Fancy, But Unaffordable

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.

123 Replies to “Editorial: Why Not Electric Cars?”

  1. A proliferation of cheap to operate, eco-friendly cars can only mean one thing: complete gridlock.

    Why carpool or take transit when there is no social or economic incentive to do so?

    No doubt, auto manufacturers will continue to fill this new generation of vehicles with a variety of gimmicks and gizmos to help drivers forget about their 2 hour commutes.

    Electric cars are a double edged sword: less emissions, yes. But I can see how these vehicles could lead to a new wave of suburban and exurban sprawl.

    1. The problem is, Andrew, electric cars are not as eco-friendly as proponents want us to believe. Lack of an internal combustion engine does not make a vehicle eco-friendly. Batteries are toxic to create, and considered toxic waste at end of life. Hybrids and electrics increase the number of batteries that we would consume. Don’t forget that generating electricity is not without environmental damage: we alter watersheds for hydroelectric power; coal-fired electic generating creates emissions; we know about the waste issues with nuclear power; windmill farms adversely impact bird migration patterns and survivability.

      I’m not against electric or hybrid vehicles, but we should really be hot be talking about them as if they are the eco-solution to the private car. We still end up with pavement everywhere. We still have the inefficiency of one or two passenger vehicles (with unused carrying capacity) clogging our roadways.

      I think that you’re partly correct, otherwise. As we see more and more of these vehicles, there will be no incentive to dump the car from the “ecological” standpoint. However, look around. There’s less and less space to build road capacity. Once we can’t add more roadway (widen freeways, put in new bypasses, etc.), and we have a system in place that will carry passengers quickly, efficiently and on convenient schedules, we’ll begin to see a shift to transit. The question is, though, will we be fed up with the traffic before the alternatives are in place?

  2. Yikes! $109,000 is a ripoff. I think i’ll give up my freedom (to drive a car) for mass transit.

    1. From the NPR story I heard, the Tesla Roadster is actually quite a sweet ride. I wouldn’t buy one even if I could afford it, but I’ll probably at least gawk in the window (they’re supposedly opening a Seattle showroom at 425 Westlake which is basically one block from UW SLU).

  3. There are still incentives to carpool with an electric car; parking cost, HOV access, reduced vehicle maintenance, perhaps the ability to do with one less car in a family, etc.

    The Telsa is a cool car and it goes really really fast. They’ve sold a bunch of them. Haven’t built them yet but they’ve sold them. One of the Chinese companies, forget which one – there’s a bunch of them, says it has an all electric it can bring to market in 1-2 years with a 200 mile range and cost less than $20k.

    Battery weight is less of an issue (smaller percentage of gross vehicle weight) with deliver vehicles. The Post Office is testing all electric vans built by Chrysler. Fleet vehicles like postal vans are the perfect place to go electric; fixed routes, lots of stop and go, able to recharge at night, etc.

    The other route is the swapable battery concept. Stations would offer “quick charge” if you weren’t in a hurry and didn’t need full range or there would be a drive through “car wash” type service that would swap in a fully charge battery pack. The system is being test marketed in Israel.

    Anyway, cars are going to be around in various forms for many many years to come. Nobody doing long term planning is expecting less cars on the road in 2040 than there are today. Transit is and will remain a compliment, not a replacement for the private automobile.

    1. Actually, Tesla’s built and delivered several hundred roadsters. I’ve even seen one at work.

      Lots of companies claim to have electrics they can bring to market in 2-3 years with a long range and a small price tag. They’ve been claiming that for ten years.

      The swappable battery is a great concept – that’s how the first electric cars worked – but it’s still a very high cost, which is the real issue.

      1. What if you bought the car and rented the battery? Sell a fairly inexpensive electric car with a lead-acid battery that has a range of 50 to 75 miles. Perfect for occasional local trips to places not well served by transit or to haul something. Then, when you need to make a longer trip, you rent a Lithium battery from the station, and if the trip is more than 200 miles, you swap it at another station.

        There’s the huge logistical problem of making the engine compatible with both types of batteries and I’m not sure how difficult the engineering for that would be.

        It might be a crazy idea, but I’d buy a car like that. Well, assuming I had money to buy a new car at all, and I couldn’t get a better deal from a car sharing service.

      2. Sure, it’s possible for smaller, shorter range vehicles, and I see that happening. But not long-range, not for 1000-pound batteries.

      3. Those are the markets Better Place is targeting. Israel and Denmark were first on the list. Israel’s three largest cities are within 100 miles of each other. Hawaii is another market that’s been mentioned. I really think the commercial delivery (local, not long haul) shows more promise than personal cars. Maintenance would have to be much lower. Fuel savings would be huge. High torque electric motors are ideal for moving heavy loads. Noise reduction would be another benefit. And if you’re driving a 20,000 pound truck a 1000 pound battery isn’t such a big deal.

        Long range I think there might be a fuel cell solution. Fuel cell technology has already come far enough that natural gas ones are being used in place of conventional back-up generators in some buildings. It’s likely CNG infrastructure will be built out over the next couple of decades as converting conventional internal combustion engines to natural gas is easy and offers a number of advantages we can realize today. There’s already an extensive pipeline network and as far as efficiency there’s nothing that can touch a pipeline for delivery. I have my doubts about the “hydrogen economy”.

      4. Whoa, whoa. If you have a 20,000 pound truck, you need ten times the batteries of a 2,000 pound car (batteryless weight) like the roadster. This is the disconnect that makes people think this stuff is feasible.

        And yeah, there’s no fuel cell anything. Batteries are better, and they’re nowhere near good enough.

