By Tim Lyman
John McCain, in a speech on Monday, demonstrated a lack of understanding not only of the barriers to consumers buying electric cars, but of basic economics. His campaign staff and advisors (at least the ones who reviewed the speech) demonstrated that they are incompetent.
One of the functions of campaign staff and advisors is to keep the candidate from saying anything stupid in a public forum. Staff and advisors can’t keep a candidate from making dumb off the cuff remarks; but they can see that the candidate doesn’t say something really dense in a scripted speech.
McCain proposed offering a $300 million dollar prize to the company that can produce an electric vehicle battery pack at thirty percent of the current cost.
Even public school students understand the principle of economies of scale. The first DVD players cost $1000, but as more were sold, the price quickly dropped. Now you can get a DVD player for $29. It’s going to be the same thing with electric car batteries. The market, not technology, will cause the price of battery packs to drop to a lot less than thirty percent o their current cost. Apparently this simple and time proven fact escapes the McCain campaign.
The factors limiting adoption of electric vehicles are well known, and battery cost is probably the least significant. The four limiting factors preventing the adoption of electric vehicles are:
2. Recharge Time
Until recently, the range (how far it can travel between chargings) of an electric vehicle was about 20 miles. Electric vehicles used the same lead-acid battery technology that’s been powering flashlights for 80 years. If you’ve ever used plain old batteries in your digital camera, you know how short their life is.
Nickel Metal Hydride Batteries (NiMH) batteries hit the market a few years ago and were capable of storing far more power than lead-acid batteries, but unless you wanted to trade your backseat for batteries, your range was still only about 50 miles.
The latest generation of Lithium Ion batteries pack way more juice into a smaller space than previous technologies, but range in a standard sized car (as opposed to a shoebox/coffin on wheels) is still limited to about 150 miles.
Americans take freedom of travel within the country’s borders for granted, but, at the time of the country’s founding, it was an innovation. Most Europeans required the equivalent of a passport and visa just to travel from one city to another. Americans value their freedoms, particularly the freedom of movement. Even though most of us drive less than 30 miles a day, we want to know that if we hopped in our car, it would take us as far as we want to go, and 150 miles just isn’t far enough.
While battery efficiency and storage capacity has greatly increased over the last decade, charge time is still the same as it was for the first electric car 100 years ago — six to eight hours. Americans used to refueling in five minutes will not tolerate six to eight hours of downtime. It is not a patience issue, it is a freedom issue — in an electric car, when your battery is dead, your freedom of movement ends.
Charging currently must be done on either a high amperage circuit (usually 30 amps, like the ones you plug an RV into) or with a special charger costing several thousand dollars. The advantage of the special chargers is that they can charge Lithium Ion batteries very quickly — some companies claim to be able to recharge an entire battery pack to 95% in ten minutes. The amount of power required to do this, however, is more than almost all households can deliver.
Most people would spend the $200 or so it would cost to add a 30 amp circuit to their house, but darn few are going to shell out $5000 – $8000 for a special charger. You want a fast charge when you’re travelling, not when you’re at home.
Until recently, electric vehicles used the same lead-acid battery technology that’s been powering flashlights for 80 years. These batteries had a useful life of about two years regardless of the number of chargings. That meant shelling out about $3000 every two years.
Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries have a much longer life than lead acid batteries, but are very finicky about how they are charged. They have what is referred to as “memory” and unless completely depleted before charging their storage capacity will quickly degrade. Remember that drill battery that died after six months because you put it in the charger after every use?
Lithium Ion batteries can be recharged as much as 25,000 times and have no memory, meaning that, barring accident, they should last longer than the car they power, but they are expensive — a Lithium Ion battery pack marketed as part of a Ford Ranger conversion kit will cost $12,000 for enough juice to go (optimistically) 200 miles between charges.
Today I can buy a two wheel drive Ford Ranger with a 2.3 litre gas engine for $18,000. The same vehicle, converted to electric power with a 200 mile range and capable of recharging in six to eight hours will cost $38,000. This is because gas Rangers are produced by the millions on an assembly line and the conversions are done one at a time.
People have definite ideas about how cars should look. Cars should look like cars, not like children’s toys. If you’ve seen one of the production electric cars you’ve probably had two thoughts: “How would I get the family into THAT?”, and “That person is so dead in any accident over five miles per hour”.
In order to gain mass acceptance, electric vehicles will have to go farther, charge faster and cost much less than they do now, and do it in familiar packages.
Range and charge time are inversely related. Motorists are willing to accept a long charge time, provided they get lots of range and are willing to accept more limited range if charge time is short. To make electric vehicles ubiquitous, we’re going to need both, and this means technological advances and infrastructure changes.
One of the solutions forwarded for the range issue is the establishment of battery swap stations, something along the lines of those propane tank exchanges at Wal Mart. This, however, is impractical as it would require easily removable, standardized battery packs and swap stations willing to carry an inventory of several million dollars worth of batteries.
The only real answer is to add fast chargers to existing gas stations. If ten minute recharging stations were as omnipresent as gas stations, we might be OK with a 150 mile range, but until they are, I think the psychological range barrier is closer to 500 miles.
People can’t buy the cars if they’re not there to buy. I’ll bet that if more fleet managers knew about the Rangers mentioned above they’d be buying them in droves. Even at $39,000 they pay for themselves in fuel savings in about 100,000 miles. Probably less — do you think gas is going to stop getting more expensive? If you throw in maintenance savings, it comes down to about 80,000 miles. With enough fleet orders, the price would fall precipitously. Produced in quantities exceeding ten thousand units per year, it should not cost much more than a standard Ranger, even if battery prices don’t fall.
The rub is that with the switch to an electric fleet, we’re going to need more electricity — and that ain’t coming from windmills and solar panels — but that’s another article.