claim that there was a conspiracy involving automakers, it would be yours truly, but in the case of the electric car, I’m not buying it. Yes, the people who got to drive the cars as part of GM’s lease program loved the cars so much that when GM cancelled the program, they did everything they could to avoid turning the cars back in, but cancelling the program made sense. Of course, the trailer doesn’t even hint at such a thing, and it completely glosses over the problems with EVs.

In fact, Ed Begley Jr. states in the trailer, “The electric car is not for everyone. Only 90% of the population could use one.” Uh, Ed, the actual number is significantly lower. First of all, anyone who lives in a part of the country that has very cold winters would find an electric car to be nearly useless in the winter time. Electric cars have a max range of about 130 miles on a full charge. You only get this on flat ground, during warm weather, and if you don’t run any accessories (like the radio, heater, A/C, etc.), running the accessories cuts down the range of the car, and if like most people, you run the heat in winter, and listen to the radio, you’ll get nowhere near that. Batteries hate cold weather (also exceedingly hot weather) and take longer to charge when it’s cold out. They also tend to lose their charge during cold weather, and given that the days are shorter, you have to run the lights longer.

The trailer makes the claim that the car has no emissions, implying, of course, that the car is thus better for the environment than gas powered cars. That’s a maybe. In this thread on hybrid cars, it’s pointed out that the exotic materials used to make the batteries for hybrids are kind of nasty (and I doubt that they’re being mined using environmentally friendly methods in developing countries), and electric cars tend to use all kinds of exotic materials in their construction (all to save weight). These materials are often expensive, and the production of them tends to involve all kinds of nasty chemicals, that have to be properly disposed of, but hey, that’s all right if it doesn’t dump gunk into the air, right? Sure, if you don’t mind dirty drinking water, or having your light bill shoot up dramatically. And your power company uses clean methods to generate electricity (you know, hydroelectric, solar, wind, geothermal, and depending upon your political leanings, nuclear).

Oh, but Tucker, you say, a higher light bill won’t matter, because you won’t be spending any money for gas, so the savings will work out to be the same! Heh, that’s true, until more and more people start buying electric cars, and the increased demand starts overloading the power grid, so new plants have to be built. Naturally to cover the costs of these new plants, the power companies will have to jack up your rates (possibly dramatically, because the power grid’s in pretty shitty shape in most of the country). As Una can testify, new power plants ain’t cheap, and getting more expensive all the time because of the gear needed to clean up the emissions. (If you live in an area that’s decided to adopt the Kyoto Accords [as many US cities and states are doing], some experts predict that your lightbill will double and that’s without adding the plants necessary to handle the increased demand for electricity created by electric cars.)

Then there’s the fact that you have to plug the car in every night to recharge it. Not terribly inconvient, but how many folks are going to remember to unplug the thing in the morning? It happens all the time at gas stations. People stick the nozzle in the tank, forget that it’s in there and start to drive off. (Yeah, electric cars can have an interlock to prevent someone from doing this, but you could do the same thing with gas powered cars and nobody does it.) Five hour recharge times means that you can’t take the car on long drives (unless you want to spend huge amounts of time sitting around waiting for the car to charge up). I’m sure that the film will make the claim that “if GM hadn’t killed the program, someone would have come up with quick charge batteries, so you wouldn’t have to wait hours to recharge the car!” Riiiiight. Let’s say that someone did manage to do that, in order to recharge the car in a short period of time (say a minute), you’d have to find a way to pump 5.2 megawatts of juice into the car in that time. The only way you could do that is by using superconducting wires, which means that you’ve got to have them cooled by something like liquid nitrogen, and you’re not going to want the average idiot handling such gear. (Wonder how much pollution is created by producing liquid nitrogen.) So that means either trained techs at every filling station, or robotic filling stations, which is going to be expensive.

But, but, but, the environment’s in danger and we need to do something to help save the planet! Absolutely correct, but if the “solution” is expensive, creates other environmental problems, and has such severe limitations that most people can’t use it, it’s not much of a solution, is it?