      5. It doesn’t scale linearly. It takes 10X more juice to get the big truck rolling but the rolling resistance isn’t 10X over that of a car. You also recover more energy from the big truck when braking. Above 30 mph wind resistance becomes a big factor but that’s why I limited this to local delivery. Maybe I should refine that further to in city delivery. It’s the stop go driving where the zero rpm torque, regen braking, reduced point source pollution all are most effective. It will be interesting to see how the all electric vans Chrysler delivered to the Postal Service work out.

        Chrysler unveils new electric minivan for the US Postal Service

      6. Of course it doesn’t scale linearly, but a 1000 pound battery can’t power a 20000 pound truck – that’s where the american public is disconnected.

      7. Urban delivery vehicles are a good use for EVs and hybrids though. Low speed stop and go driving works well with 0 rpm torque and regenerative braking. Even if the battery pack ends up being big and heavy.

        In the UK electric milk delivery trucks powered by lead-acid batteries were common into the 60’s. Though I think the reason behind them was more one of noise than economy.

      8. I mentioned that in the post, too – I agree, last mile delivery will eventually be done via electic vehicles. But you aren’t going to have one in a garage, and that’s the belief and hope that keeps people buying cars today.

      9. No, that’s not really feasible. The 200 mile range the Tesla gets isn’t just due to the battery, it’s because on top of the $36,000 battery, it’s a superlight, carbon fiber, $70,000 vehicle that nobody can afford.

      10. Ben,
        With all due respect I believe the other technologies (other than the batteries) in the Tesla Roadster can be made more affordable. In particular it’s use of an extruded aluminum frame and carbon fiber body panels.

        The nice thing is a super-light vehicle is more efficient no matter what you are powering it with.

      11. They can’t be made 90% more affordable. It would take that kind of change to make the tesla a 45,000 dollar car, and even that’s nowhere near affordable for most.

      12. Actually, I think many of the technolgies in something like the Tesla can be made that much more affordable. Most of the super-light parts in the Tesla are built in low volumes which drives up the cost significantly especially since that also tends to be very labor intensive. Take something like the extruded aluminum floor pan. To make only a few hundred a year will cost much more than churning out say 150,000 per year.

      13. I was under the impression that they were using almost entirely standard Lotus Elise parts.

      14. From a FAQ I found:

        The Roadster shares less than 10% of its components with the Lotus Elise; shared components are confined to the windshield, air bags, tires, some dashboard parts, and suspension components.

        Even if it was just an electric Elise, Lotus isn’t exactly a high-volume manufacturer. If Tesla (or Lotus) was making 1,000,000 cars per year there would be some significant economies of scale to be had, even more so if capital was invested in highly automated manufacturing.

        Looking at the battery pack it appears Tesla is using laptop Li-ion cells. I don’t doubt a purpose built battery pack produced in volume would be somewhat more efficient and cost less.

      15. Indeed, but it wouldn’t be $20,000 for a car with a 300 mile range, which is what has to exist for the market to actually support electric vehicles.

        My point here is that while there will be improvements, believing those improvements will make electric cars replace fossil fuel cars is a *serious* problem that’s keeping us from making the changes we have to make.

  4. Even if electric vehicles exactly match more conventional vehicles at the same price point it does little to solve the problems created by cars.

    I suspect the future looks more like the Prius or Volt though, perhaps with turbo/supercharged constant speed diesel engines. Hybrids don’t need to carry around near the battery pack a full EV does as once you get outside the typical local round trip range the motor kicks in. Due to increased complexity it is doubtful hybrids will ever be “cheap” in the same sense a Kia Rio is.

    Some of the technology in cars like the Tesla might make it’s way into more mainstream vehicles. I certainly think there is much that could be done to lighten the structure of passenger vehicles without sacrificing safety or creditworthiness.

    On the other hand a bicycle with an electric assist is a dang nifty way of extending the reach of transit!

    1. I don’t think the Volt is ever coming to market. It’s unaffordable.

      1. I think the concept of the Volt is sound, just the implementation is flawed (it is GM after all).

        From what I understand Toyota lost money on the Prius the first few years and I’m not sure it has even now fully paid off it’s R&D costs.

        The point I was trying to make is I think the idea of a car that can work as an electric vehicle for short trips and otherwise uses regenerative braking with an ICE is a good one. But it doesn’t get us off fossil fuels or eliminate CO2 emissions, it just means cars might be a little less wasteful in the future.

      2. BTW just because a Volt doesn’t cost the same as a Kia Rio doesn’t mean some won’t buy it. Look at all the vehicles selling somewhere between $40k and $60k, especially the SUVs.

        A more fair comparison might to the Volt be a European Sedan like the BMW 5 series or a Porsche Boxter.

      3. More that the Volt isn’t a SUV, minivan, or pickup. Hopefully GM is smart enough to make the handling and interior finish more like a European car and less like a Chevy.

      4. The issue is that most people need Kia Rios if they have a car, and there’s no way to make those electric.

    2. And GM has said that it doesn’t expect to make any money from the Volt, which they hope to retail for $40k in 2010. Even a Prius at ~$22k is not affordable to most of the public, especially when it’s more difficult to get financing these days.

      1. $22k isn’t that bad … compare that price to all of the big pickups and SUVs you see on the road or even a mid-size sedan like an Accord or Camry. The MSRP range on a Prius and Camry are about the same. Even a Corolla ranges between $15k-$20k.

      2. My dad was thinking of getting a Prius but got a good used Corolla instead for $8k. It was worth the gas savings as he switched from a minivan for business. Most of the vehicles we owned over the past 20 years were used.

      3. Even a Prius at ~$22k is not affordable to most of the public

        Most of the public doesn’t buy new cars. But, every used car was purchased new! Walk through the Bell Square parking garage and I’ll bet the new MSRP average was well above $22k. I’d also wager there would be one or more cars on each level that cost as much or more than the Telsa.

