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Gas Guzzlers: Crush 'Em or Convert 'Em?

Economic analysis of proposal to convert large, gas-guzzlers to partial-electric drive

By Felix Kramer & Ron Gremban

Introduction by Felix Kramer, CalCars Founder
Analysis by Ron Gremban, CalCars Technical Lead

CalCars and Andy Grove have been proposing a major focus on converting "PSVs" (large internal combustion engine gas guzzling Pickups, SUVs and Vans) so they run partially on electricity. http://www.calcars.org/ice-conversions.html Here we address some of the key non-economic issues in doing so. This analysis starts off pretty simply, and gets to some important numbers in the summary. If you get the first half, don't worry if you decide to skip the technical details in the second half.

Many people agree it's a good idea but are not sure it's practical. They ask questions including, "Can there be a business case? Is it realistic to imagine converting millions of vehicles in less than five years? Can the retrofit infrastructure and component supply chain (batteries/motors) scale up rapidly enough?" Part of the answer to these questions involves whether we are operating with the same urgency and can muster the national will we had in 1943, when we stopped building cars and trucks to tanks and planes -- and after auto industry leaders told FDR they couldn't build 30,000 planes in one year, they built 120,000.

Many people also say -- and we fully agree -- that it's important to get incentives and disincentives right. And we need new advertising messages, and short-term rental deals, so these large vehicles are purchased and used by people who really need them -- not by those who own a big vehicle they use only occasionally to tow a boat, fill with gear, or go off-road.

When we explain that today's PSVs stay on the road for several decades (10-15 years in US, another 10-20 when resold internationally) we often hear the suggestion, from those who see plug-in cars coming within the next five years, "why not just crush the gas-guzzlers and replace them with new large efficient PHEVs?"

Many states have "cash for clunkers" programs, but they are limited in scope. Significant expansion of these programs will have unintended consequences in distorting the resale market, nationally and internationally (as thoughtfully discussed at Freakonomics: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/08/no-cash-for-clunkers/ .) Of course, we do want carmakers to mass-produce new PHEV PSVs. But many of the same scaling issues apply: can carmakers build enough of them fast enough to reduce petroleum use and thereby improve our prospects on energy security and climate change? That brings us back to our original idea: quickly start to retrofit the fleet, starting with many of the 80 million PSVs in the U.S.

Even if it were possible to crush and replace many of these cars, there is one important underlying question that we haven't been able to answer until now. We haven't known how much energy it takes to build a car, and how much you're thereby throwing away when you crush an old car that operates perfectly well and could be converted into a PHEV PSV.

Now CalCars' Technology Lead Ron Gremban has investigated that question and come up with some answers. We hope you will help distribute this message widely, and that some of you will continue the effort we've begun in developing this model, including the spreadsheet mentioned below that's available at http://www.calcars.org/calcars-crush-or-convert-icevehicles-080930.xls .

NOTE: This document does NOT address economic costs and payback -- only energy and CO2, which are entirely independent of economic incentives and other policy or business issues!

Summary

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