Will Electric Cars Ever Be Practical?

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You’re not going to see any electric 18 wheelers or FedEx trucks but electrics are ideal for the consumer.

 

I love electric cars.  I really do.  They seem to be the ideal solution to many transportation issues.  You’re not going to see any electric 18 wheelers or FedEx trucks but electrics are ideal for the consumer. They are relatively simple, silent and clean.  But they are still fraught with a batch of problems that keep them from going main stream.  And these are the same problems that have been keeping electric cars from the masses since they were first introduced in the early 1900s.  When will these problems be solved, if ever?

Electric cars, not including hybrids, make up less than 1% of the automotive market.  Why?  Because even the best electric vehicles still have a short range, long recharge time, a dearth of recharging infrastructure and high prices.  The typical gasoline automobile has a range of 300 to 400 miles before a refill is needed.  A typical electric vehicle has a range of less than 100 miles.  Some manufacturers are closing in on 200 miles but at a very high price.  This one limitation keeps most people from buying an electric car.  Running out of gas, or energy in this case, is a giant pain in the rear, inconvenient and usually expensive.  While running out of fuel still happens, such an event is much less of a problem with a gasoline vehicle.  For short commutes an all electric may be OK but for the typical user, more range is needed for everyday utility and comfort level.

Recharge time is also an issue.  Most electric vehicle manufacturers assume you will recharge overnight.  That is the best way, of course, since it takes 3 to 12 hours for a full recharge.  But while you are on the road, even if you can find a charging station nearby, who wants to wait 3 or 4 hours for the recharge?  With a gasoline car you can refill in ten minutes or so and be on your way.

But that’s not all.  What if you need to charge while on the road?  There are a few recharge stations in some cities but not enough.  The few that I have seen are usually in use and in the middle of a 4 hour recharge.  How inconvenient.  To be practical, electrical vehicles need a system of recharge stations.  In fact, a whole infrastructure is needed if electric vehicles are really going to replace gasoline vehicles in a major way. 

Finally, cost is an issue.  Electric cars are still expensive.  Even the cheapest are in the $30K to $40K range and over $100K for a Tesla.  Low volume and high battery costs are the reason.  And don’t forget the couple of thousand dollars you will need to spend for your home 240 V recharging station.  And the increase in your electric bill.  One announced hope is that the prices of the Tesla cars may decrease if Tesla is successful in building the massive battery plant it is said to be contemplating.  But that is years away.

What’s the solution?  A better battery.  One that can hold more charge per density and cost less.  We have all been waiting for that battery for years.  The energy of a Sears Diehard in an AA size at AA prices would be nice.  Battery chemistry just does not change as fast as other technologies.  Progress is being made but it is at a geological pace instead of the Moore’s law pace of semiconductors we are used to.  Fuel cells have not made much progress either and as for the potential of a hydrogen-based refueling infrastructure, forget that.  Maybe one of these days we will see solar panels on cars for recharging.  Or some such breakthrough.

In the meantime, I believe electric cars will remain a niche for those who can live with the disadvantages and want to be “green”.  For the rest of you, stay comfortable with your gasoline cars.  If you want an electric, a hybrid is the way to go.

Discuss this Blog Entry 14

on Aug 18, 2014

A few corrections:

1) While electric might not work for 18 wheel trucks, it works great for FedEx delivery trucks. The USPS was actually planning on converting their entire fleet to electric until congress made them pay off 75 years of retirement in advanced.

2) The biggest reason why electric cars make up such a small market today is because the modern electric car is too new. The first modern mass produced pure electric cars only came to be in the model year 2011. Since then they have grew at a pace faster than hybrids and adoption of the automobile. Now obviously the initial high cost and low range was not exactly helping them.

3) If your goal is to get a city low range electric car, the iMeiv is actually available for 22,995$ before tax credits or 15,495$ after tax credits.(12,995$ in california). If you need 200 miles range then the Tesla Model S starts at 70k perfor tax credits. Come 2017, The Tesla Model III will offer 200+ miles range for 35k before tax credit.

4) You don't need to spend thousands of dollars on a 240v recharge station. A recharge station costs a few hundred bucks, you can also just use a NEMA adapter and plug it into a standard 240V NEMA plug.