        I would bet $22k is really close to the median price of all new car purchases. You also have to consider that most people buying new cars are trading in a car that’s only a few years old. There’s a fairly large number of people that don’t want to own a car that’s not under warranty.

        Me, I’m waiting on all the lease returns on the 09 Telsas a few years from now ;-)

      4. I’m actually spending a fair deal of time now looking at new cars. Our ’86 Crown Vic that we bought from the State Patrol back in ’91 for $5k and drove almost 200k miles is now worth $4500 on trade in. Most people are not out buying Kia Rios. We looked at the Altima and while we were at the Nissan dealer two of the three GT-Rs were taken out for test drives. They move a lot of those cars and they’re ~80 grand a copy. A mid size sedan runs about $20k (more or less with options). The Prius, with the equipment that comes standard is pretty middle of the road at $22k. The market just isn’t that big for a Kia Rio. Drive one and you’ll see why.

      5. Okay, stop taking me literally. I’m saying that the median can’t afford a $22k car. That’s the only point you need to take away from it.

      6. The median can’t afford the gas cars they drive now. They buy used, they buy on credit, but they buy them anyway.

        For a car to be a success, it doesn’t need to be affordable new to the median. It needs to be affordable to the demographic that buys new cars. $22K isn’t that bad in the field of new car pricing. Many mass-market cars cost significantly more and still succeed.

      7. Unfortunately I don’t have any hard data for the median price paid for new cars nationally. However it is fairly easy to get a list of the 5 or so bestselling cars:
        1. Ford F-150 $21k-$36k
        2. Chevy Silverado 1500 $19k-$41k
        3. Toyota Camry $19k-$28k
        4. Toyota Corolla $15k-$18k
        5. Honda Accord $20k-$28k
        6. Honda Civic $15k-$25k

        Remember most of the models sold aren’t going to be the stripped down base model either.

        I have relatives in the Midwest making around median for their area who replace each of their vehicles every 3-5 years with a brand new one from the dealer. They aren’t buying Rios either. Lots of pickups and SUVs though. I’d guess the typical vehicle they buy lists for somewhere between $25k and $40k. I really don’t know how they do it, though I suspect the far lower housing costs may be a factor.

        They can’t really understand how someone can buy an older used car and drive the thing into the ground. Going car-free is a concept they REALLY don’t get. Though most haven’t lived anywhere with decent transit so I can forgive them a bit.

      8. The newest numbers I have handy are from the 2009 Statistical Abstract of the United States, which goes up to 2007 auto sales.

        $435 Billion new vehicle sales & leases, 17,129,000 units, about $25,000 average price.

        $339 Billion used vehicle sales, 41,418,000 units, about $8,000 average price.

        If a $22,000 car offered below-average costs for use and ownership, it might be quite competitive. Routine maintenance is lower for modern electric vehicles, electrics and hybrids can receive insurance discounts, there may be tax advantages, etc.

      9. Hold on, step back here. Part of the issue with these electrics is that their range drops dramatically after a few years. The Tesla’s batteries – a third of the cost, and likely to be a higher percentage than that for a cheaper car – are only rated for seven years or 100,000 miles.

        I don’t think the used market is going to be very successful for electrics.

      10. Well there’s also a used battery market. The Prius for example might cost upwards of $6k to have a brand new battery installed but for a 1/3 of that there are low milage used batteries available because cars get squished by buses and trains that aren’t grade separated. The Telsa’s a Ferrari, you need to think VW Bug.

        Lead acid in one of it’s starved electrolyte forms is cheap, recyclable and does reasonably well on power to weight. Right now they’re mostly used in toy cars (literally) but battery packs about the size of diesel saddle tanks would drive a truck around for a day. Even if it’s just a four hour shift in an industrial setting where you’re loading trucks with fork lifts changing these out wouldn’t be a big deal.

        The other side of the weight equation is what you don’t need with an all electric. The motor replaces the differential. No diesel fuel to lug around (~200#), no transmission (~500#), no internal combustion engine (~600#). You’ve almost covered the weight of the battery there but the list goes on; no coolant system, no exhaust… Yeah, your battery needs to be replace in 50-100k but look at the cost you’ve saved by eliminating most of the high maintenance items.

        The noise issue is a big deal. We live just up the hill from the Amazon Fresh distribution center. Nice concept but who wants big diesel truck rumbling up to the front door at 5am? And after it wakes you up you get to smell the diesel! Not exactly the “best part of waking up…”

      11. A low-mile used battery pack for a Prius stacks up reasonably against the cost of engine maintenance in the 100,000-mile-range for many internal combustion cars — it depends on the make/model, but there’s a reason you’ll see so many affordably-priced used cars for sale right about the mileage where they’re due for a new timing belt. The belt itself isn’t so expensive, but there’s a hefty labor charge, and many other impending problems are often discovered during the major service package.

      12. Bernie,
        Another thing being found with modern electrics and hybrids in fleet use is there is less brake wear due to regenerative braking.

        Blended hybrids like the Prius (or the DE60LF buses) tend to need less maintenance as well due to less use of the engine for low-speed starts.

      13. The Prius battery is tiny! It can’t power a car that people will buy.

        Look at the Tesla. You need a battery that expensive to replace what people have now. Okay, cut the price in half, and you STILL have a car that’s too expensive for most people to afford.

        A used Subaru today can be had for $5000 and can still go 300 miles on a tank, even when it has 250,000 miles. That won’t happen with electrics, because before you have *half* that many miles, you’ll be going 150 miles on a charge instead of 300, and the car will have been $10,000 more expensive in the first place.

        All these little improvements don’t come *close* to doing what people think will happen. That’s the problem.

