Electric cars take over

I recently watched the video of a TED talk by Shai Agassi. It dates from a year ago. I’m late catching up. But there may well be other readers who haven’t caught up with him either, so I’ll report my experience. He jumps straight to the point in his opening sentence: “So how would you run a whole country without oil?”

Agassi doesn’t intend his question to be hypothetical or far off. He’s talking about the near future.  And he considers the answer lies in electricity, preferably renewable, as a fuel for vehicles. Not a few vehicles, but 99% of them.  And cars as good as any that we have today, preferably more convenient and affordable. There’s no need to wait for further technological development. We have all we need already.

You can listen to his talk below. He sets out a compelling case, and an optimistic one. He is founder and CEO of Better Place, a company that works with governments, businesses and utility companies to accelerate the transition to sustainable transportation. Their website repays attention.  I’ll extract a few items from it here.

Electricity-powered transportation fits very well with the development of renewable energy sources.  Better Place accepts fully the imperative to stop the burning of fossil fuels.:

The economics of renewables create an extraordinary opportunity for transportation.  But the economics of transportation also create an extraordinary opportunity for renewables.

First, an electric vehicle (EV) system can take advantage of underutilized electricity, reducing oil consumption and providing resources for renewable development provided the EV system is complemented with a “smart grid” that optimally manages the flow of available electricity. Second, EVs can alleviate the problems of intermittency, unpredictability and off-peak generation that have hindered the progress of renewable energy in the past. Third, because EVs offer energy efficiency up to three times greater than that of gasoline-powered vehicles, EVs reduce the overall burden on energy resources.

The transition is already under way:

The electric car is becoming inevitable.  Nearly every major automaker has an active program to develop and introduce EVs, ultimately providing the consumer a broad range of options.  Better Place is currently working with the Renault-Nissan Alliance, which will be among the first to introduce EVs, and is also in discussion with major auto manufacturers around the world.

These electric vehicles will be distinctive in more respects than their zero tailpipe emissions.  EVs inherently provide instant torque, delivering smooth, seamless acceleration.  EVs also offer ultra-quiet operation.  And since these cars typically have half the moving parts of their gas combustion engine counterparts,  lower maintenance costs are expected.  All this means that in the coming decade, EVs will be at the center of mainstream personal transportation. (my italics)

The lithium-ion batteries are adequate to the task, and some of the details are discussed here on the website.  On performance:

Now, a 24 kWh lithium-ion battery (about 200 kg) in a competitively priced medium-sized sedan provides a range of about 160 kilometers on a single charge.

But EVs will need the same freedom to go anywhere that drivers of combustion engine cars enjoy today. That means battery switch stations:

At Better Place battery switch stations, drivers enter a lane and the station takes over from there. The car proceeds along a conveyor while the automated switch platform below the vehicle aligns under the battery, washes the underbody, initiates the battery release process and lowers the battery from the vehicle. The depleted battery is placed onto a storage rack for charging, monitoring and preparation for the another vehicle. A fully-charged battery is then lifted into the waiting car. The switch process takes less time than a stop at the gas station and the driver and passengers may remain in the car throughout.

Battery charging provision at places such as homes, offices and public areas is important to broad adoption of EVs. Better Place develops, installs and manages large networks of charge spots that will aim to give consumers the convenience and services they need to confidently make the transition to EVs.

I’m in no position to comment on the feasibility of what Agassi proposes. But I see he was considered worthy of inclusion in Time’s 100 most influential people list in2009. And I certainly enjoyed the buoyancy of his talk and of the website.  I took pleasure from some of the comments of a featured guest blog on the site from Gary Kendall of Sustainability:

A great indicator that disruptive innovations are nearing the all-important tipping point is when powerful incumbents start peddling nonsense masquerading as facts, to sow doubt about the viability of the emerging technology or business model… By scrambling to erect roadblocks to new market entrants that threaten their hegemony, oligopolies are only doing what comes naturally to an organism under attack by an existential threat. And if your job is to find, extract, refine, distribute and sell liquid fuels, then electric cars certainly qualify…

“You EV guys are very well meaning – and we wish you well – but until the world stops burning coal, allow motor manufacturers to continue tinkering with incremental efficiency gains while we drill, baby, spill!”.

