This is a response to a letter about electric vehicles and hybrids posted elsewhere on our website. For those who haven’t seen the letter (“Wishing DOES Make It So”) and want to view it, you can read it at the bottom of this file or see the link at the bottom of this page to view the post.
Before I launch into the detail of my response, however, I want to clear up some confusion. Many readers have lumped hybrid vehicles into this discussion, in the mistaken belief that the success of battery-powered cars and hybrids are somehow inextricably linked.
They’re not. Rather than assuming all the vehicles under the environmental umbrella are good, we have tried to evaluate each technology on its own merits. In fact, that’s what the late, great Toyota engineer, David Hermance, did when asked about California’s effort to legislate electric vehicles into existence. Hermance, executive engineer of environmental engineering for Toyota and the man widely known as the “American father of the Prius,” (read about Dave Hermance at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hermance) said the following in 2001 about the California Air Resources Board’s ZEV legislation: "The board's action doesn't repeal the laws of economics or physics. The fact is, pure electric vehicles are hideously expensive and consumers don't want them unless someone else subsidizes them."
My point here is that it’s not inconsistent to like one environmental solution (hybrids) and not the other (battery-powered cars). Moreover, we weren’t talking about hybrids in either of our columns. We were talking about battery-powered vehicles.
As for my views on battery-powered cars (not hybrids), here’s why I feel as I do: I started covering the subject of electric cars in 1987. I wrote extensively about them from a reporter’s (and former engineer’s) standpoint, which is to say, I believed and reported the claims in the beginning, taking them in good faith. When Chrysler, GM, Toyota, etc, said they would raise their ranges from 30 miles to 300 in a few years, we reported that. When the battery makers said they would have 400-mile batteries with 15-minute recharge times by the early ‘90s, we reported that. We kept reporting the same claims into the mid-90s, but when the promises failed to materialize in even the most remote way, when the required battery energy densities didn’t reach their agreed-upon levels, when the costs didn’t come remotely close to the agreed-upon costs of $150/kW-hr, when the battery-of-the future changed from lead acid to advanced lead acid, to nickel-iron, to sodium-sulpher, to zinc-air, to zinc-nickel oxide to nickel-metal hydride, to lithium ion, etc, and when the automakers didn’t deliver, we went to experts at Argonne National Labs, the University of Michigan, The Center for Automotive Research, Stanford, Cal Tech, Cal-Berkeley, and MIT. They told us that the batteries were facing knowledge-based limitations, which couldn’t necessarily be solved by simply throwing more money at the problems. We reported what they said — repeatedly. But even as automakers began to back away, as the efforts began to unravel, as GM shut down its EV1 production facilities and put its tooling into storage and laid off workers, the battery makers continued to make promises that didn’t materialize. Meanwhile, the experts continued to tell us the limitations were knowledge-based, not resource-based, and the state of California brazenly refused to listen. Over and over and over again. California’s solution? Charge the automakers $10,000 per vehicle for every EV they didn’t sell.
It’s hard to paint a rosy picture under those circumstances.
Regarding the purported “bellyaching:” The shoe’s actually on the other foot. We’re not the ones who produced a feature film to whine about something that occurred five years earlier. But when we read that Hollywood was considering it for an Academy Award, and when we saw how this pseudo-technical movie evaded all the technical issues of the debate, we weighed in. I think it's important that we keep the technology of the debate front and center.
TEXT OF THE READER’S POSTED LETTER (This letter is also posted at /index.asp?layout=talkbackCommentsFull&talk_back_header_id=6402167&articleid=CA6402167#57325.)
You sound old and tired. Yet your picture looks as young as the picture
in my mirror. Electric vehicle proponents have fought against your
mentality for decades, and now on the beginning of a new eve, with the
convergence of electronic power technology, advanced battery capability,
and low weight/high strength composite materials, we hear it again.
Wake up man, wishing does make it so. If we cannot as engineers and
customers dream what direction we want, how can we possibly build new
and exciting transportation systems in our future? You and the Car and
Driver magazine set go on about batteries, did you ever drive the EV1,
RAV4, or factory EV pickups? They had NiMH, and were HOT, and they had
good range. Ever think about what would have happened had we poured the
Exxon subsidies into Lithium battery research? One can only dream right,
well forget that…some of us are actually building and driving our own
Your columns make me think of the guy that watched the gas car around
the turn of the century (about a hundred years ago) and said, "that will
never work, you have to go out and hand crank the thing every time you
want to go somewhere, that sucks!", because electric starter technology
had yet to be developed. Granted starters are a little easier to develop
than chemical batteries, but just because we don't have it yet, does not
mean we can't dream high, and make it happen.
So stop bellyaching, and get to pushing the idea that we all be driving
hybrids and electrics in the future. We will be driving because we HAVE
to or because we WANT to, which would you choose?
With a converted electric motorcycle