      14. Did you even read the article? That’s China’s largest rechargeable battery company. They haven’t even brought cars to market yet, nor do they claim it’ll be a large portion of their business.

      15. The actual article is in Fortune, Warren Buffett takes charge. I found it a fascinating read not just because of the electric car or battery technology but because of the man behind the company and the working conditions in China. BYD has lots of electric cars on the road. Up until now they’ve been equipped with gas engines for auxiliary charging because the infrastructure isn’t in place for recharging stations. That’s the next step in the evolution where they plan to start selling 2010 all electric vehicles to fleet operators like taxis. Gas stations were far and few between when Henry started selling the model T. You might be right, they may never catch on. But I’d put my money on Buffett.

        BYD’s core business is selling batteries. They also make cell phones and GPS units. Just because those aren’t the major part of their business doesn’t make those technologies fringe. Look at a picture of NYC traffic and count the cabs. That many all electric vehicles would make a huge difference. It’s not going to replace the F150 in Montana but I wouldn’t be so sure you won’t start seeing all electric cars make significant inroads in many markets.

  5. The big fallacy with the current dreams of EVs is the assumption that business as usual can be sustained and all we have to do is to swap the combustion engine with an electric motor and a battery (converse design vs. purpose design). This approach will fail (as it has numerous times in the past) because technical realities clash with commonly held expectations of cars: fast acceleration, high max velocity, long range, high load capacity. Those things are pretty restricted when you switch to an EV and do nothing to radically decrease total mass (and thereby decrease the number of features). Cheap batteries with long range, reliability, low mass and so forth will not come to a car near you unless there is some technological miracle in the next few years.

    Instead, if you accept that an EV has a limited range of 70-100 miles or even less, then you can build something worthwhile around it. A “domesticated” intermodal car should take the place of the luxury-limousine-cargo-supercar ideal of today. Car sharing (spreading the high cost) in conjunction with mass transit on a subscription basis will probably be the new business model for transit agencies, utilities, and car manufacturers (or whatever will be left of them).

    1. A domesticated intermodal car would never sell until we actually build the mass transit and rail. That’s the key – there’s no market for ANY electric car today.

      1. And we would have Velib-style shared bikes at transit stations and in neighborhoods to complete the last leg. In Seattle they should be electric bikes to assist with hills.

    2. I always wondered when I lived on Capital Hill if I had a car that I could hook up to the trolley wires, how long it would take Metro to notice?

      1. It would be pretty obvious that you’re not a bus and the roaming supervisors will stop you in an instant. Plus, that would be one heck of a modification to your car to install trolley poles collecting 600 V DC through your roof. And it looks awkward.

  6. Well, Lithium is an element, as long as you’re not using it for fusion, you technically can’t run out of it. (Unlike, say, using Uranium for nuclear power.) It’s just that it’s still cheaper to mine the stuff–despite restrictions–than it is to recycle it out of the old batteries. At some point, I suspect it will become cost-effective to recycle it, but by then I suspect the demand to use it to run laptops and ipods and cellphones(or netbooks or whatever everyone’s using by then) will far exceed the demand to use it in electric cars.

    1. If the batteries aren’t affordable now, it’ll probably never be affordable to recycle it for any consumer use.

  7. There’s a simpler way to have electric vehicles—string a pair of wires above the street, strap a pair of poles on an electric car, and viola! They never run out of juice! LOL!

    1. Ha ha, yes indeed. I put up three more pictures of trucks that ran on overhead wire on my blog. You’ll have to scroll down a little to see all the pictures.

      1. Cool. Now I’m picturing overhead wire electric USPS, FedEx, or even grocery store trucks running containers of boxes from a train depot to a drop point at each neighborhood. Neighborhood battery electric mini-trucks move these boxes the last mile. It’s like a bus system, for stuff.

      2. Sure, very local last-mile delivery can totally be electric. It’ll cost millions per mile to build, of course. :)

    2. I have a better idea to make electric cars feasible. Dual input: both a plug-in system *and* solar panels. You can plug in the car at night to recharge. The solar panels keep topping up your charge when you’re parked in the sunlight (this might make open-air parking lots more valuable than ramps…) and slow down the discharge of the batteries while you’re driving in the daylight. I’m not sure how much this could extend battery range but it’s a thought….

      1. Even if they covered the entire top of a vehicle, solar panels don’t generate nearly the power needed to provide any sort of meaningful supplement to the batteries for driving or any real charging capacity. Even with the best PV technology efficiency is only 4.5-6% which means at most 20 w/m^2. Say the upper surface on a vehicle is about 4m^2 which means only about 80w.

        It would seem much more sensible to use solar panels to run fans to keep the interior cool while parked in the sun or run other accessories rather than to try to charge the batteries.

  8. I think everyone who can should mentally put themselves in a future without cars. Living a life that does not depend on an automobile will grant you the serenity of ten years in a Buddhist monastery, and the money to spend ten years in a monastery if you want to do that.

    Even if Santa left an electric car in every stocking, we’d still be stuck with the costs of sprawl. It is not sustainable to provide power and water and police and fire protection, and sewage treatment, for sprawled communities. Berries and salmon were grown locally- now they come from thousands of miles away. Even fairly conservative counties can see the handwriting on the wall and are endorsing Urban Growth Boundaries to get a handle on costs.

    Understandably, people who have never known a different way of life are confused by the challenge of junking the automobile. In reality, the inability of the world’s largest economy to change is building a head of steam, perhaps best analogized to the forces that build behind tectonic plates before they lurch forward in what we call an earthquake.

    Unchecked, in the next century the world will warm as much as it has warmed in the past 210 centuries. If your car could accelerate that fast, you’d be seeing a chiropractor for sure. I really don’t think that thirty years from now people will still be saying “We’ll always have cars”.