Back in New Zealand I ponder a vehicle fleet powered by electricity from wind farms or wave power. Bad news for petrol stations and perhaps for oil companies undertaking the expense of deep sea drilling operations. Perhaps food for thought for the Minister of Energy?  Or is that expecting a bit much?

39 thoughts on “Electric cars take over”

  1. Electric cars with a smart grid powered by renewables is a mix with many attractions. However, they still have to overcome the sunk costs of the fossil fuel infrastructure (including the 600 million vehicles already on the road), not to mention peak lithium.

  2. Bryan I am currently doing a phD looking at the potential of EVs in NZ. My focus is assessing if and when NZ car buyers will purchase these vehicles. I think that the Better Place model has some interesting features, but some unanswered questions around standards/transferability between battery leasing providers. As there is danger of anti-competitive behaviour with their model.

    What I really wanted to comment on is the gap between stated performance and actual. At this time a 24 kWh battery will weight about 250 kg. It is unlikely that you will get 160km out of unless you drive very carefully or have an EV that is very light and with v good aerodynamics. Usually a more realistic driving range is about 70-80% of the stated range.

    This I not to say that EVs will not be the future of personal transport but it will not be the current ‘car model’. It will require different systems (Better Place?) and different vehicles designs that enchance efficiency (i.e. lightweight low drag). This may even include moving way from the car to some degree. Just to point out that the most common EV in the world today is the electric scooter (China).

  3. Doug, thanks for that extra information. It is always useful to have someone evaluate the industry claims.

    Have you looked into peak lithium at all? Is this a serious limit on the rapid deployment of current EV technology?

  4. #1 Byron, the Better Place website does address the question of lithium supplies and carries this guest blog on the question, which takes an optimistic view (whether justified or not I’m in no position to judge.). Sunk costs is obviously going to be an issue in many areas as we decarbonise the economy (if we do) and one of the reasons why there will be frantic resistance.

  5. In the short term there is no Lithium supply problem. In the long term, assuming the projected demand (BAU paradigm) for cars there would be, if there are no recycling programmes in place. The good news is that, as far as I am aware, the Lithium in the batteries can be almost 100% recycled, should we choose to do so (which we should).

    PS there are also other elements in the batteries that should be recycled as well.

  6. #2 Doug, is Agassi over-optimistic on range, or are the cars he is thinking of likely to incorporate the enhanced efficiency you refer to? I From the way he was speaking I don’t think he’s looking to depend on drastic down-sizing. I did a bit of googling and came across BMW’s Megacity, planned for production in 2013. They describe it as a full five-seater and speak of an expected range of 160 miles.But then somewhere else it sounded as if the Nissan Leaf will only achieve its 160 kms under ideal conditions.

  7. In this transition stage I think every one should have two vehicles. A petrol one for the big journeys and an electric one for short journeys to the dairy etc. As time goes by and petrol becomes more expensive the electric car will be used more and more.
    The petrol car is a wonderful machine and very cheap to run considering the benefits and people are not going to give it up easily.
    The major step is to close Huntley power station. I would at least like to hear of a plan to do it.

  8. One approach to range is to build EVs with a small IC engine that can cut in to provide power to recharge batteries/extend range. When I was researching the book I stumbled on a UK team that had converted a Mini to use in-wheel electric motors, batteries and an ICE. With a decent sized battery, you wouldn’t need the ICE for most journeys but would have the range for the longer stuff when necessary.

  9. Dear Bryan

    It looks like they are pushing the weight and aerodynamics, but I cannot see any mention of the kWh total in the battery. BTW carbonfibre is expensive.

    Here is a link to a very high efficiency EV

    They say the Aptera is will come in a plug-in hybrid EV (PHEV) form as well, which is what Gareth is talking about.

