What About The Electric Car Buzz?

Recently there has been a lot of buzz surrounding electric cars, like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf.  Electric cars have been idolized as the cars of the future, the perfect balance of usefulness and cleanliness.  The interesting thing about the electric car though, is that it has been around since the beginning of the automobile.  Electric cars aren’t anything new and breathtaking; the only thing that could be new or breathtaking about an electric car could be some of the technological advancements that are being put to use.

The electric car has been competing with the combustion engine since the beginning. Initially the electric car had a decent market share but as the combustion engine advanced and oil prices lowered, so did the number of electric cars.  The combustion engine has been able to offer everything that consumer’s desire:

  • Long range
  • Convenience
  • Speed
  • Power
  • Affordability
  • Durability

Some of the above bullet points might be debatable, but if you look at the overall history of the combustion engine I think all of these items hold true.  The combustion engine is not without negatives though.  Some of the more widely known are:

  • Pollution
  • Low efficiencies (i.e., fuel economy, energy efficiency, heat, etc…)
  • Wear and tear (i.e., spark plugs, cylinders, etc…)

Overall the combustion engine has and continues to offer many positives that are cheaper and better than anything else currently available.

What is it about the electric car that brings so much excitement and hope?

The electric car has enormous potential, but the problem is that it has a ways to go before that potential can be achieved.  Some of the known potentials of the electric car include things like: being clean, reducing oil usage and getting its energy from renewable sources.  Some of the biggest challenges for the electric car are, battery longevity and reliability, energy consumed to manufacture and dispose of vehicle components, and the integrity of the electric grid.

Fundamentally the electric car hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years, but there are some advancements in battery technology, energy conservation and regeneration that are helping to improve their viability.  In my opinion one of the single most exciting things about the electric car is that the electric motor can achieve 90% energy conversion efficiencies.  This number is amazing when compared to a typical internal combustion engine, which has efficiencies of about 15-20%.  This type of efficiency gain could drastically reduce the overall energy usage of a vehicle.

What sort of drawback does the electric car have?

Up to this point, electric cars have only used batteries as a means to store energy (besides a few experimental vehicles using other storage methods).  Your typical lithium-ion battery has a charge/discharge efficiency rating of roughly 80-90%, which makes the battery a decent storage medium for vehicle applications.  While there have been some improvements in battery technology over the years, batteries still have their share of problems like weight, susceptibility to climate change, durability and expense.  Many of these problems we have personally experienced in our daily lives in devices like cell phones and laptops.

The batteries in the Chevy Volt for example, are estimated to last up to 100,000 miles or 10 years. At which point the cost to replace the battery is estimated to be in the $2,000-$3,000 range, although current costs are actually around $10,000.  This seems unfeasible for typical consumers, not to mention the complete waste of energy and resources used for manufacturing and disposing of the battery.

Conclusion

While the electric car has the potential to be something really great, the battery is a bit of drawback at this point.  Hopefully researchers can continue to improve battery performance or develop other technologies to use as the storage medium instead.  Another key very important thing to consider is where the electricity to charge these electric cars comes from.  Again the electric seems ideal but once you consider the big picture it is far from ideal…at least at this point.

Tell me what you think:
Can the electric grid handle large numbers of electric cars?
Do you think electric vehicles have the potential to overtake the combustion engine?

Sources:

The Wall Street Journal – The Long Road:Electric Vehicles

Wikipedia – Lithium-ion battery

Fueleconomy.gov – Advanced Technologies & Energy Efficiency

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