So what do we do? Well, for starters, raising CAFE standards would help. So would pouring money into alternative fuel (bio-diesel, ethanol, methanol, hydrogen, etc.) research in greater quantities. We also need to rethink automotive design. Make cars more aerodynamic, increase the amount of lightweight materials (more aluminum, less steel and iron), but most importantly, design the cars so that they use fewer materials. Not only making them smaller, but things like cutting the amount of wiring used, using hollow parts instead of solid ones, and reducing the number of parts used.

Brainless environmentalist wankfest films like “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Do absolutely fucking nothing to solve the problem. If we’re lucky, the film won’t inspire people to write to their clowngress critters and tell them to divert billions of dollars from areas of research would could pay off in the short term (like biofuels) and put it into battery research (where it won’t yield significant results for possibly decades [but will inspire nitwits to scream that the car companies are blocking progress]).

We Did! We Did!

I know absolutely nothing about this issue, but if electric cars have all the problems you list in your post, why did the people using them love them so much?

Oh, and Manny? Damn you, you’re too fast for me.

Really, that’s all needs to be said. The man has less than zero credibility. Even if he occasionally says things that are truthful and right, he spins the rest so much you can’t know what to trust unless you parse every sentence.

And how are these plants going to be built, and how fast will they come online? I’m working as a consultant on three coal plants under permitting/review right now, and even regions faced with rolling blackouts are still finding ways to bus in protestors from 1000 miles away to protest the plants going up. We can try nuclear…oh wait, not in this country. So what’s left? Our hydro resources are tapped out, wind power’s increasing but not nearly enough and is still a pathetically small percent of the power generation, solar…yeah, right…what’s left is slapping down more simple-cycle GTs. Sucking enormous amounts of natural gas to put out power - for now. Natural gas supply lifespan is highly questionable at this time, many pipelines are getting to the point where gas plants cannot operate at their maximum capacity factors due to the risk of taking home heating gas from residential customers, and the price of gas to the plants I work with has gone up from $2-$3 per MBtu in the mid-1990’s to $10 or more per MBtu. You can bet that’s a pass-through to your electric bill, and an indirect impact on your natural gas bill. When we add 100 more GW of natural gas generation to supply electric cars, how does that work, exactly? People with $200-$300 monthly gas bills in the winter (like, oh, me) will see them at $600-$800 or more per month. I can afford it even if I don’t like it - how many Dopers can afford a doubling or even quadrupling of their heating bill? Given how many somehow claim that a $15 fee to post is scraping the bottom of their budget barrel, I’ll extrapolate probably barely a majority.

Who builds the new pipelines, or upgrades the pipelines for this natural gas need? You think building a coal plant is hard; building a new natural gas pipeline can be almost as hard in some areas. Where does all this new natural gas come from?

I imagine they’ll put a little warning chime - you know, like the chime that tells you “your lights are on, dumbass” or “you left the keys in the ignition, timbertool”, that prevent us from ever, ever, under any circumstances from leaving our lights on or locking ourselves out of the car. Likely, about once a day somone in any given metro area will drive off while connected, ripping a 440V line from their house, taking out an entire wall, dragging the plasterboard, 2x4s, breaker box, and several other various items down the road with them as they yap on their fucking cell phone about how crazy drivers are…in reality, you have to hope that the interlock works better than that.

Selective use/purchase phenomenon.

With (almost) no incentive to get an electric car right now, who gets one?

  1. People that for one or many legitimate and well-thought-out reasons, want one.
  2. People who are subsidized or have a financial incentive to get one.
  3. People who happen to live in an area where there are charging stations, traffic patterns, climate, etc. favourable to electric car use such that there’s very little differential impact relative to a petrol car.
  4. People looking for “I’m first!” bragging rights.

And finally

  1. Crazy people who buy things without thinking about them.

I know several people who drive fully electric cars on a daily basis (many utilities buy into making some of their fleet electric). I know of 0% of my sample size of about 20 who like the cars or prefer them over gasoline. Horror stories abound, such as battery life that decreases to under 60 miles between charges within a year, sudden unexplained dying, having to carefully plan each trip based on when and where they can find charging stations, etc. Some people may have good luck with them, but it’s going to be niche good luck until the technology improves, IMO.