  10. Ah, Nirvana! Electric airplanes weighing 2,200 metric tons at takeoff and carrying 500 happy travellers flying nonstop across the ocean, electric trucks with a load capacity of 40 metric tons and a range of 2,000 km, electric ships able to circle the world on the northern and southern trade routes on solar and wind. Unicorns in every yard.

    There are limits. Go get a battery powered saw, drill, or whatever and try to do a days work. Sorry, limited capacity, change battery. Oh, 500 charge cycles, sorry, battery dead, do not pass GO, pay many thousands, go back to square one.

    How long did steam power take to become common? How long was the conversion form coal to oils in industrial transportation?

    Surely lots of folks will easily be able to spend BigMoney on a crippled range auto as well as more BigMoney on one with a range greater than a one-hour travel radius. More likely they will figure out that an older beater makes more economic sense.

    Electric power will come, but it won’t replace oil in all applications.

    When electric battery power will take a 45 metric ton payload for 2,000km over 24 hours and stay within the state axle ratings for bridges then it will be ready. Until then it is a techno-toy.

  11. I’ll speculate that Terry assumes he’s proved the EV world won’t work.

    I doubt that many here would argue with what he actually says – no-one disputes that the current battery technology cannot do what oil does with freight on trucks (there are electric thingies called ‘trains’, though!), let alone lift planes, and the odds are it probably never will.

    The point for any sympathiser is that while you may think you’ve just disproved the viability of ‘our’ future, (but ‘techno toys’ indeed – tell that to all the scooter riders in China!) you’re also disproving your own!

    This is the real problem, and a big part of the reason so many are tempted to retreat into Denial. Warning: The future will not be convenient! It may not even be comfortable! In terms of bang-for-buck oil is/was probably a one-way, one-off bonanza.

    And we’ve largely blown it! Where’s the post-oil infrastructure we should have been well on the way to building?

    Also, while I sympathise and agree with the idea of electric ‘town cars’, I cringe when I read things like ‘we all need one of each’ (one EV and one IC car). It rather comes under the heading of what I think of as ‘first-worldism’! The precise carbon footprint of that little piece of duplication would be pretty scary, I suspect…

  12. Oh, and a homework assignment for Terry.
    Please restate your post in imperial tons just so we can understand the point thoroughly.
    PS…sorry folks – pet peeve

  13. There are limits. Go get a battery powered saw, drill, or whatever and try to do a days work. Sorry, limited capacity, change battery.

    The really stupid thing with this argument is that it largely doesn’t matter; because almost all of the time, you’ve got electricity on hand and can swap batteries or plug in.

    See that really is a key advantage of electricity – we’ve already got these massive grids distributing it pretty much everywhere that we want to freight to. It doesn’t matter that you can’t build a truck that can move 40T 2000km using stored chemical energy. Heck the country isn’t even that long. You just need to get it to the next place you can recharge. Nowhere in the world has that far between stops. Sure they might need upgrading along the way, but we know how to do that part pretty well already.

    Perhaps EV-powered freight will be more of a relay system of smaller loads than smoky, inefficient behemoths driven the length of the country by cyclist-mowing truckies jacked up on dex or whatever it is they use as stims these days. Perhaps population will spread out and so this style of distribution will be more appropriate anyway.

    If your mind is closed to change, then you fail to be able to see that any of these things could quite easily happen, move just as much freight probably more efficiently without making an electric Mack Truck. It’s not living with your head in the clouds and being unrealistic – it’s called creative thought. It is the essence of brainstorming, and along with critical analysis of these ideas it is how we arrive at forward progress, rather than living in the past Terry assumes will go on forever.

    p.s. Tom’s Retrofitted Electric Mini is the coolest vehicle in existence. That is all.

  14. Lithium has been discovered in Afghanastan. Also rare earth materials.

    I don’t think anyone is proposing electric semi trucks or ships. However, hybrid, natural gas, micro turbines, are all possibilities in large trucks. Converting much of our long haul truck freight to rail, would save enormous amounts of fuel/energy.

    There was an article recently about an 80 foot workboat, somewhere in Europe, being outfitted with a hybrid drive, that incorporates a microturbine from Capstone Turbine.

