About Those Electric Vehicles...

DN Staff

January 23, 2007

3 Min Read
About Those Electric Vehicles...

Apparently, it has become necessary to clear the air. First, I don’t hate the environment. Second, I don’t dislike hybrid vehicles. Third, I don’t have a problem with research and development of battery-powered electric cars.

I find it necessary to make these statements because I’ve recently been deluged by angry comments and e-mails about my column (/index.asp?layout=article&articleid=CA6402167&ref=nbra&text=EV1) on the movie, Who Killed the Electric Car? Even my friend and chief editor, John Dodge, said in his blog (“What About the Chevy Volt, Chuck? /blog/130000213.html) that he took “strong issue” with my column.

Well, for you, John, and for all of you angry e-mailers out there, I take strong issue with your strong issues. Here’s why:

If you’ve followed the development of pure electric cars over the past two decades, then you know that the battery has been the problem. We’ve written about it numerous times. Engineering professors from MIT, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Argonne National Laboratory, the Center for Automotive Research and elsewhere have repeatedly told us that EV batteries lacked energy density and were far too costly to make a big impact on the auto market. Many also accused battery makers of grossly exaggerating their claims.

“If the battery maker doesn’t promise to meet the automakers goals, however ridiculous they may be, then they don’t get any money,” said Elton Cairns, professor emeritus of chemical engineering at the University of California-Berkeley. “So it becomes a sort of liars contest. Whoever tells the most credible lie gets the money.”

To be sure, no one said we should stop research and development. In fact, we’ve talked to engineers who believe that long-term battery research efforts could have been better if the industry hadn’t gotten bogged down in a series of short-term fixes, which it needed to bring EVs into production

Many of the reasonable readers who wrote to us said that battery-powered vehicles could have been good second or third family cars. In other words, niche vehicles. And while I somewhat agree, I’d also argue that most families can’t afford $30,000 second cars. Most use an old clunker for short trips. As a result, the EV’s niche would have grown even smaller and negated the cost efficiencies that could have resulted from higher production volumes.

John Dodge asked why I didn’t mention the Chevy Volt. I didn’t mention it because the Chevy Volt was announced two months after I wrote the column. But let’s look at the Volt: It’s a concept car; it draws battery power from an internal combustion engine; and GM has conceded that its lithium-ion battery might not be ready until 2010 or 2012. That’s why Chevy has correctly decided to keep the Volt out of production until the battery is ready.

And this brings us back to the problem of the movie and the electric vehicle movement. Legislators and environmentalists, in their unbelievable arrogance and ignorance, decided they could legislate technology into existence, despite more than a century of struggles with EV batteries. It was a move typical of those who have contempt for engineers and scientists: You can do it if we make you do it.

And, of course, it didn’t work. And when it didn’t work, the legislators could have saved the environment by passing a mandate forcing consumers to buy electric vehicles, but they didn’t. Why? Because they would have lost votes.

So now we have movies like Who Killed the Electric Car? And we have a debate that could have been avoided if certain parents, when they were bouncing their little legislators on their knees and reading them tiny political science textbooks, had taught them one valuable lesson:

Wishing doesn’t always make it so.

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