There was an all-electric car available around IIRC 30 years ago. My mother and my sister each owned one. For my sister it was great. She had a commute of about 10 miles to work, all on roads where you couldn’t go over 40 mph anyway. My mother drove even less. For long drives an ordinary gasoline car was used. The thing had HUUUUUGE batteries. There was room in the car for either 2 people or 1 person and some grocery bags. One had to master a pattern of full discharge/full chargeup to maintain the battery life. If one of those suckers died it was very expensive to replace.

Now, the technology has obviously improved since then, but as noted previously, problems remain. They’d probably be ideal for other slow, frequent-stop driving situations, especially since when you stop, you use zero energy as opposed to gas engines that no one turns off while waiting in line at the drive-through or traffic lights.

A plug-in hybrid electric makes much more sense. This gets rid of the range problem, the having to plan around charging stations problem, etc.

The other nice thing about plug-in hybrids is that you don’t need thousands of pounds of batteries, because you can scale the battery size to match the 80% usage case of the car. An all-electric car maybe needs enough batteries to go 120 miles. But if my commute to work is 15 miles, then all I need is a 30 mile battery and I can run all-electric, while still having the gas engine for longer trips. But if even that is impractical, well, give me a 15 mile battery and I can double my mileage.

Plug-in hybrids are also good because they allow the market to work. If electricity prices in my area are too high, I just won’t plug in. Giving me that option means that demand for electricity can more easily track supply - i.e. it’s much more price elastic. If you have a situation where everyone has electric-only cars, and they HAVE to use them, then demand won’t track price very well, and you wind up with shortages, huge price spikes, blackouts, etc.

What we really need are better battery technologies. And they are coming. Carbon nanotubes hold great promise here - especially in fast charge storage.

Last night on the Discovery Channel I saw Thomas Friedman’s report Addicted to Oil, and one of the topics covered was the plug-in hybrid, and why Toyota and other companies have resisted providing this capability to their hybrids.

Turns out in the 1990’s automakers tried to market a number of electric vehicles and no-one bought them. Personally, I was surprised to hear this, as I have no recollection of these cars being out there, but I was in college for a good part of that decade, so that’s not too surprising.

So one of the big marketing points of the new class of hybrids is that you don’t have to plug them in, something I think is really pretty lame given how little it would take to add. In other countries, the Prius has an “electric-only” button for short ranges, but apparently Toyota is too scared of American pig-headedness to even give us that option.

The good news is that there’s a healthy population of geeks out there who can tell you how to do everything from supplement your hybrid’s batteries for more MPG all the way to making your Prius a true electric-only.

But I think a lot of people aren’t going to want to hack their Priuses, since such aftermarket modifications will likely void the manufacturer’s warranty. So plug-in hybrids will only take off when Toyota, Honda or GM sells them with that feature designed in.

“I’m driving a car powered by my own sense of self-satisfaction!”

Tukerfan, since you obviously know a lot about cars, what do you think of the little NMG (No More Gas) car from Myers Motors in Ohio? They’re cute little things, in a Jetson-ish way, and I sort of want one. I’m not sure I can justify the price though - 25k. If I read it correctly it only gets 30 miles between charges.


What we really need are cars powered by Smug, the last thing we need are rampant Smug storms…


Ask people who live in Alaska how often that happens. Less than you think, and it’s easily avoidable with a little engineering.

Just by the looks of it, I’d say it was an Edsel. It was originally called The Sparrow, and in reality is little more than a souped up golf cart. Not to mention they don’t seem to have a very long life span:

For a car that was built from 2000 - 2002, that’s an amazingly small number. Contrast that with a conventional automobile where you can expet to find at least half of a given model year still on the road a decade later.

Sam, plug-in hybrids are a better choice than an all electric but they’re still far from ideal. As Una pointed out, there’s places where the grid’s over taxed right now, and they’re having trouble bringing new plants on line. A plug-in hybrid is just a slower death for the electrical grid than all electrical cars. Plus, you know that the sales people are going to hype This car gets 120 MPG!!! And in the fine print you’ll find Provided you charge the car at least 4 hours every day. Most consumers won’t notice that, and will raise all sorts of hell (Can you say, “Lawsuit!”? I knew you could.) because their car isn’t getting anywhere near that (since they didn’t realize that you had to plug the car in).

silenus, extreme cold tends to weed out the stupids, natural selection and all that. :wink: And yeah, it is easily avoidable with a little engineering. How long did it take automakers to figure out how to engineer cars so the lights would turn off after you shut off your car so that the battery wouldn’t go dead? How long did it take for them to figure out that seatbelts were a good idea? Having headlights that move with the wheels? Heck, look how long it took for freakin’ cup holders to become standard equipment!

