It's Time to Face Facts: The Petroleum-fueled Car Has Its Limits
By Bill Moore
Posted: 29 Jan 2010
David Booth, a columnist for the Financial Post in Canada, recently took a swipe at electric cars in an article entitled, It's time to fact facts: The electric car has its limits. In addition to citing the usual skeptics in the auto industry, the very folks who have a vested interest in the status quo, he makes what he considers the coup de grace comment...
Which leads us directly to the most spurious counterargument made by advocates of the BEV. Depending on the constituency surveyed, goes the mantra, the typical daily commute is between 28 and 40 km, well within the range of even the balkiest of purely electric vehicles.Now this observation is largely true. Every once in a while, most of us want to drive further than 30 or 40 miles, generally for some special event: a holiday vacation, a sporting event, an emergency trip for a family funeral. But it is also true that a sizable share of Canadian households own more than one motor vehicle: 45% to be exact; and 58% of those households "drove trips over 100 km at least once during the past 30 days..."
The problem is that very few of us buy vehicles for such a singular purpose. A single, solitary vehicle must serve all our motoring needs -- we don't buy cars just for what we typically do, but what we sometimes do.
How many trips, the study didn't say. But it also doesn't rule out the possibility that one of those two vehicles couldn't be a Nissan Leaf or Think City. And, of course, this is precisely why General Motors -- with the help of both the U.S. and his own Canadian government -- decided to develop the Volt instead of the EV II. It's also why Better Place has developed its under-two minute battery exchange technology and others are working on 15- minute fast charges.
But leaving that issue aside for the moment, let's talk about the limits of the internal combustion engine motor vehicle, including his vaunted Bemmer. Here are at least seven reasons why Mr. Booth's petroleum-fueled automobile also has its limits.
- Single-fuel Dependency -- While the market share of diesel-powered cars has risen steadily in Europe due to tax incentives, in North America virtually all automobiles are confined to using one single type of fuel: gasoline. And even in Europe's case, diesel is just a less refined form of petroleum. In fact, on a global basis, 90% of all motor vehicles can only burn one fuel: oil. In places like Brazil and Iran, their governments have mandated all vehicles be flex-fuel capable: in Brazil its ethanol, while in Iran, it's natural gas. In America, we have a few million flex-fuel vehicles on the road, but they represent something like 3% of the motor fleet, about the same as gasoline-hybrids like the Prius and Escape.
- Third Party Source Dependent -- Unless you're into brewing your own ethanol or mixing up your own biodiesel from used cooking oil, you're entirely dependent on the neighborhood filling station, which anymore is also a small grocery store and car wash. Pretty much gone are the old gas stations where you went to get tune up or flat tire repaired. Now you buy gas and lottery tickets at the local convenient mart. Now most of the time this works out okay, but in times of crisis like a hurricane in the Gulf that destroys drilling platforms or knocks out refineries and pipelines, that local station can be out of fuel in hours. True, electric lines can be brought down by ice and wind, but there are far more redundant systems in place to restore power than those for gasoline, and generally they can be restored much more quickly.
- Fuel Prices Subject to Wild Fluctuations -- In January 2009, a year ago, the price of a barrel of oil was just below $40. By the end of the year, it was around $80. The year before that, it has shot up to over $140 a barrel. When was the last time you saw your electric power rates fluctuate like that? Price gyrations due to geopolitical events or simple speculator greed nearly brought the airline industry to its knees and is a contributing factor to the bankruptcy of the American auto industry.
- The Damned Things Pollute -- I suggest that as an experiment, Mr. Booth lock himself in his garage and turn on his car. Which type of vehicle would you think he'd prefer in this situation, his fossil fuel burner or a Chevy Volt? I occasionally give a lecture on the health consequences of our petroleum dependent transportation system and one of the slides I use is the rate of cancer in the Greater Los Angeles basin. What is sobering about this particular slide is that the highest cancer rates are clustered around the regions' freeway system. What's that tell you? When Atlanta asked its citizens to delay their normal morning commutes during the two weeks of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, the rates of emergency room visits for asthma attacks in children plummeted, at one hospital as much as 42%. As soon as the games were over, they returned to their normal levels.
- They are Inefficient and Wasteful -- While a diesel engine is more efficient than a gasoline one, they still pale compared to an electric car. Amory Lovins estimates that something like 3% of all the energy contained in a gallon of fuel actually ends up moving the driver; the rest is wasted in drag, friction and unused heat. And even when they're not moving, most car engines still continue to run needlessly, wasting more of the driver's hard earned money. Electric-drive cars only run when you push the accelerator and when you let up on the throttle, many of them recapture some of the energy you spent getting and keeping the car moving.
- IC Engine's Require Continual Maintenance -- Internal combustion engines have gotten a lot cleaner and even more efficient than they were 30-40 years ago, but they still require regular maintenance. Change the oil every 3,000 miles you're advised. Brakes every 30-50,000 miles. Mufflers every 50-100,000 miles. Timing belts, injectors, radiator flushes, tailpipes, the list is long and dirty. Now this isn't to say EV's won't have their maintenance schedules. You will still have to replace worn tires and windshield wiper blades, but that's about it.
- Petroleum-fueled Car Is Financial Liability -- I'd wager that Mr. Booth's personal automobile, assuming he owns one, sits most of the time, parked in his driveway or at work; maybe as much as 23 hours in the day. Beyond being a financial liability -- and a depreciating one at that -- that consumes large quantities of combustibles very inefficiently, it has little to commend it as an asset, apart from getting him back and forth to his office. It's been estimated the American car park, all 230 million-some automobiles and trucks running around the nation's roadways, represent the power equivalent of the country's entire electric power generation capacity, measure in terrawatts of energy. But virtually all of it sits idle most of the time. Now while first generation electric-drive cars will initially follow a similar model, the possibility exists that future generations will not only actively communicate with the power grid, but make important contributions to it, offering the potential of turning a liability into an asset for its owner. Granted it's not a sure thing and it could be years away, but it is feasible. Delaware just passed legislation paving the way for electric car owners to benefit from the state's net metering law. I'd expect other states to follow in the coming decade, paving the way for a V2G (vehicle-to-grid) future. This something we simply will never do with any IC engine-only motor vehicle.
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