Saturday, May 27, 2017

Electric Cars Have the Same Problems As Always

It's the same bugaboo as always: driving range.  Which really comes down to recharging times.

In an unusually cogent look at the realities of the electric car market, author Charles Murray writes a piece for Design News titled, "The Electric Car's Same Old Problem".  For those unfamiliar, Design News is a engineering trade publication primarily aimed at Mechanical Engineers, not electrical.  I tend to link to them fairly frequently.
One unwritten rule of product design says that if you’ve given your customer a popular feature, don’t dare take it away.

Therein lies the problem with the mainstream electric car. Today’s cay buyers have been spoiled. They assume that they should be able to take their cars on vacations, on weekend trips, or on treks to drop the kids off at college. Thanks, gasoline.

Electric car enthusiasts don’t like that argument. And to some degree, they’re right. On average, driving is mostly about short trips – to work, to the gym, to the grocery store. Unfortunately, modern consumers don’t buy cars based on their average needs. They buy for their exceptional needs.
While I like to think of most of the engineers I've worked with as rational, being facile with technological problems doesn't necessarily make engineers immune to the impulse of wanting to control other people.  Witness the comments where readers think the solution is to get families to have two cars: one for around town and one for longer trips, or other fanciful social engineering.  (I'm assuming they're engineers or have a technical background just to qualify for a subscription).

It's a fundamental problem and Charles Murray hits the nail squarely on the head.  We tend to buy our cars for the expected uses even if the "worst case" isn't very often.  People expect to be able to get in a car and drive across the country - or just a couple of days - even if it's once a year or every other year.  This comes "for free" with a gasoline powered internal combustion engine.  Gasoline or diesel are tremendously better at energy storage than batteries.  While battery makers desperately try to figure out how to reach a specific energy of 450 Wh/kg (Watt-hours per kilogram), gasoline already offers 12,000 Wh/kg.

A basic problem is that even with the taxpayer subsidies, nobody is making money on electric cars.
Volkswagen, which is doing penance [for fudging EPA emissions tests - SiG] by loudly proclaiming its commitment to electric cars, admitted to The Wall Street Journal recently that “small battery-driven vehicles won’t be cheaper than their diesel equivalents until 2030.” And GM exec Mark Reuss  told reporters that his company wants to be the first to produce “electric cars that people can afford at a profit.” Implied was the fact that GM and its competitors aren’t making a profit on EVs today.

Even Tesla, Inc. – which sells big, expensive EVs – is still struggling with the bottom line. Recently released numbers showed that Tesla lost $330 million in the first quarter of 2017. Those losses were 17% more than the first quarter of last year. [This despite 1st quarter revenue more than doubling - SiG]

No one was ever more forthright about this matter than Sergio Marchionne, the refreshingly honest chief executive of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Talking about his company’s all-electric Fiat 500e in 2014, he said , “I hope you don’t buy it because every time I sell one it costs me $14,000.”
There is talk in the industry that Washington is going to cut the tax credits for electric cars, predictably leading to talk that the sky is falling.  Perhaps it will for electric car makers.  The electric car fanboys complain that gasoline powered cars also get taxpayer subsidies, but apparently never suggest that all such subsidies, including those for solar, windmills and other fantasy-based uses be halted.  I've only seen advocates of internal combustion engines utter such heresies.

Is Volkswagen right in thinking that small, battery-driven EVs won't be cost competitive until 2030?  I'd trust the industry before I'd trust people who don't actually do anything, like think tanks or the EPA.  As Charles Murray put it,
You can’t ask consumers to give up a feature they already have, and then tell them they have to pay more for it. 

Unless, of course, you want to lose money.
The kinda-sporty Fiat 500E.  Besides costing Fiat Chrysler $14,000 if you buy one, if you're a big guy, you could probably fit it in a coat pocket.


  1. I saw the video of the new Nurburgring record,set by an electric car. Although awesome (terrifying actually), my question was how many laps could it do at that speed on one charge?
    TPTB like electric vehicles because the limited range forces use of mass transit for longer trips, which enables control of movement. If manufacturers can sell the performance aspect and give people enough range to matter without subsidies they'll sell electric cars, but I don't foresee being able to run 500 miles, refuel in less than 5 minutes and run another 500 miles at 70 mph.