The point is that plug-in hybrid is an enabling technology. First of all, it’s really power-neutral. You can charge the batteries from the engine, from the power grid, solar cells, hydrogen, whatever. So this allows us to disconnect the engineering of the car from the choice of energy, which is important for building an infrastructure that allows us to be flexible in the future. Today, if oil ran out, the entire fleet would be useless. But your cars are engineered as an all-electric subsystem with a power module, then you can plug in a gas engine, flex fuel engine, hydrogen, or batteries, or any combination of both, and you’re good to go. It also allows you to adapt to changing conditions. If gas goes through the roof, I can start plugging in more. If electricity goes through the roof, I can use more gas. In fact, I can balance my choices based on the conditions of the day, and so can everyone else. So the market works more efficiently.

And I don’t buy the ‘what if people leave their cars plugged in?’ argument. This is a trivial engineering problem - the simplest solution is an ignition interlock that prevents the car from being started when plugged in. We already have those on numerous systems in the car - adding one more is no big deal.

That’s a pretty condescending way to look at it. Auto manufacturers deal with far more complex engineering issues all the time. Your typical car today has six airbags, anti-lock brakes, stability control, interlocks on the transmission, ignition, seatbelts sometimes, headlights that turn themselves off, yada yada yada. You think they can’t handle a safe and foolproof way to plug in the car? Nah.

I agree, electric cars will never sell until you can get at least a 150 range-with charging times of less than an hour. However, the cars will always be marginal in terms of heat, A/S, and comfort.
A much better option would be lightweight cars (1000 lb.) with a small diesel-hybrid electric propulsion. Such cars could get >70 MPG. Of course, gasoline is still relatively cheap, which is why people still drive 10 MPG cars.

LOL - It’s the Goldmember car! I didn’t recognize it without its, er, appendage.

Thanks for the info on the Sparrow. I hadn’t even considered your point about longevity before this. I thought it might be fun to have one to run errands in but I think I’ll save my money and get a Vespa instead.

I think you guys are overlooking the fact that for most people, cars have two main functions: getting the owner to work and back, and everything else. With getting their owner to work and back being by far the more important thing. In most urban environments that means a daily trip of less than 25 miles one way on roads where you are generally unable to travel more than 45 mph. It seems to me that if you can engineer a car that can manage that, you’re a long way toward developing a salable electric car.

Of course, some would say that’s deluded. But it sure gets tiresome, hearing that you’re deluded from folks who think oil will last forever.

And how often do you forget to raise the garage door before backing up? happens all the time!

Again, that’s where a plug-in hybrid makes a ton of sense. For most people, 80% of their driving is short-distance. But they absolutely need the capability to drive the other 20% of the long-distance trips.

What I’d like to see is a hybrid with optional battery sizes. We have that capability in camcorders and plenty of other devices. So when I go buy my hybrid car, I can choose a range of battery sizes, at varying cost. Now I have a lot of flexibility in my purchase decision. If I only commute 5 miles, I’ll go for the 10 mile battery and save cost, weight, and storage space. If I commute 20, maybe I’ll go for the 40 mile battery. Now we don’t need a ‘one size fits all’ electric car, and the tradoff is no longer range vs battery size - it’s fuel efficiency vs battery size. I can go just as far with any battery setup, because I still have my gas engine. But if I size the battery intelligently, I can drastically cut down on fuel consumption.

And of course, for those of us who like performance, we would still have the option of pulling the gas engine inline with the electric motors to increase output for those times when we want to do a little more spirited driving.

A car like this also provides a redundant power system, which is nice. If your engine dies, you’ve got maybe 10-50 miles of battery power to get you to a gas station. If the electric propulsion system dies, you switch to gas and continue merrily along.