Funny, 100 Miles Is Now Good Enough

By Bill Moore

Posted: 01 Mar 2011

In the Fall of 1908, Oliver Fritschle drove his electric car from Lincoln, Nebraska to New York City to demonstrate its 100 miles per charge range. Only once did he miscalculate the distance to his next charging point, having to be towed the last seven miles.

Fast forward 90 years to the rollout of the EV1 and other electric cars that briefly appeared in California. Those EVs too had around 100 miles of driving range depending on the battery type used: most were either advanced lead acid or nickel metal hydride (NiMH), the latter offering the greater range.

The key difference between the Fritschle car and the EV1 was performance and driver comfort; the EV1 was faster, quicker and more capable than the comparatively simply contraption that slowly, doggedly trundled its way silently from one midwestern farm town to the next.

But where Mr. Fritschle extolled the remarkable range offered by his technological wonder -- it certainly was an improvement on the horse and buggy of his era -- his 1990's counterparts lamented the fact that all their cars could offer was 100 miles of range. What consumers really wanted, they argued, was an electric car with at least 300 miles range and the ability to recharge in minutes. They used this argument to effectively derail California's supposed zero emission mandate, shifting their focus to fuel cells instead. What followed as a flurry of engineering research and public relations initiatives that resulted in a few hundred demonstration vehicles, but little else.

Now fast forward again. It's a decade later. We now have newer battery technology -- lithium -- offering more energy density, meaning greater range, lighter weight, less volume, and, hopefully, longer durability. Strangely it seems, EV range really hasn't changed much. It's still 100 miles or so depending on the manufacturer and the model: Nissan's Leaf, up to 100 miles; Coda, slightly more than 100 miles; Mitsubishi i-MiEV, slightly less.

Curiously though, that 100 miles no longer seems to be considered a handicap for an electric car; at least Nissan and other all-electric car makers aren't downplaying it the way they might have a decade ago. Apparently, it is now more than enough range for the average daily commute in America: assumed to be less than 30 miles. In addition, well over half of the trips made by U.S. drivers -- shopping, errands, visiting friends, etc., are typically under 10 miles, as pointed out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Britain, the average commute is actually around 7 miles. In fact, a 100 mile range electric car could meet the daily needs of 85% of Americans, we're now told.

Funny, I recall actor and environmental activist Ed Begley, Jr. making the same point at the 2003 mock funeral held for the EV1 electric car when General Motors began recalling them, eventually to crush most of them at its one-time proving grounds outside Mesa, Arizona. He said something to the effect that "EVs are not for everyone. They only meet the needs of 85% of Americans."

So, if 100 miles wasn't good enough in 1998, then why is it acceptable in 2011? Could it be the realization that, in fact, 100 miles really is enough for most driving situations on a day-in, day-out basis? Or that it currently seems to be the economic 'sweet spot' for making EVs commercially viable, though just barely so? Sure the Tesla Roadster can deliver 200+ miles of range, but at a huge cost. Fifty plus kilowatt hours of batteries, even assuming aggressive $500/kWh pricing, represents an investment of $25,000 in cells alone, not including all the associated battery management and climate control systems lithium requires. The Leaf's 24 kWh would, using the $500 figure, still cost a sizable, but more manageable $12,000.

While Deutsche Bank forecasts the kWh costs to eventually drop to around $250 by 2020, carmakers realize they can't wait until then to start engineering, building and servicing EVs. They are in a race not only against onrushing competitors (read China here), but the oil barrel itself. Even if you don't accept the theory of 'peak oil,' the growth in global demand will continue to put huge pressures on the price of petroleum. Presumably they recognize, as GM executives have already admitted, that they can't have a product that is reliant on a single source of energy to power it, which virtually all of the 60 million or so cars and trucks built last year still are. They have to diversify what powers their vehicles. Getting customers to do the same will take time and a lot of convincing. Sure, they'd love to offer us a 300 mile EV with 5 minute rapid charging, but the technology available and affordable today just won't let them. So, until it is, 100 miles will have to do.

And it will. Just consider that first electric car the automotive version of the first version of the PC, with lots of upgrades to follow.

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