5) Is the increase in the electric bill a joke? A gallon of gasoline averages about 3.60$, electricity average is about 0.11 per kwh, so that is 32.72~ kwh per 1 gallon of gasoline. You can generally go 3-5 miles on an EV on 1 kwh giving you about ~100 MPGe. Factor in cheaper offpeak rates and your electricity bill can be as low as 4-10X cheaper than your gasoline bill.

6) There is a Moore's law for batteries, it just isn't as fast as Moore's law.

7) Tesla is building out superchargers which recharge the car to 50% in 20 minutes. They plan to cover 98% of US population by end of 2015.

8) solar panels on top of a car can at best maybe keep the car cool, the amount of energy you get is too insignificant. You are better off using wireless charging in roads and using solar to generate electricity. (There is not enough surface area on a car for solar to work out unless maybe you use solar paint)

I personally see by 2022, most new cars sold will be BEV/PHEV/Hybrid and by 2035, most cars on the road will be BEVs.

on Aug 19, 2014

"Recharge time is also an issue... With a gasoline car you can refill in ten minutes or so and be on your way."

If batteries could be standardised in some way, in terms of form and size, in a modular format, for example, refill could be instantaneous. Just exchange the battery at the "refilling station."

on Aug 20, 2014

It really would help to get your facts correct. Yes, the current Tesla model is expensive, but NO it does not cost "over $100k". There really is no excuse for being wrong by 20%.

By the way, are you aware of Tesla's "Supercharger"? Charge every 200 miles or so, in half an hour (just enough time for a coffee break). You can drive coast to coast that way, they are not just "in some cities".

On battery swap: Tesla has demonstrated that already. It isn't rolled out yet, but as soon as they do, all the tens of thousands of cars they have already shipped will be able to use that, and "fill up" faster than an internal combustion car.

on Aug 20, 2014

I bought a Leaf 3 months ago and find it's a perfect commuter car. Charge at night on 110 VAC only and ready to go the next day. A typical day's travel is 30-60 miles, easily handled. It's very quiet and has plenty of acceleration when needed. We have a Prius to use for longer trips - most families have a second car. This is the best car I have ever owned!

on Aug 20, 2014

This article is pretty high on the baloney meter, better classed as fiction. I am surprised the author can write for an engineering magazine.

on Aug 20, 2014

This article is pretty high on the baloney meter, better classed as fiction. I am surprised the author can write for an engineering magazine.

on Aug 20, 2014

New battery non-chemical charges up fast, accepts solar input directly through a tracking collector no replacement necessary for years, lightweight and can go 400 miles on a charge.

on Aug 20, 2014

First, let's stop calling electric cars clean. What was the fossil fuel used to generate the electricity to charge the battery?

Second, the miniscule success of electric cars is in spite of massive taxpayer subsidies. California law also forces major transfers of wealth to electric car makers. Tesla, for example, sells zero-emission credits to GM and others adding up to $35,000 per vehicle. You can read the details here: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB1000142405270230365020457937680110...

on Aug 20, 2014

Agreed. Environmentalists are some of the most dishonest people I know, and I don't think in many cases they even mean to be. They are just so focused on one aspect that they miss the big picture. In the case of the electric car, there are advantages in that it moves pollution away from the roads (and maybe urban areas entirely) and is quiet. Regenerative braking improves efficiency, which (at least within the car itself) is already higher than a gasoline (or diesel) engine. However, it doesn't necessarily eliminate pollution. The electricity has to come from somewhere are we are nowhere near zero pollution electrical generation. Fuels cells are also a niche market. What fuel? You can extract hydrogen from hydrocarbons, but at some cost as well as ignoring the energy in the carbon atoms and increasing the carbon footprint--I don't call that clean or energy efficient. Yes, you can disassociate water, but that takes more energy than it yields (from electricity) so isn't really better than a battery. Also the hydrogen must be stored (it can't be liquified, only stored under high pressure). It makes metal brittle, making safe storage difficult, and the small molecule can "leak" through many storage container materials, so putting a hydrogen tank in a vehicle isn't a real obvious solution. Its just more "one perspective" tunnel vision causing people to make less than optimum choices.