    In the early 50s the French were still perfecting the steam engine- the best one built is thermally more efficient than a diesel. But steam engines are gone for the same reason the car will go- the cost of the infrastructure.

    Take yourself out of the automobile picture now, before things get strange around here.

  9. The one technology that has changed a lot in the last 20 years is the battery charging technology. We can now charge batteries in tens of minutes instead of tens of hours.

    1. Only very specialized batteries – not the kinds we’re putting in cars. The quick-charge batteries aren’t even remotely affordable.

  10. There appear to be a number of people on this blog who do not drive and many others talking about living without cars. I have eliminated one of our cars and find getting along with one is very doable. I am huge transit user and fan. However, I am struggling to see how to go all the way to “carless”. Perhaps this is another topic for the bloggers on this site, but I would be interested in people sharing how they get by without a car. Things we do with our car that are not transit friendly. Trip to Home Depot to buy wood, lamps, etc; go for a hike in the Cascades or Olympic Mountains; take a vacation to Yellowstone; attend a dinner party with friends in Issaquah; run the kid to the hospital for an emergency; etc. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    1. That’s the issue. We have to *create* a place where people can live without a car. Home Depot can deliver, you can rent to go to the Cascades, there simply can’t be sprawl out around Issaquah, there are ambulances for emergencies.

      1. Much sprawl around Issaquah would still be quite supportable in a no-personal-car environment *if* we had a combination of more flexible working lives and more local transit options.

        Consider that the often-derided single-family-bungalow neighborhood model was developed in the time of streetcars and worked quite well when few people owned private cars. (You can identify some of those neighborhoods in Seattle and its suburbs by the narrow streets and houses without parking.) Auburn was a viable commuter suburb of Seattle before private cars were common.

        If transportation were fully priced to the end user, without so many hidden subsidies for cars, you’d also see a lot more interest in alternatives to commuting. Many jobs could be done just as easily from home, or from neighborhood telecommuting centers. Companies don’t have much incentive to use these alternatives today, but as personal transportation costs increase, the cost advantage of avoiding unnecessary commuting increases, too.

        Picture sprawl served by local transit and depot hacks ferrying residents to commuter transit, with some reasonable fraction of the homes occupied during the day by people telecommuting instead of commuting.

      2. It occurs to me that my post may sound pro-sprawl, and that’s not my intent. But the forces that drove sprawl in the first place aren’t going away any time soon, and sprawl will evolve as its environment changes.

      3. The forces that drive sprawl will only continue until we stop highway expansion. A lot of that sprawl won’t evolve, it will just wither.

      4. At least one of the forces has already changed: low oil prices which led to $0.25/gal gas and deceptively cheap products. It will be interesting to see whether the proposed Federal transportation bill actually changes things, too.

        I’d like to hope for a new farm bill, too, but I don’t think it’s a priority for Obama. Unfortunate since I agree with Michael Pollan that the farm bill is the key to the health care crisis, energy independence and climate change.

      5. Sprawl began before modern highways and will continue after they’ve maxed out.

        A hundred years ago, the town of Pacific was founded as a sprawl suburb of Seattle, cheap suburban lots on agricultural land far from existing urban growth — it’s almost 30 miles from downtown Seattle, but was platted as an addition to Seattle. That sprawl was enabled by rail, not highways — the Interurban made it possible to commute to Seattle or Tacoma.

        People can commute 4-5 miles to a transit station without highways. They did it a hundred years ago, they do it today, they can do it tomorrow.

        Ending highway expansion won’t end the demand for lower-density suburban housing.

      6. You have to wonder what it would’ve been like had the Seattle city limits extended that far.

      7. Josh:

        Some sprawl will always exist.

        There’s a big difference between rail suburbs and road suburbs. I’ve explained it before on the blog – simply put, look at two 20-mile mainline commutes. In commute A, you have a car. In commute B, you have a train.

        In commute A, your total sunk costs for the car are high. The marginal cost of driving off the mainline highway another two miles is very, very low – just the cost of the fuel.

        In commute B, when you get off the mainline train, you’re on foot. The cost to you to maintain a second method of commute (a bicycle, a carshare) for two more miles is very high in comparison.

        This is why in streetcar suburbs, we saw dense development around the stations, and in highway suburbs, we see giant boulevards and winding streets.

        Pacific was nothing like a highway suburb – but don’t think the 50s are when this started. Before the 1890s, most of the US looked a lot like Europe. We had a lot of money and a lot of extra land, so we had larger plots and houses, but distances from rail systems weren’t any higher than they were in Europe.

        The feds started spending on highway corridors in 1917. Pacific started in 1909. You’re not looking at a pre-car suburb.

    2. Can’t places like Home Depot do delivery for you if you are buying something big?
      For the occasional trip far away or out camping, you could rent a car or hitch a ride with a friend who enjoys hiking too.
      Many of the other things are difficult without a car – I have been living without one for two years (in semi-rural Japan, not Seattle) and while sometimes I wish that I could drive, life has been quite doable.

    3. I’m not really qualified to answer this question, having several vehicles myself. But as I understand the lifestyle:
      Home Depot: Buy less wood, lamps, etc. When needed if small, buy local. When needed and large, have it delivered or rent one of their trucks.
      Hike in Cascades: Flexcar. Or join the Mountineers and get a ride from someone else.
      Vacation to Yellowstone: Take the train! (or plane, if you’re less of a greenhouse gas vegan). Then rent a car when you’re down there. I took a wonderful trip to Glacier Park on the Amtrak’s Empire Builder.
      Attend a dinner party in Issaquah: Either bus + taxi, or Flexcar. Flexcar solves quite a few temporary car problems.
      Hospital emergency: If it’s a real emergency, call an ambulance. Otherwise, call a taxi. If you’re in the city it’s probably less than a $15 ride and they generally get to your house in 2 minutes.

