Electric Motivation

General Motors recently announced that it was closing four plants currently producing dinosaurs, aka, SUV’s and trucks. As an aside it said it would have an electric car on the market, the Chevy Volt, by 2010.

The first part is another example of American industry digging its own grave. For years the big car companies, in tandem with the auto unions, have been fighting higher mileage standards for cars and for exemption of big vehicles. This helped them bring in the big bucks until recent oil price spikes. Now they can hardly give the monsters away.

This was all part of a shortsighted drive on the part of industry, government and workers to trash the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and stymie any action that would move the American economy towards a sustainable future. What the Bushman was doing when he said he wouldn’t take any action on greenhouse gases that would harm the American economy was substituting an addict’s quest for immediate gratification for long term health and stability.

Everything the country – any country – needs to do to tackle climate change will involve transitioning to a green future. It will mean creating millions of jobs in the process of spending large amounts of money converting an oil based economy to alternative energies and ways of life.

An essential part of that transition will necessarily be the conversion, to the greatest possible extent, of transportation to electricity.

The second part of the news release announced the future production of the electric Chevy Volt. That contained a shocking level of irony considering GM’s desperate need to crush (literally) its first electric vehicle, the EV1.

The movie ‘Who Killed the Electric Car’  tells the sordid story of the EV1. It was produced in response to a California mandate dating to 1990 requiring a certain number of zero emission cars be on the road. Meanwhile the car companies, oil giants and the Bush administration immediately began to work to scuttle the mandate and in 1993 forced it to be rescinded.

The 90 or so EV1’s that were produced were leased rather than sold. When the leases were up GM recalled the vehicles. The people who had been driving them, however, loved them and did not want to give them up. They begged, pleaded, demonstrated and offered GM nearly two million dollars for them, to no avail. What did GM do with those nearly new cars once they were in its possession? The were crushed, as so many old junks would be.

They couldn’t stand to see those cars on the road. You can rack your brains for an eternity before you’ll come up with a good and honest reason why a greedy corporation would forego two million dollars of pure profit… unless it’s to prevent people from taking advantage of a (desperately needed) new technology that might impact its profits in a more substantial way later on.

The oil companies stood to lose from sales of electric cars but why should GM have cared? The only suggestion is that electrics need far less maintenance and new parts, a lucrative part of the auto business. Still… only collusion and malfeasance really fits.

Some time back I came across a plastic toy model of an 1899 Studebaker Electric. Electric urban delivery vehicles were common in the 1920’s. Streetcars were electrified around of the turn of the last century, buses a few decades later. Diesel locomotives which started to replace steam engines in the 30’s are actually diesel/electric hybrids, so even that “modern” technology is really old hat.

There are a lot of reasons why electricity is a superior propulsion force for vehicles. To begin with electric motors are far more efficient than combustion ones. Whereas half the energy expended in combustion is lost in waste heat, more than 90% of electricity expended in an electric motor goes to its intended purpose.

Electric vehicles emit no pollution. Whatever pollution is created in the production of the electricity they use happens in large plants where emissions can be better controlled and that often takes place away from population centers. Moreover, electricity can be produced from non-polluting sources. Imagine what large numbers of electric vehicles would mean for LA’s air quality.

They are nearly silent. Advocates for the blind are beginning to complain that their silence is dangerous. They are asking that sound be added. The Toyota Prius, which constitutes most of the primarily electric cars on the road today, is their target, since it operates solely on electricity much of the time.

They do not idle. When they come to a stop they expend no energy except for accessories; lights, radio, fans, air-con. Think the millions of vehicles idling away in traffic jams: burning energy needlessly, a total waste.

They produce some of their own energy in the process of braking. The same motor that moves the car when electricity is applied can be reversed so that it becomes a generator of electricity when force is used to brake the car. This may be a bit difficult to understand for those not technologically inclined. Think of it this way: you don’t put a combustion car in neutral and let it coast when going downhill because it would go too fast and possibly get out of control. When left in gear the action of the motor slows the car down. In an electric car that action produces electricity. That is why the Prius gets better mileage in town than on the road.

Electric vehicles are simpler, last longer and need less maintenance. They cost more now (which I don’t quite understand) but that should go down with mass production. The big drawback has always been range: the EV1 only went 80 miles on a charge. However, within a few years, advances in battery technology had raised that figure to about 160 miles. And at about the same time Chevron bought up the patent on a battery set-up capable of a 300 mile range… and, you’ll not be surprised to learn, promptly buried it. According to the American corporate credo, nothing - even something that might be needed to save the world – can be allowed to get in the way of immediate profit.

The car companies have consistently excused the absence of electric models in their lineups by saying there wasn’t sufficient demand. (That excuse obviously didn’t apply to the EV1 whose owners fought to keep them.) Once again range is their biggest problem; but regarding that 80 mile figure, the great majority of drivers go less than that in a day. Moreover, in an American context there are typically two cars or more per household so there’d always be one with a wider range. Under any circumstances, that deficiency in no way precludes large numbers of people wanting electric vehicles. Range is obviously not a problem for urban delivery vehicles which don’t go very far.

The ability to go long distances in an electric vehicle requires a large number of batteries, which are notoriously heavy. Thus the advantage of hybrid technology: in place of an array of batteries weighing half a ton or more, you have a small combustion engine weighing a small fraction of that. Considering that most trips are relatively short, all-electric vehicles carry around a lot of superfluous weight.

The plug-in hybrid seems to offer the best combination since it is an electric car with an onboard generator, the only drawback being that it still requires gas for longer trips. The plug-in only needs enough battery power to move the car 30 miles or so, sufficient for most trips. For many users that would mean the gas engine would rarely be fired up.  

In a combustion car, the greatest fuel use and pollution occurs during acceleration and changes in engine speed. Moreover, it takes a large engine to get the vehicle moving. Once up to speed it requires relatively little energy to keep going.

Hybrid technology derives its fuel savings from the fact that it takes only a small combustion motor to generate the electricity required and when it fires up it immediately goes to its most efficient operating speed.

I first heard of the hybrid concept in the 1970’s. What could be more simple? And yet when Ford wanted to get into the act, it had been asleep at the wheel for so long it had to buy technology from Toyota.

At any rate, whether all-electric or hybrid-electric, the changeover is decades past due. Meanwhile the prognosis for actually doing anything before it’s too late is understatedly bleak. There is nothing in the cards of a magnitude that would make the slightest difference to our ability to deal with the coming energy crunch.

The Great Catch-22 is almost upon us: Since it takes energy to do everything, if we wait till energy is expensive to convert to sustainability, we’ll not be able to afford the change. If we wait till gas is $10 gallon to buy an electric or hybrid, the cost of that car will have gone beyond our means.

Instead of the US spending its money converting to a post-oil economy, it is blowing it on wars intended to secure its near term supply of oil to feed its addiction... with the end result sure to be a crash and burn of spectacular intensity.

With a few notable exceptions in Europe, the entire world is headed in the American-led direction of trying to use up the last bit of fossil fuels as fast as possible. Even here in lowly Cambodia, vehicle registrations are rocketing up in spite of $6 per gallon gas and a coal-fired power plant is in the planning stage.
The canaries are squawking their heads off: Is anybody listening? Or rather: Is anybody with the power to make a difference listening?