    Ships can be outfitted with kites. Check out SkySail and KiteShip.
    These parasails can provide up to 6,800 horsepower and save 10-30 of fuel. Fuel savings can be up to 50% on certain passages and wind conditions/points of sail. They are relatively cheap, at about $250,000 to retrofit a ship with one. Compare that with the one day lease fees for large bulk cargo ships a few years ago, of $125,000 a day.

  15. No one is saying that electric vehicles can in total replace the internal combustion engine. But they can take a lot of the transport demand. Where batteries are not applicable reticulated electricity may be useful (trains, trolley bus, trams). If they are not applicable then biofuels will play a role (road freight, air travel, and sea). Then there are the hybrid solutions (e.g. biofuels and sails for sea)

    In any case we are going to have to wean ourselves of the easily accessible, no thought, transport paradigm. The specific fossil fuel that it was built on cheap crude oil is running out and may have already peaked. The alternative fossil fuels that have been proposed when you study them closely aren’t of sufficient quality to fill the gap left behind by crude oil.

    I actually think that the future could be better. People will need to be more active. Walking and cycling will play a greater role in personal transport, we will be healthier. Without cheap ready access to vehicular transport there will be less reliance on big box stores/supermarkets (notice I say less not none at all). Local community stores will make a comeback bringing back vitality to suburban communities.

    Air transport will cost more, so people will take fewer but longer trips (I admit this is probably the least palatable part of this scenario)

  16. The issue of Lithium availability depends on your view of the future global vehicle ownership. If you assume that China, India and other developing countries are going to have ownership rates equivalent to the West (i.e. greater than 500 vehicles/1000 people) and a signficant proportion of those vehicles are Li-ion E cars, then there just isn’t enough Lithium (and probably a whole lot of other things as well).

    I suspect, however, that these ownership levels wont be reached and (heresy of heresies) the West’s ownership may drop back (there are whispers in some quarters that this may happen in NZ over the next 20 years or so). Then Lithium supply may not be as much of a problem.


  17. I found this an interesting read, it looks at EV development over the last century, at how the battery performance has improved but not vehicle range.


    I think reticulated power along our highways, with vehicles using battery power to and from the highway and on shorter routes is the way to go.

  18. Andrew a lot of claw back is due to our demand for much higher cruising speeds and acceleration, heavier and supposedly safer vehicles, and lots of bells and whistles like AC and stereos.

  19. Yes doug, as the article says, we could easily have 400 km range electric cars today – as long as it’s at 32 km/hr (or there abouts), but if we want 400 km range at 100 km/hr from EV’s, another solution is necessary.

  20. Thanks for the interesting link Doug, the paper does mention the possibility of “an inductive charging system built into the road network” but only in passing, it doesn’t examine the possibility of relatively cheap cars with modest battery storage and constructed using similar to todays engineering techniques picking up power from the road as an alternative to expensive cars with heavy and expensive batteries, built with sophisticated materials, and still having (compared to todays cars) poor performance.
    It would be advantageous to marketing if people could buyt EVs because they liked what they were getting ie. something that served their needs, rather than having to settle for a product that would require them to compromise their lifestyle.

    The BEVs described wouldn’t be of any use to me as I often have 7 passengers, often tow horse floats, trailers, or a boat, do a lot of off road driving, and often make journeys of 300km or more.

  21. The biggest problem with electric cars is that the electricity that drives them comes from coal generation in most countries.. All you are doing is changing from oil propulsion to coal propulsion. Not a brilliant swap.

  22. Yep Sailer coal generation and 2 tonnes of vehicle gets you nowhere. Coal generation and <1 tonne vehicle does. Renewable generation and a <1 tonne vehicle puts you in a whole new game.

  23. Andrew perhaps you would be best with a PHEV if/when they become available?

    Alternatively keep the SUV/4WD for those big trips and use a small BEV for most of your travel.

  24. I often have 7 passengers, often tow horse floats, trailers, or a boat, do a lot of off road driving, and often make journeys of 300km or more.

    There are an awful lot of us who seldom have more than two passengers, seldom tow anything, consider off-road driving to be environmental vandalism and majority of whose trips are well under 50km.