    4. I have not owned a car since moving to Seattle. Zipcar really helps with the once-in-a-while trips for which there really is no alternative. Otherwise I get by with having things delivered where possible, transit, and good old-fashioned walking.

    5. Location location location. We live in the U-District which is very walkable for everyday needs and has plenty of Zipcars whenever we need to make a large-item run, head for the trails, kids’ birthday parties (Bothell was our latest destination), etc. We’ve done all these things and more, with kids, for 5 years now.

      The long vacation drive is a little different. I guess I’d compare the time and cost of renting a car and driving from Seattle, fly/rent, train, etc. Can you take the train to Yellowstone? I know you can to Glacier. So far since having kids all our vacations have been to visit family and friends.

      It’s definitely a different lifestyle than the typical American, but I don’t really believe that it’s “harder”. Just different.

      1. No trains into Yellowstone. But you can take the Empire Builder to somewhere like Shelby MT then drive 6 hours. It’s faster to fly and cheaper to rent a car the whole way, but it’s a beautiful trip to take the train through Glacier.

      2. And that’s a perfectly good reason for a rental. Trips a few times a year, stuff like that.

    6. In my experience, hardware stores, lumber stores, and appliance stores with the best quality stuff prefer to deliver. The amount of time and effort you spend finding, buying, and transporting lumber from HD on your car is truly disgusting. Been there, done that.

      Basically, Seattle is such a recreation-rich city you don’t need to get out of town every weekend. You can walk, bicycle, sail, row, and Lake Union and Lake Washington are two of the best lakes for swimming you’ll find in the region.

      Most people are saving several hundred $ each month by not having a car. That pays for a lot of location for a residence, and a lot of very occasional taxi use or a rental car. Serious mountain climbers and hikers will probably be members of some group.

      My wife is in a wheelchair. One year in Seattle someone stole all the wheels off our car. I was fed up and we just did without the car for three years. Listening to Paul Harvey on the taxicab radio was the worst part of the experience.

    7. If you’re interested in living without a car, Kent Petersen is a local car-free cycling blogger, http://kentsbike.blogspot.com/

      He was already car-free when I first encountered him back in the early ’90s on email lists. Lives in Issaquah with carless wife and kids, commutes to Seattle, writes well, makes my train/bike commute look positively pedestrian.

  11. I am one of the few bloggers on here that drives but only because I commute 61 miles to Mt. Rainier =P

    As for the Tesla.. the Roadster could easily be made more affordable. If I was in the market for a hybrid or an electric car, I would look at the Ford Fusion Hybrid or the Tesla Model S. The Ford would be around $40k with a 700 mile range, the Tesla would be about $55k with a 300 mile range. Which one would I choose? The Tesla, hands down.

    1. The Fusion is ~$28k and I’m sure you can do better than that. I believe there’s still a generous government rebate ($1700) which would get it closer to $26k. But you only save about $500 a year on gas (less if you’re a transit affectionato) and you can get a comparably equipped non-hybrid for ~$20k so it’s questionable if you’d save enough over the life of the car to justify the difference. Plus you lose more than half the trunk space. The Prius is really the only hybrid that makes any sense. The Altima maybe if you still get the full $2300 government rebate. The Prius at $22k without a government subsidy and at almost 50mpg is really the only game in town.

      1. The Tesla S isn’t even due until 2011 and may be either delayed or canceled. They also might miss their price target.

        The hybrid Camry isn’t that much more than a comparable gas-only model. Same thing with the Civic hybrid. Honda’s new Insight appears to be aimed at the same market as the Prius and has a similar price tag. To be fair I think hybrid models need to be compared to conventional models with automatic transmissions and perhaps larger engines.

        With most of the hybrids though the question is if the rebate is enough to offset the added cost (or if you are driving enough for the fuel savings to more than make up the difference).

    2. For the life of me I can’t see why someone would buy an electric car if they weren’t going to change the way they go places. To deal with fuel costs you could buy a 2CV or a Metro Geo with the small engine and 5-speed, and that would actually be fun. Put enough electric cars on the road and the price of electricity will rise just like fuel.

      A game-changer would be to legalize for road use the small electrics used in factories and industrial parks. See the shipyard at Bremerton for examples. A lot of retired people would find that a straight electric with a 40-mile range would meet 90% of their needs and go as fast as they ever want to go anyway. With the largest cohort in our history, the Baby Boomers, starting to retire, this could make a difference.

      1. They are road legal. Or at least for roads with speed limits under 35 mph. They’re called Neighborhood Electric Vehicles. Here are a few:

        ZAP Xebra (max speed actually 40 mph, since it’s classified as a motorcycle)


        Both currently use boring old lead-acid batteries, although ZENN is in the middle of a high-stakes gamble with an unproven technology (EESTOR ultracapacitors) for their next model. If the EESTOR isn’t just a scam or a mistake (which most think it is), it’s range will go up quite a bit.

      2. Ultracapacitors aren’t a scam. Seimens and others are using this technology to power tolleys and light rail cars that can go about 2 miles on a charge and recharge in about a minute. This could greatly enhance the reach of an ETB without the expense and I think unsightlyness of overhead wires.

      3. Ultracapacitors aren’t a scam, but EESTOR may be. Ultracapacitors are great at quickly charging and discharging, leading to high power output. The problem is energy density – to be able to run a car with normal ultracapacitor would take something like a garbage truck sized capacitor. EESTOR says they’ve created one with 10x the energy density of the best batteries on the market – an amazing claim, to say the least. Of course, they made this claim several years ago and keep pushing off the promised date to show the world a prototype.

