JDH: Opinion Piece on why we should look to someone other than the Auto Industry to produce an all electric vehicle

jdh2550_1's picture

This opinion piece was published in the Ann Arbor News in July. When it was published I realized quite how long it was (must have been a slow news day!). It ran in the Sunday edition with a large artist sketch of a Zap-X and the title "Idea for the Billionaires". Gosh, darn it - I admit it - this one was good for the ego.

I decided to write it after coming to my own realization that expecting the Auto Industry to solve this problem is impractical. IMO, history demonstrates that they are unwilling to do so and even if we could "force them" via legislation we would get a crappy job (if there heart isn't in it then what would you expect?) I was also uncomfortable with the plug-in hybrid and especially with the bio-fuels hype with most of the auto industry latching on to one or both of these convenient, yet flawed, "silver bullets".

At the time this was published I wasn't using an EV myself. Whoops. I felt distinctly uncomfortable about that and so I decided to bring forward my EV plans and started looking for something I could do today. After considering a self-conversion and buying someone else's conversion I came across the XM-2000. I've been happy ever since... ;-)

Title: Idea for the Billionaires

It seems that at last battery electric vehicles are about to have their time in the sun. In truth they are an old technology waking up from a long slumber. Did you know that around 1912 or so there were more electric cars sold than gasoline engined ones? How times have changed! However, there now seems to be a glimmer of hope.

Tesla Motors producers of the much talked about one hundred thousand dollar roadster are several steps closer to delivering their 2007 model year car to 400 customers who have already paid their hefty deposits. The company claims a zero to sixty time of less than 4 seconds and a 200 mile range. The company also claims that they are on track to sell 1,000 roadsters in 2008. Their publicized strategy is to start at the high end and work their way down into a mid range vehicle - a 4 door sedan codenamed Whitestar.

Zap! (whose company name stands for Zero Air Pollution) is branching into the "big leagues". This California company currently sells what can be best described as "funky" neighborhood electric vehicles (NEV). However they are currently publicizing the Zap X - a 5+2 passenger cross over vehicle, with the latest in-wheel electric motors it boasts a projected top speed of 155mph and a 0 to 60 time of 4.8 seconds. Numbers to rival the Tesla but with room for the family. However, they top the Tesla with a claim of a 350 mile range and a 10-minute recharge time. Although I can't find the reference - I believe they hope for a $60,000 price tag. All those numbers seem too good to be true - and like you I would probably dismiss them. However, the company is working with Lotus Engineering (the famous British automotive legend) - the same folks that worked with Tesla Motors. Furthermore the in-wheel electric motors have already been incorporated into a Mini (creating a claimed 600+hp!!). Time will tell. They expect to deliver it about the same time that Chevy deliver the Volt.

Numerous companies are announcing advancements in battery and quick-charging technologies. There's even a new Automotive X Prize - an equivalent to the Space X Prize from a few years back. It offers a multi-million dollar cash prize for the winning designs. So, there are certainly some glimmers of hope.

My belief is that a sweet spot for mass sales is 100/80/20. Working backwards that's $20,000 for a car that does 80mph (and accelerates there in around 10 seconds) and has a range of 100 miles. The car should be similar in capabilities and features to a mid-size gas car. Sure, a 200 mile range would be better - but I'm not sure my target price supports that. Furthermore - if someone actually tried to educate and market to car buyers effectively then many would see that a 100 mile range is sufficient for 95% of their needs. Heck, the way car companies throw around promotional dollars to increase sales they could easily throw in 2 or more weeks of free car rental a year for those longer trips.