  2. I'm annoyed at the income re-distribution necessary to induce auto makers to build electric cars. I think that hydrogen fuel cells may be the way forward, but you don't hear much of that talk anymore. Maybe they're too unstable? They clearly don't pollute the way that massive batteries do when you send them off to the battery graveyard. The by-product is water.

    1. I think the big problem with Hydrogen cars is the infrastructure. They can refuel fairly quickly - more like a gas engine than a battery - but there's no built-up infrastructure for hydrogen filling stations. Sure there are some, but you're not going to find one in any town on a cross country drive.

      Don't forget electric cars (EVs) demand infrastructure too, it's just that it's kind of invisible. People think they can just plug it in, but with the way AC power is distributed, a small number of EVs will overload a neighborhood's power distribution. Widespread use of EVs would require more electric generation, heavier duty transformers and more.

  3. Last time we were in Colorado, I saw a Nissan Leaf (100% electric) with a "Powered By The WIND!" sticker on the back.

    While the Northern Colorado / Southern Wyoming area does have a lot (relatively speaking) of wind power generation, the driver of that car was 100% delusional if they think ALL of the electricity to charge that vehicle up comes from the wind.

    And of course, the next big thing in battery capacity remains stuck at "Any Day Now!"....

  4. In the late 90's, the EV1, Electric S-10, Electric Ranger, and a few others had ranges of 300+ miles on lead acid batteries. I understand wanting batteries to be light and powerful, but they can be heavy and powerful and still do the job - to me, the insistence on the latest and greatest technology, especially batteries, holds the industry back.
    And no, this won't solve the issue with recharge times, but it will lower the price and get rid of the possibility of really nasty fires.

  5. Where on Earth did you hear the EV1 had a 300 mile range??

    I knew two people that drove them, both DirecTV employees while I worked there.

    The first guy had a "GEN 1" car, and was lucky to get 65 miles out of it.

    The second guy had a "GEN 2" car with NiMH batteries, and could *maybe* squeak 85 miles out of it.

  6. I stand corrected; according to GM specs, it was 140. Actual range depended not only on usage, but also on which version of the car it was; there were 3 different battery packs used, ranging from 14 kWh to 26kWh.
    This car came out 20 years ago - despite all of the hype, investment, government sponsorship, etc, electric vehicles still have pretty much the same effective range; this tells me that the current approach/ design philosophy has hit some kind of fundamental limit and range is unlikely to increase without a different approach.

    1. If electric cars don't predate the IC engine, it's not by much. Electric buggies go back to the 1800s, so they've been around over a century.

      The fundamental limit is energy density, briefly mentioned in the piece itself: Watt*Hours/weight. A lead acid battery has good energy, but is heavy; it has low energy density. Lithium batteries are better at energy density, but have some unfortunate issues, like catching fire. Gasoline or diesel have great energy density, but also catch fire. Another way of saying "catching fire" is "readily gives up the energy it has stored". If we think of optimizing energy density instead of making a given technology, a hybrid might end up being the best answer.

    2. It does better than either IC or pure electric in certain conditions, but hybrids do it at the cost of a more expensive system; it takes lots of use in the right kind of city driving for a hybrid to recoup the extra cost.
      I'd like to know what changed that we no longer have small highly efficient vehicles like the Geo Metro which had gas mileage as good or better than modern hybrids in a reasonable priced easy to maintain platform.

    3. Cars like the Geo no longer meet the crash standards.

      When I see people driving a "Smart" car, I cringe. Looking at the EPA test results, a Honda Fit gets equal or better mileage, and is far more crash-worthy

      Another thing that killed off "easy to maintain" cars like the Geo are the increasingly tight emissions standards. It requires fuel injection, three-way catalysts, and extensive electronic engine controls, all of which raise the cost.

      And then you have consumers who demand air conditioning, good sound systems, power windows and door locks, GPS navigation systems, and numerous other equipment that increase the weight and cost of the vehicle.

      Sure, the car companies could build a stripped-down, lightweight vehicle that met all the relevant standards, but it wouldn't sell very well....

  7. Oh, and neither gas nor diesel really catches fire very easily except in very extraordinary situations.
    While batteries have made strides in safety, they aren't any better than gas or diesel, just different. Hybrids and electric vehicles are not supposed to be parked in parking garages due to the possibility of catching fire while parked and unattended; the smoke can reach toxic levels in confined spaces and theoretically the fire could get hot enough to burn through the floor to the level below.

  8. Tiny little Fiats are great. I had two of them. One for each foot!