      4. Well, it’s interesting. Lockheed seems to think it’s at least got a chance. That’s a company that has brought things to “market” that nobody thought was possible; like an airplane with the RADAR signature of a bird. At the opposite end of the spectrum small bypass caps have shrunk by an order of magnitude (they’re like the size of a grain of sand now) so I don’t think it’s crazy to believe there will be similar gains in high voltage high capacity components. There’s certainly been impressive progress in the ultracapacitors that have been brought to market. Time will tell. Don’t dare to dream… but pinch yourself once in a while ;^)

  12. I should also add that I think we’re just at the beginning of a big societal change around how cars are used. Zipcar and similar are the first wave. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a system that made it easy to use private vehicles in a similar way.

    At the same time, there are going to be a lot of biking improvements and transit is going to get better after we get out of this bad economy.

  13. For those of you who think that electric cars are slow should watch this video.


    Now he has his car optimized for short track speed but if he were to drive like a normal person, he’d have distance and power to spare.

    As for a car free world, forget it. The mobility that cars give us makes our economy incredibly flexible. I agree, for a city, cars should not be the priority for transportation, but for life in the USA, they are essential. There is no way that we are going to run street cars & buses out to farms in Eastern Washington. And since we all want to eat, that’s not going away.

    As for home delivery…so if Home Depot owns the truck and we rent it, there is still a truck on the road moving stuff around for us. That’s only a gain for removing parking spaces. We still have to maintain the truck, replace it after the same number of miles run, it still has to go from Home Depot to our home. But it does mean you can own a small car that is fuel efficient for your personal driving and let Home Depot own the big pickup truck.

    1. As oil becomes much more expensive it will force some massive lifestyle changes on everyone. At $20/gallon most people (and businesses) will need to start carefully planning trips. Vehicles will need to be matched to the task. No more commuting to work in a 3 ton pickup or suv.

      Add to the increasing scarcity of oil the fact that there will have to be some sort of mechanism to discourage CO2 emissions which will likely drive the cost of any energy derived from fossil fuels up.

    2. Nobody’s talking about a car free world. We’re talking about a world where the cost of owning a car is much, much higher than it is today, so *most* people (like, say, in European and Japanese cities) don’t have one. It’s just a difference in proportion.

    3. Oh pulleeze. When I was a kid Seattle was surrounded by orchards, berry farms, truck farms and dairy farms. When suburban sprawl paved over the farmland, it did not enhance our ability to eat.

      And the math on deliveries certainly isn’t hard. Carry a sling of lumber on the top of your car in 20 trips, or have it be one of several deliveries that big truck will make on one trip. Of course, if you can do away with the car entirely, and not pay costs like depreciation due to styling changes, or insurance, costs which rarely reflect any value actually received- stop spending your money on the process of time and parking and you’re really starting to save.

  14. Oh, and if you notice, he used a ’72 Datsun. No need to have a 100K carbon fiber frame car if you didn’t want to make a fortune selling cars. The electric motor is a couple of off the shelf motors from fork lifts. The better batteries are the lithium ion from cordless electric drills… no new technology, just no dependency on gasoline.

    Face it the auto companies are in bed with the oil companies to keep us all burning oil.

    1. Face it? That’s what I’m trying to lead people toward. All Tesla is here to do is convince us that cars are still what we should be using.

      Notice that he started with the ’72 Datsun? He didn’t pay the full cost of the vehicle he started with, he got it used, probably very cheap. That kind of conversion can’t go mainstream.

    2. I really doubt the auto companies want you to use more fuel. Simple reasoning: if you use less fuel, you have more money to spend on the auto itself. GM would rather you give your money to GM than to BP….

      1. They do want you to buy new, more fuel efficient cars. They don’t want you to buy *too* fuel efficient of vehicles, because they won’t be able to sell you more later.

        But if they sell you a car that doesn’t burn fuel at all – it won’t need replacing for much, much longer.

      2. It’s worse than that. These guys all sit on each other’s boards. They make money together. There’s a trillion barrels of oil left, at $60 a barrel that’s $60 Trillion! Not exactly pocket change. So if you saw that investment going to say $10 barrel because demand was off you’d do what was necessary to keep demand high too.

      3. It would be more than $60 trillion. As oil supply decreases at more or the same demand the price of it will go up dramatically. With less oil left and most of it in hard to reach places, the cost of extracting it also goes up.

      4. I don’t buy the conspiracy theories. To a large extent what the automakers make is driven by the regulatory environment and consumer demand. When fuel is cheap nobody wants fuel-efficient vehicles and everyone starts buying SUVs and light trucks (why the heck else does every auto nameplate including Porsche have an SUV or light truck?). When fuel gets more expensive demand shifts to more fuel efficient vehicles like hybrids or various diesel technologies (TDI, CRI, etc).

        Same thing with the whole “planned obsolescence” game. While companies like GM might still want a car to break down and be uneconomical to repair after a certain number of miles others like Toyota and Honda have pushed reliability. They don’t seem to have a problem with their vehicles lasting a long time if properly cared for.

      5. Planned obsolescence was never about building cars that broke down after a certain number of miles. Planned obsolescence was a response to cars lasting too long. After WWII the car companies did well satisfying pent up demand from the war years. In the mid fifties though people needed a new reason to replace what was a perfectly adequate automobile. That’s really when “styling” took off. A major change in look was accomplished for a rather mild investment in chrome and taillights. On a two or three year cycle the previous models could be made to look really old and obsolete.

        Car companies are building better and better cars. Survival depends on it. Even GM is building better cars; they just haven’t kept pace with companies like Honda and Toyota. There’s lot of reasons; costs associated with union contracts, a corporate and management structure which is incentivized to overweight short term profit, unfair trade practices, etc. I think it’s just too complex for one or the other group to pull of any sort of conspiracy.