on Aug 20, 2014

The real way to save money is to give your existing vehicle a natural gas conversion, either to nat gas only or to a dual-fuel vehicle, or trade it in on one. (The only real drawback is you lose a decent amount of trunk space if you want tanks that will give you range equivalent to a gasoline vehicle.) This will work quite well in 49 states, the exception being the one I live in (California) where there are virtually no models for which there are engine conversions approved by the state authorities (CARB and Cal EPA) because of the absurdly anti-carbon-based fuels and anti-climate-change posture taken by the "greenies" in Sacramento. Take a look at this map to see where this fuel is offered for sale and what the price of a nat gas gallon-gas-equivalent (GGE) is in your area:

http://www.cngprices.com/station_map.php

on Aug 20, 2014

Thanks for the share, I will purchasing a electric car next year and hope to start a project to better the design. I watching what Tesla and others are doing along with battery swapping and induction charging. Once I get rolling I'll keep posting.

www.linked.com/in/carlyleadams

on Aug 20, 2014

Fedex has been operating electric delivery trucks in Europe since 2010, in the U.S. since 2012:

http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-04-05/fedexs-electric-vehicle-...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDHJCM-P9k0

The electric FEDEX trucks cost 3 times more, but operation and maintenance are less than 1/3 that of the petrol trucks per year.

The electric trucks make sense.
It's wasteful to start and stop a diesel engine a hundred times a day.
The noise disturbs customers, too.

For cars, the situation is better.
With government incentives, the up front cost is really about the same. The operation cost is less than 1/3. There is no "routine" maintenance. When you're commuting, you never need to drive out of your way to fuel the vehicle.

Most of us drive < 70 miles/day, which is doable for the current crop of electrics. The real problem is the lack of charging infrastructure.

People just don't realize how pervasive (and invasive) the current petroleum delivery system is. Each "station" takes up much of a city block and includes huge underground tanks for storing fuel. Every 20 years or so, all these must be dug up and replaced.

Compare that infrastructure to having numerous parking spaces equipped with charging stations. No new land is occupied. No underground storage of toxic fuel. Less fire/explosion hazard.

on Aug 21, 2014

You didn't fight fair or truthful so neither am I. You speak like a luddite that lives on another planet.

"OK I admit it. I do not have a tablet."
http://electronicdesign.com/blog/have-you-bought-tablet-yet

"I remember my grandparent’s 78 rpm records and had 45s growing up and 33-1/3 vinyls later. I also had an 8-track player in my car."

"Many of you wrote to say that thanks to a ruling by the FCC in 2012, the HOA rules cannot be enforced and that outdoor TV antennas can be used. Thanks to those of you who wrote with that input."
http://electronicdesign.com/blog/end-near-cds-dvds-and-mp3-files

"Power line communications (PLC) is the technology that uses the ac power line as the medium for the transmission of digital data. It has been around for decades and is now a highly developed wired communications alternative. I have not heard much about it lately and wondered what was happening."
http://electronicdesign.com/blog/whatever-happened-power-line-communicat...

"I have always been of the opinion that even if you can do something technologically doesn’t mean that you should."
http://electronicdesign.com/blog/how-connect-anything-internet

"Maybe I am just too used to the traditional left to right signal flow schematics."
http://electronicdesign.com/blog/make-more-electronics-diy-business-booming

"Google’s driverless cars are in the news again...I cannot imagine what people will do with such a thing. It won’t even work as a golf cart. What a totally dumb idea."
http://electronicdesign.com/blog/do-you-really-want-driverless-car

It's clear to me you should stay away from writing about cutting edge products. Your lack of knowledge or insincerity regarding electric cars is a case in point. I've owned a 2013 Nissan Leaf for 6 months now and you article reads like a piece from an oil company shill or an 8th grade critique of the electric movement.

My car travels 82 miles on a charge. How many days do you or your readers drive more then 82 miles? Studies have shown that the Leaf will meet over 90% of the average driver's needs. What do I do when I encounter a drive that qualifies for the 10%? Like most Americans I own a second car that happens to be paid off. In reality, I may sell it and just rent a car which saves me the depreciation of longer trips. In Oregon, we just announced the installation of the last quick charge station linking the entire coastline with easily accessible charging option. That's after we completed the same infrastructure for the entire length of interstate 5 from the California border to Washington state. This means that I can attain an 85% charge in 20 minutes just about anywhere I want to go. What do I pay for almost all of my charging? It's free at the local Nissan dealership and I pay $20 per month for limitless charging at the AV network that covers much of the state. I haven't serviced the car in 6 months because it doesn't need it and haven't bought a tank of gas since I've owned it. With federal subsidies, the lease price was about $20,000. For most ICE owners, the car is practically free after factoring in the cost of gas, oil changes, and other maintenance costs.