    IMO we ought to think well beyond reliance on private vehicles as seriously tackle public urban transportation, EVs would be ideal.

  25. Richard, if we want to avoid people having to own two cars when they previously only had one a small two seater EV only meets the needs of people who Never have more than one passenger and Never do any towing, and Never undertake long journeys.

    I guess you couldn’t resist the urge to smear me as an environmental vandal (obviously you’re a bit of a tosser), fortunately I can reassure you that my off road driving is limited to the farm (so now you can condemn me for the crime of drystock farming), often when I take the kids out possum hunting (with a little effort you can probably turn that into a few crimes as well).

    Doug, perfectly reasonable, but the point I’m trying to make is that if vehicles could pick up power while traveling along the highways ALL road vehicles could be converted to EVs, they would be cheaper to build (much smaller batteries), and cheaper to run, and meet the current needs of all present day car owners – and therefore they would be easier to market. it would be a step forwards in almost all regards for almost all people.

  26. Personally, I think an electric 4WD would be fantastic for all sorts of uses – lots of low end torque for towing, for instance. And like Andrew, I need a 4WD for getting around the farm or up ski roads. With fast charge batteries or supplementary ICE, and clever design to reduce weight/drag, range need not be a problem.

  27. “So how would you run a whole country without oil?”

    My point was you don’t, at least not soon.

    Yes personal EV is possible. Short trips are possible. Long trips and large loads are not possible. EV in commerce is borderline impossible given current battery weight to power.

    So a question on fuel efficiency… If a Prius gets 40MPG and hauls two, and a smallSUV gets 20MPG and hauls 6 or 8 (3 rows of seats), and the large truck hauling 40 tons of food gets 8MPG, where is the efficiency? Yes, most commutes are single occupant, but there is a lot of traffic of Mom and a bunch of kids to here and there as well. “Fit for Purpose” applies, and any vehicle can go down a category or two but none can go up. Well, maybe the Clown Car. Remember how 16 clowns got out of a VW bug at the circus in the ’50’s?

    The EV is an urban creature and will do well. It has no use in rural areas or in cold climates. A simple mod to improve acceptance would be the installation of plug-ins at urban parking lots and such. You see that a lot in Alaska and Northern Canada where the engine block heater keeps the cooling water warm and makes starting easier.

    NZ may not have long runs but NA sure does. Seattle to Anchorage is 2,500 miles.

    Petroleum is a biofuel. It is also solar power neatly stored by the kindly earth for later consumption.

  28. Andrew you may be right, but I still think laying the induction recharging network, even on just main roads (I assume the small on board battery is for travel off the network) will be expensive and awkward, but not impossible.

    It is one of those chicken and egg situations. People wont buy the induction EVs until a comprehensive network is in place and the network provider wont be keen to invest until they have a guaranteed demand for their network. It will take leadership and vision from Governments to make the jump. I have yet to see this kind of leadership from either the Nats or Labour.

  29. Terry as a source of energy and chemical feedstock it is bloody marvellous.

    But on the hand its production and use also has numerous environmental and geo-political risks associated with it.

  30. Andrew W you are right to take me to task over the off-road comment, it seems in my time I’ve probably come across too many knuckle scrappers who “off road” for recreational thrills for me to have immediately considered the multitude of legit reasons.
    However, I believe the demise of abundant cheap oil will simply force us to rethink the whole paradigm of private personal transport, especially in urban environments and the statistics are quite clear that an overwhelming proportion of private motor vehicle trips are undertaken with two, or fewer, vehicle occupants.

  31. The problem with this discussion is separating cars, which are a fantastic piece of kit, from transport. When hard decisions have to be made we need transport more than we need cars. When oil is $200 a barrel and it costs $50 to drive to work each day we will be looking for rail travel and would be happy to go to work in a golf cart. Oil is running short and we should not be poisoning the atmosphere by burning coal.
    New Zealand has a potentially abundant supply of Hydro, Geothermal and Wind energy. We should be planning for a future using these for transport.

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