I hear a lot about electric cars. There’s the Tesla Roadster already, little “neighborhood electric vehicles,” and a lot of “soons,” like Aptera. With those in mind, why even write a transit blog? What’s the point, technology is advancing so fast, we’re all going to have cheap electric sports cars as they’re mass produced, right?
Simply put: I doubt it.
I’m not going to get into the urban planning issues here, and I’ll just point out quickly that we aren’t presented with anything like the full costs of cars today: in everything from the real estate costs of the land reserved for parking, to the funding of our highways (and most of it wasn’t gas taxes, something we’ll write more about later), to the innumerable environmental and health costs.
What I’m interested in is helping dispel the idea that affordable electric cars are around the corner. I’ll keep it short.
People are often surprised by the fact that electric cars actually came before internal combustion engine cars, and fared very well for some time. Electric motor technology hasn’t changed all that much since the 1890s – it’s more efficient now, lasts longer, but it’s basically the same. The lead-acid batteries used at the time were a quarter to half as efficient as the lithium-ion batteries we have now, and weighed more per unit of energy stored. But those cars weren’t often owned by individuals – they were essentially taxis, often literally horseless carriages, used by the relatively well-off. Batteries were swapped out during the day.
What the internal combustion engine brought to the scene was a way to get mobile energy storage for nearly two orders of magnitude lower cost. With the cost of batteries and electric motors far exceeding the cost of an internal combustion system, and the cost of fuel for a 200 mile range comparable to the cost of an electric charge for a 50 mile range, the price dropped and utility increased to the point where ownership increased dramatically.
A hundred years of development has gone into both sets of technologies. But something else has changed – the distance we expect our cars to go.
A Model T’s range was 200 miles. The only electric vehicle on the market that can travel that far (some 230-250 miles) is the Tesla Roadster, which costs $109,000, and has been estimated to cost more than that to produce. The battery itself is estimated at some $36,000 of that, with a rated lifetime of only 7 years or 100,000 miles. After 50,000 miles, the range drops below 200 miles per charge. While great for an early adopter, this is not exactly competitive with a $12,000 Kia Rio that can go 300-350 miles. Sure, they’re aimed at different markets – but the Tesla’s performance is largely due to some of the same design choices that give it range. Don’t be too excited about Tesla’s sedan – the projected $59,000 base price ($50,000 with a current tax credit) is not the ‘extended range’ model – it goes 150 miles on a charge, and is far outside affordability for most, if it can be built for that price at all.
The Tesla cars use lithium-ion batteries, the most energy-dense battery technology we’ve developed so far, to get this kind of range. Much of the energy taken to drag an electric car around is to move the batteries themselves – so every time you add batteries to increase your range, you also add weight to offset the increase. It takes very lightweight batteries to keep that added weight from eating the range increase – and those batteries aren’t getting much cheaper or much lighter – but they’re all we have. Lower range electric vehicles using lead-acid batteries simply don’t sell, with ranges of 50-70 miles. The Department of Energy agrees (PDF) – battery technology simply can’t support affordable electric vehicles, and won’t in the forseeable future without massive reductions in cost and increases in longevity and reliability.
Lithium is rapidly becoming scarce, as well – Bolivia has about half the world’s reserves, and isn’t too interested in having American companies strip it quickly of a natural resouce that will only become more valuable. With energy storage issues becoming more prominent over time, they only prosper through delay.
Please don’t think this is a magic bullet. While short range electric vehicles will likely be a great solution for eventual last-mile transportation, I see them today as mostly a way for people to cling to the idea that we can keep living a lifestyle that was only possible before we knew the impacts of burning fossil fuels.