If you want to start a fight among car enthusiasts, bring up the topic of electric cars. Many enthusiasts reviled battery-powered vehicles until 2008 when the high-performance Tesla Roadster changed the idea that electric cars were simply glorified golf carts. Since that time, the concept of the electric car has become a political football; and most particularly during the first six months of 2011, the future of an electrified transportation system in America has seen ups and downs. High points include Nissan’s launch of its all-electric LEAF, Chevrolet’s launch of its plug-in hybrid Volt, MINI’s ongoing research project with 600 electrically powered MINI E models, and BMW’s announcement of a new sub-brand called BMW i that will begin selling electric vehicles by 2013. In addition, Fiat will have an electric version of its diminutive 500 model by next year and even staid Rolls Royce showed off its electric concept vehicle at this year’s Geneva Auto Show. Other positives have shown up on two wheels as more than half a dozen electric motorcycle manufacturers have hit the streets with everything from sport bikes to commuter machines to off-road dirt bikes.

Power Plays

As enthusiastic as vehicle manufacturers appear to be to jump on the electrification bandwagon, the beginning of 2011 has also seen some setbacks to the rosy future envisioned by electric vehicle fans. Power outages last winter caused by severe snow and ice storms that ravaged much of the U.S. highlight some of the serious reliability issues that face America’s antiquated and decrepit electric power grid. Questions about the future of nuclear electric power have been raised worldwide due to the earthquake and tsunami disasters in Japan and subsequent failures of safety systems at the Fukushima reactor complex. Meanwhile, an uncertain regulatory climate has resulted in the cancellation of electric-power generating wind farm projects, funding for solar power research has been cut, and vocal factions within congress have made their opposition to any alternatives to fossil fuels abundantly clear. On top of this, the Chinese government in late 2010 began to curtail export of the rare earth elements that make efficient electric motors powering electric vehicles possible. More than 95 percent of these materials currently come from regions within China’s control, allowing them a strategic and pricing monopoly.

Good enough

In many ways, the least critical part of an electrified transportation system is the electric vehicles themselves. This may come as a surprise in light of the seemingly limited 70- to 100-mile range of the Nissan LEAF or the 25-50–mile electric range of the Chevrolet Volt, before the on-board gasoline engine kicks in to help get you home. Both vehicles use the latest in lithium-ion battery technology (similar to those in your laptop computer or smart phone), allowing electricity storage rates of four to six times the energy stored in a traditional lead-acid battery on a power-to-weight basis. Still, an equivalent weight of gasoline holds 50-70 times the energy stored in those expensive lithium-ion batteries, so it’s easy to see why a couple of gallons of gasoline can easily surpass the range provided by even the highest technology batteries. Battery technology continues to improve, increasing both energy density and reducing costs, promising better performance and range as new models emerge, but it’s hard to beat a gallon of gasoline when it come to energy content.

While these ranges may seem short, studies at Ford Motor Company have shown that a 30-mile all-electric range will satisfy 60 percent of all vehicle travel. The problem is that drivers are terrified of being caught away from home with a depleted battery so that the projected range must be significantly farther than reality dictates. You might commute 10 miles each way to work Monday through Thursday without a problem, but on Friday you might decide to hit that movie 20 miles across town, and your 30-mile electric range will leave you stranded. If an alternative existed (i.e., efficient public transportation via light rail), you might leave your car home for longer trips, but that would require a transportation infrastructure that simply does not exist in most American cities and suburbs.

By Kevin Clemens
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