Sunday, July 20, 2008

More on Electric Cars and Plug-in Hybrids

From Joe Nocera's column in yesterday's New York Times (Talking Business: "Costly Toys, or a New Era for Drivers?").

In the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” — about the EV1, an all-electric car General Motors began making in 1996 and killed once and for all in 2003 — the filmmakers posit the theory that the vehicle was done in by a grand conspiracy involving the oil industry, the Bush administration and the car industry. But that’s not what happened. Gas was cheap when the EV1 was on the market; auto buyers preferred S.U.V.’s. And the technology didn’t exist to allow the EV1 to become a viable mass-market automobile. Among its flaws, the EV1 used a nickel metal hydride battery that couldn’t get more than 75 miles before needing a charge.

“My daily commute was 37 miles one way,” wrote a man named Michael Posner on a Web site called The Truth About Cars, who drove an EV1 for several weeks back in 1997. “Every trip was loaded with drama,” he added. “If I went to lunch, I gave up a few precious miles. That could mean disaster.” At General Motors, they took to calling this problem “range anxiety.” Is it any wonder the car didn’t catch on?

So far so good, although from reading the rest of the column, I get the sense that Joe Nocera doesn't seem to actually understand how the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt works (it doesn't "switch back" to electric; it only runs on electric -- the gas motor is just there to recharge the battery). The salient point that he gets right is that it has mainly been technological challenges (primarily with the batteries), and not a grand conspiracy, that has delayed the mass-market introduction of electric cars. Nocera concludes by doubting the ability of Tesla Motors to field an all-electric mass-market sedan (the company's next project after the Roadster), and claims that GM's Chevy Volt is the "the one to root for".

For a more cynical take on the Chevy Volt, check out Holman Jenkins's column in the Wall Street Journal from earlier this month, Business World: "What is GM Thinking?". From that column:

GM executives are not nuts. They justify the costs and risks of the Volt as a way of changing GM's image in the minds of consumers and politicians. To commit a pun, the Volt is GM's vehicle for making a bailout of GM politically acceptable.

Incidentally, the challenges of fielding viable plug-in hybrids described in both columns are consistent with what I wrote in this post, "Why Oil Prices will likely be Higher in 5 Years -- but not necessary in 10 or 15".

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