And the Alternative to the Electric Car Is?

By Bill Moore

Posted: 11 Jan 2012

John Petersen is, if nothing else, consistent. He clearly hates electric cars and uses every bit of his intellectual capacity to prove it. His most recent diatribe calls for the collapse of what he calls the electric car 'house of cards,' again citing statistics that demonstrate there is little chance car makers will ever make a profit on EVs.

He wraps up his missive with….

"The law of economic gravity cannot be ignored and will not be mocked. Shiny new electric vehicles from General Motors (GM), Ford (F), Nissan (NSANF.PK), Toyota (TM), Tesla Motors (TSLA) and a host of privately held wannabe's like Fisker Motors and Koda are doomed to catastrophic failure. Their component suppliers will fare no better. There is no amount of political or wishful thinking that can change the inevitable outcome."

Thankfully, Tom Konrad steps into the fray, responding that Petersen's argument is based on a false assumption that the only benefit of EVs is oil savings. He lists a half dozen other important benefits that EV's provide their owners beyond just using less petroleum, adding that they also provide a certain level of price stability in terms of energy use that you can't guarantee with oil.

While Konrad concludes that "EVs are not an economic option for everyone, or even for most drivers," he asks rhetorically...

"Are electric vehicles a panacea to our car culture woes? No. But it is a mistake to call vehicle electrification a house of cards based on a back-of-the-envelope calculation."

Now for the moment, let's assume that Mr. Petersen is right and electric cars are an unsustainable 'house of cards," what's his alternative? In the past he has often disclosed that he is invested "long" on a company that is supposedly developing a better lead acid-based battery, which suggests to me that he isn't saying all electric cars are bad, apparently not mild hybrids ones, at least. Also referred to as BAS (belt-alternator-starter) systems, they are designed to automatically start and stop a car's engine when it comes to a stop, thus saving somewhere from 10-20% of the fuel burned and pollution emitted. This is the type of system found in the Buick LaCrosse with e-Assist, though GM is using lithium instead of lead in its system.

Okay, so option one could be more mild hybrids that use a bit less petroleum. They also are a fraction of the cost of a full hybrid system. I am good with that. The more BAS systems out there, the more cost reductions we'll see in related EV components from batteries to electric motors and generators to control electronics. Granted the system is still heavily dependent on petroleum and related liquid fuels made from biomass and coal. Still, the fewer cars wasting fuel and spewing CO2 at a stop light, the better for us all.

That being said, I think it's a fair guess that most of those batteries, small though they may be, won't be lead. It might be cheap, but that's about the only thing going for it. It's heavy, its toxic, it has low energy density, and its lifespan can be measured in months, not years; or in the case now of the new Hyundai Sonata Hybrid's lithium battery, decades.

I think it's fair to say that Mr. Petersen's 'long position' in lead isn't going to realize him any profits in this life, not unless he bought really low and convinces some poor soul that advanced lead is the future. There are a lot of promising future battery chemistries out there, but he's about the only one I know of claiming lead is one of them.

So, let's assume that BAS mild-hybrids will become one answer to the question "If not EVs, what then?"

How about just fewer cars? How about instead of one or more car's per person, as here in Great American Midwest, we shift to one car per ten people? What if, due to a lot of factors from economics to environmental to demographics, succeeding generations simply decide they really don't need to own a car, period. Instead of one person bearing the cost of ownership, it gets shared -- like a time share apartment in Cabo San Lucas -- among the membership.

Actually that's already happening through a number of carshare initiatives: Zipcar, Hertz, Car2Go, Autolib in Paris. Interestingly, all of these programs are experimenting with offering their members/renters fully electric cars, allowing their higher initial purchase price to be divided among the system members. But whether they're electric or directly fossil-fueled, the point is, increasing the utilization rate of the vehicle has the effect of accelerating its pay-off while effectively reducing the number of cars on the road… assuming, of course, that members find alternative means of mobility those times when the shared car isn't available. If everyone needs to rush to and from work at the same time, carshares schemes aren't going to be as effective as we'd like them to be.

That presumes people have other options: excellent public transit; safe bike path systems; well-planned, high population dense-communities; remote work environments; all of which minimize the need for private automobiles, electric or otherwise.

But let's be honest, it will a lot longer to re-engineer America's sprawling cities to make them more pedestrian/cyclist and transit-friendly than it will take to have someone trade-in their gasoline-dependent vehicle for something many times more efficient, not to mention relatively fuel-agnostic. Does that something else have to be electric? Of course not, but it's my view -- and even ExxonMobil's, for crying out loud -- that they will eventually be electric: at least half the fleet will be hybrids by 2040, the oil giant predicts. Electric drive is clean, efficient, quiet, quick, and requires less maintenance. 'Refueling' can be far more convenient than our current paradigm, and ultimately cheaper with far more stable pricing that can ultimately come from zero carbon sources. The technology also happens to keep more money circulating in a region and nation's economy, something that many a city, state and country sorely need right about now.

So, Mr. Petersen and his ilk can flail away all they want at those damned electric cars, but until they suggest practical alternatives that can accomplish as much as their loathed EVs, I am not going to be persuaded that electric-drive is a house of cards ready to collapse. Besides, if you believe in Gartner Research's Hype Cycle, we should just about now be sliding into the trough of disillusionment where unrealistic expectations end and media bashing begins, shortly to be followed by real generation two and three progress.

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