Of course the car companies will never do that. I've come to the conclusion that we'd be crazy to ask them to. A pure battery electric vehicle (BEV) is a disruptive technology - one that has the potential to turn the traditional automobile industry on its head. Think about it - a BEV is simpler, requires less maintenance, no gas and will last far longer than a gasoline equivalent. All these things mean less money for the automobile and oil industries. Why on earth would they embrace that change? It's more expedient for them to lobby to protect their position. They will spread FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) - seeking to confuse and to scare the public. Already the lobbyists are first talking about the "infeasability" of the proposed CAFE standard increases only to replace that argument (which made them sound kind of lame!) with "possible reduction in safety". This is FUD at it's very best - Jane Doe to John Doe: "Well, I sure like my big SUV it makes me feel safe - I hear those newer more efficient cars are so light that they're not safe". John replies: "Right, the car industry says it's not even feasible". Of course the lobbyists can point to weasle words in their statements or later quietly retract them altogether. However the damage is done - the perception is introduced (or rather reinforced - they've been peddling these lines for a long time now!).

What about hybrids, bio-fuels, fuel-cells and hydrogen? Aren't they the way of the future? Aren't the car companies investing in those? Yes, and guess what - most of them are flawed. Hybrids increase fuel economy but they still contain complex, costly and inefficient internal combustion engines. Did you know that a gas engine is only about 25 to 35 percent efficient? To put it another way for every $4 of gas you put in the tank only $1 of it get turns into power for the wheels - the other $3 just gets turned into wasted heat. In my opinion bio-fuels are the biggest scam out there - a good idea on the small scale it just doesn't cut it for the US vehicle fleet. The amount of corn (or other crop) that would need to be grown to fuel cars would need to cover about 2/3rds of the US. The reason it gets so much support is twofold - the agriculture industry loves it and the car industry barely has to make any changes to make their engine designs "flex-fuel" friendly. Fuel-cells and Hydrogen are certainly new technologies that bear promise - but they are years, if not decades, away from production readiness whereas "good enough" batteries already exist today. Furthermore the amount of energy it takes to produce Hydrogen makes it less efficient than a battery electric vehicle.

Despite the lobbyists and the FUD I'm still hopeful that the all electric vehicle will blossom. There are companies with money and know-how in the game. But still I'm an impatient optimist and I can't afford a $60,000 automobile! So, I propose we ask Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to divert some of the funds of the Gates Foundation to form an electric car company. Make it privately held by the Foundation so that it won't suffer from the demands of Wall Street analysts and talking heads (and Bill and Melinda can keep the profits for their very noble fight against common diseases). Be warned though, they will need to fund it with big money - about a billion should do it. They can also use their clout to lobby for some real tax breaks (how come you can get around $20,000 of tax break on a Hummer but the $3,000 break on the Prius is no more because they've already "sold too many"?). Gates is apparently a car guy (and there's a famous story about how he said if the car industry progressed at the rate of the computer industry we'd already be at 100 miles per gallon). So let's let him and Buffet pick the best of the best to design, develop, produce, market and sell. I also hear that Bill Ford is a frustrated environmentalist - held back by his board. Perhaps a Bold Move (Ford's recent advertizing slogan) would be for Bill to join such a venture - you can't argue that cars aren't in his blood! With a winning team they can produce that 100/80/20 car and they can take profits and leadership away from Toyota and help reduce our oil dependency.

So, Bill, Warren and Bill - if you happen to be reading - what do you say? Feel free to drop me a line I've plenty more ideas for you all... ;-)

Since writing this I've been contacted several times by Bill, Warren and Bill - I've had to tell them to quit bugging me... ;-)

Also, since writing this I've found some references to certain bio-fuel crops that can be grown in the marginal agricultural land in poorer countries. That offsets some of my concern about bio-fuel. IMO, this makes bio-fuel a possible stop gap approach rather than an out and out boondoggle for the giant Agri businesses...

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ArcticFox's picture

I've always wanted to start a sugarcane ethanol and biodiesel business down in Mexico. I'd have the ethanol from Mexico piped up to Texas for purchase and would have US WVO piped down to MX for converting into Biodiesel for the locals.

The idea never panned out.

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borgbike's picture

Well written, just like your EV1 editorial. It's encouraging to see that these made it into a Michigan newspaper. Too bad it wasn't in the Detroit Free Press. ;-)

Thanks for sharing,

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