Is it perfect? Is it for everyone? No. If you live in the stone age or a state without commitment to moving forward, it is an unlikely choice. For most drivers in many states, it's a perfect option. If you are waiting for a car that has no impact on the environment, you may be waiting a long time and continuing your same old 8 track ways by increasing pollution, continuing the reliance on middle eastern oil, and generally feeling smug about any type of change.

Before you start to type your response, go test drive one and ask owners about their experience instead of shooting from the hip. You might even find a way to slip in an 8 track system and relive the past. For many of us, it's time to move forward.

on Aug 22, 2014

Mr. Frenzel, you say you “really love electric cars,” you “really do.” Maybe so, but you have an odd way of showing it. You repeat the same old shortcomings of electric cars (EVs) that everyone has always known about, some of which are obsolete or fading away. Today’s EVs aren’t perfect. What gasoline car is? A car with less than 100 miles range will serve the needs of something like “only” 80% of the population. Sure, occasionally people need to go farther, but many households that have more than one vehicle would not take a second, errand car on trips anyway. Do that many people really need as much range as they think?

There are still arguably only three plug-in electric cars on the market in the U.S. Let’s examine them one at a time against your piece. Apologies for any corrections I’ve noted that other commenters have already noted.

You write that the cheapest EV is at least $30K, but the Nissan LEAF starts at less than $30K and a federal tax credit reduces that to effectively $22.5K. Some states have other incentives that reduce the cost further. The LEAF’s fuel costs less than half that of the most fuel efficient gasoline or diesel car available and its maintenance is almost nonexistent. It has premium car noise, vibration, and harshness (i.e., nearly none emitted). That should count for something! If the batteries can be proven to be rugged enough, would it still be such an expensive car to own when you take all of this into consideration?

Next up is the Chevy Volt. It has none of the shortcomings you list other than price (no range limitation!), and it too can be obtained for $7500 less than its $35K starting price. There are plenty of successful cars on the market for over $30K, so what is your objection to the Volt competing with them? That leaves us with…

…the Tesla Model S, which does not cost “over $100K.” It starts at about $70K minus $7500 federal credit, or $62.5K net. If you had done research for your piece you would also have learned that Tesla has announced a model that’s only three years away and should cost under $40K and get approximately 200 miles of range per charge. All Teslas can charge for free for the life of the car and they do so in about a half an hour per charge. By the time this more mainstream Tesla is on the market, many interstate routes will be lined with this “supercharger” coverage.

The gist of your piece, Mr. Frenzel, is that EVs don’t appear to be improving. It sure sounds to me like things are better than you say and getting better all the time.

And there are other problems with your piece. Batteries are perhaps not improving at Moore’s Law pace, but they are much closer to that than a “geological” pace. According to the following link, battery costs have dropped 50% since 2010.
http://energy.gov/eere/vehicles/ev-everywhere-grand-challenge-does-10-ye...
And if battery range reaches the likely limit anyone would need to drive in a day, maybe 400 miles, does charging time really matter, as long as it’s not more than overnight?

More problems: Solar panels on cars for recharging is a joke that would never make practical sense. 240V home chargers can cost $500 or less, not “a couple of thousand” dollars. You even state that there will be an “increase in your utility bill,” but you fail to state that this small utility bill increase will completely replace the high gasoline bills that accompany normal cars. Why do you not mention the EV’s freedom from buying expensive gasoline, while you highlight an extra expense? Doesn't sound like an EV lover.

Finally, you state that EVs will be a niche for those who want to be “green.” It’s not just about desire, though. It’s also about a "tragedy of the commons" need. If you have children, you may care about the legacy of environmental destruction we have left for them. Do we have a chance to stop our endless plundering and emissions of 40 billion tons of excess CO2 per year, but are just too bothered by the perceived nuisance that in order to curb our destruction of the planet, we’d get only 50 miles of clean driving per charge? In what rosy scenario do you think your grandkids will have it better than this?

With EV lovers like you, EV haters have little to worry themselves.

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Lou Frenzel

Lou Frenzel is the Communications Technology Editor for Electronic Design Magazine where he writes articles, columns, blogs, technology reports, and online material on the wireless, communications...
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