      6. Chris, none of these are conspiracy theories. Planned obsolescence is planned. That’s how companies make money.

      7. Ben, when I said “conspiracy theories” I’m thinking more of the nonsense about how the auto companies are in bed with the oil companies to keep high gas mileage and alternative fuel vehicles off the market. Also the ones about how car makers don’t want to build electric vehicles because they’d never break down.

        Even if any of that was ever true for one automaker, I don’t think it has ever applied to all of them at the same time.

  15. well you people can deal with figuring out what mass transit to use in your big cities, in reality it won’t work anywhere else except (big cities) that is the problem with not thinking realistically. Gas and diesel will be around for longer than people think though we might use less, it’s not going anywhere no matter what anyone thinks. hybrids are a joke and a complete waste of money, I had a 92 civic vx which had a 1.5 liter which had vtec-e and got 50mpg at 1/4 the cost and a lot more reliable than head gasket blowing ugly prius’s. diesel and smaller engines with turbo’s will be more of feasible than all electric pieces of crap like the tesla.

    Bottom line is we need to use all types of energy not just trade off one for another. this environmentalism has got way out of hand if we don’t drill for the oil china and others will so it will get used either way, we can’t put new nuclear plants up we can’t do this and that all in the name of “being green” . this stuff that has been going on now is just a sham to keep people in their place and not have any sort of freedom.

    1. Joe,
      Just keep believing that, but don’t be surprised when oil gets so expensive it makes no sense to use it anymore for transportation fuel.

      The world has a finite supply of fossil fuels. Crude oil production is in decline, however demand has been rapidly increasing as places like China, India, and Brazil industrialize and become more prosperous. This is a recipe for massive and sudden increases in the price of crude.

      The big question is will the world adapt or are we looking at an Easter Island type collapse on a global scale?

    2. You realize the vtec had a lot of technology in it, right? Hybrids are the evolutionary step.

      It’s not just for cities. A lot of the appeal of small towns is the walkability. I worked for a rural internet provider for a while and it was amazing visiting these places that looked like New Urbanism without the New. The young are moving to cities for jobs, but a lot of people retire out there.

    3. The point of this blog is that by reducing the need to burn oil in our cities, we will all have more of it for longer. It’s the unnecessary use that will be wrung out of the system by raising the price to the $20/gal.

      The question before the house, is how does one reduce the need to burn oil, yet have a life that one would want to live? I don’t enjoy driving to Home Depot or Costo. But they built those places on a flood plain far from my house. It’s cost efficient now for me to drive there once a month and load up on things I need. Costco doesn’t deliver. Amazon does, but not at the same price point. And deliveries can be more efficient, say like my milk delivery because the guy makes an efficient trip.

      BTW, Here’s a plug, stop driving to the store to buy milk. http://www.smithbrothersfarms.com delivers, it’s price competitive with the other quality milk and they sell more than milk. (coffee, orange juice, cheese etc.)

      1. I’ve heard they’re good. Can I get them in an apartment? Would I have to be home during the day?

    4. joe, when sea level rise floods Shanghai, they’ll be charging you for the cleanup costs. The key is to get ahead of the change.

  16. (1) I don’t know who’s claiming that the Tesla Roadster is being sold at a loss, but they’re just making shit up. In fact, Tesla does make money each time they sell a car — they aren’t idiots.

    (2) I am over *sixty miles* from the nearest train station and over a mile from the nearest bus stop. Out here in the countryside, electric cars seem very reasonable: a definite improvement over gasoline cars.

    The crucial point was made not by the editorialist, but by the first commenter: if all the city dwellers get electric cars, they’ll all be stuck in gridlock. That’s the “why not” for electric cars.

    Electric cars will do just fine replacing gasoline cars for people who live in uncongested areas; if you drive down two-lane roads and never get stuck in traffic, a train or even a bus is overkill.

    For congested areas, relying on cars is simply absurd.

    1. But if “its absurd” to sit in congestion why do so many rational people do it? You aren’t looking at the bigger picture. People are making a ration choice that car traffic is better than bus/train/street car riding. So what’s wrong with the picture?

      #1) Time: It’s still faster to sit in traffic than take the current modes of transportation. We need to fix this by putting more mass transit in it’s own right-of-way to make it rapid transit.

      #2) Connectivity: It’s not time wise possible to do some commutes. I’m sure we’d all like to live next to our work, but not if it’s a steel mill, or downtown if we have kids. We need more systems that are fast that connect to more places, just like our road network.

      #3) Cost: We don’t charge people who drive for the environmental cost of burning gas and driving. Those roads don’t absorb water, so we have more flooding. Everybody pays by having farm land ruined by roads, but we all pay equally, and not just drivers. We also subsidize roads with property taxes, again not a direct cost so drivers don’t see it.

      #4) Alternatives: bike lanes for instance are incomplete, and not sufficiently connected or safe in Seattle. They must be better in Portland because the climate is roughly the same but they bicycle to work more.

      1. Why do people sit in traffic instead of taking the train?

        Because you “can’t get there from here”. Our rail network is deeply trashed, our buses are pretty trashed too, and there simply is no way to get to a lot of places by public transportation without *really* excessive waits.

        I think #2 is the crucial point, yes.

      1. Um, they haven’t even finished manufacturing the first model year yet, have they?

        I’m pretty sure they anticipated the early cars off the production line costing more than the later ones. The “unit cost” or “material cost” is not the marginal cost; it’s driven down by having a small, slow production line. Apparently they messed up on initial estimates, but from Musk’s letter it’s clear a faster production line would have brought the unit cost down significant; it’s even clear that costs due to bad contracts arranged by the prior CEO (!) amount to part of it.

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