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Some EV thoughts

I had an experience recently that was equal parts amusing and enlightening. I had to run an errand to a local equipment rental franchise, and I parked my Leaf in front of the building, near floor-to-ceiling windows. While I was talking with one of the employees, another one looked at my car and asked if it was electric. I said it was, and that’s when things got interesting.

One guy, roughly 60-ish, I’d guess, was clearly dismissive of the whole idea of new fangled things like cars with plugs. He even made sure ask if it came with a really long extension cord, a knee-slapper that stopped being funny sometime during the first oil embargo.[1]

A second guy, in his mid to late 20′s, resorted to my favorite dissing of EVs: “It wouldn’t work for me.” Based on how often I hear this one, I guess there must be a lot of people here in NY State who suffer from a burning need to have lunch in another time zone on a regular basis.

The third guy, late 40′s, was the real floor show in this little adventure. He was astonished that there was such a thing as an electric car. And I do mean capital-A astonished. He and 20-something guy followed me out to the car when my transaction was completed, and he asked a lot of questions. I popped open the recharge port in the nose of the car to show him where the plug goes, and I was convinced he was about to say, “Ain’t that a hell of a thing!” He even dropped down into push-up position and looked under the car, convinced that I was lying and there was a gasoline engine squirrelled away somewhere. When I drove away, he and 20-something stood in front of the store and watched, and no doubt listened for a telltale vroom of an engine firing up.

It was surreal, to say the least; I wonder if this is what it’s like to be Brad Pitt going to the corner grocery store for a few items. Probably not.

My point in telling this story is that I think it shows how uneven the growth of EV awareness and market penetration is across the US. I’m sure that in some places, like Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, a Leaf siting is utterly unremarkable. In Rochester, I’ve noticed only a few other EVs on the roads[2].

Which begs the question: Is the US still in the “early adopter” phase for EVs? I think the answer is yes, but we’re quickly exiting it, at least in some parts of the country. One thing that will help a great deal is the continued roll-out of EV models, such as the Kia Soul, due in 2014 and the smart EV, on sale now, and the broader availability of the Fiat 500 EV and the Honda Fit EV, for example.

Once we’re out of the early adopter phase, when gizmonauts and greenies are about the only buyers, then what? That’s when things become much less certain and comfortable.

One thing that would vault us out of the early adopter phase would be much better batteries. We’re seeing a steady stream of articles about potential BBBs (big battery breakthroughs) that promise to give us 250 to 300 mile/charge cars, but seem never to make it through the obstacle course between lab bench and vehicle showroom.[3] I am absolutely convinced that we will see not just one BBB but several in the next 5 to 10 years, simply because the economic incentive to make those breakthroughs is so immense. I have no idea what kind of battery chemistry they’ll use, or even if they’ll be a battery or an ultracapacitor or who knows what. But someone, somewhere (and likely several someones in several somewheres) will find a way to store and unleash a buttload of electrical energy and the automotive universe will change shape, possibly quite dramatically.

For the sake of discussion, assume we see a very affordable, widely available 300-mile/charge car technology (e.g. GM still talking about 300-mile EVs with high energy density batteries). What then? It’s hard to overplay how big a shock that would be to the entire automotive industry. We’d see massive sales and cars like my (leased, mind you) Leaf would become instant relics with laughably low resale value, much lower than they have already. Investors would take a dim view of companies that make, retail, and install parts EVs don’t have, like mufflers and fuel tanks, while companies that sell electrical equipment, from charging stations all the way down to auxiliary circuit breaker boxes and the breakers needed for all those shiny new 240-volt lines, would get a boost. And as for the impact on electricity utilities — one flinches at the thought of the fun and games we’d see unfold.

Speaking of recharging, one thing a 300-mile battery pack would create is a need for much quicker recharging. My Leaf, when charged on a 120-volt line, fills up at a rate of almost exactly five percentage points per hour. E.g. recharging from 55% to 80% takes about five hours. At 240 volts, that time is cut in half, to 2.5 hours. But if you triple the pack’s capacity, then we’re up to 7.5 hours for that same 25 percentage point top-off. A major fill-up of our mythical 300-mile pack endowed vehicle, from 20% to 80%, would take 18 hours. This tells me that with such a big pack either people would need to charge at 440 volts, something that’s not likely to be done at home, or they’ll still have to keep topping off the battery every night, just as I do with my Leaf and a wimpy 120-volt line. They’ll have 300 miles of range when needed, but after running it down they might well have to get the battery up to its normal “full” charge of 80% over a couple of days.

To someone who is living with an EV this isn’t a big deal. I just love hearing people object to EVs on the ground that “you have to plug them in!” I point out to them that plugging in my car in the garage every night is still far less hassle than going to a gas station once a week and dealing with lines and waiting behind people who can’t figure out how to work the gas pump plus putting up with the cost and smell of gasoline (which I most definitely don’t miss).

Finally, I wonder how car companies will make the transition to a post-BBB world if they’ve already been selling EVs. Since a large percentage of EVs, as far as I know, are leased, the car companies will have a whole lot of them on their hands in not much longer. The Leaf went on sale in the US in late 2010, for example, so three-year leases will start popping in just a few months. Will Nissan try to sell them? Will they offer leasees a sweetheart deal to buy them or extend the lease?[4] Will they park them in an immense warehouse next to pallets of 25MB Zip Drives? And how will they deal with people who just months earlier bought a pre-BBB vehicle at a much less attractive bang/buck ratio? People are used to major shifts like that with consumer goods, but when the item in question is a car, I suspect many of them will get a little upset to find that the residual value of their brand-new car just plummeted.[5]

For people who have been intimately involved with the computer business, as I have for a long time, this state of technological and marketing chaos is nothing new; but to see it applied to a sector as old and economically important and stuck in their ways as the car business is fascinating and a little unsettling. As I’ve said many times, the future will be a lot of things, but “dull” isn’t on the list.

[1] For the young ‘uns in the audience, it was the early 1970′s, before the Internet and cell phones, before DVRs or DVDs or VHS or even Betamax video recorders, before cable TV, and before home computers. All we had for entertainment was cheap booze, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It was hell, I tell ya.

[2] A couple of Leafs, one Mitsu i, and a Ford Focus EV. The last is so hard to distinguish from a non-EV Focus that the local presence of them could be much higher and I wouldn’t know, however.

[3] That is by no means a criticism of the people developing new batteries. It is insanely difficult to invent something that is substantially better than current battery technologies, can be produced at the scale and price needed, and doesn’t create some hideous resource dependency or have some nasty characteristic, like blowing up or failing after 100 recharge cycles.

[4] Personally, I love my Leaf and would not mind at all if Nissan let me extend the lease for another year at, say, half my current monthly payment.

[5] Does this installed base effect at least partially explain why some companies, like Toyota, are staying far away from EVs for now? I don’t know, but I find it an intriguing possibility.

3 comments to Some EV thoughts

  • Paul Davison

    Nice post Lou. A few thoughts:

    - The resale value in a dynamic and uncertain market where there is lots of innovation going on (like PCs but less predictable) is certainly one of the more challenging issues. Tesla has taken one approach, but it’s not clear to me that the other manufacturers will follow the same strategy.

    - in addition to the fallout you mention to engine and parts suppliers, I would add that there could be a lot of real economic disruption to all of the retail gas stations littered throughout the western world. virtually all of their profits come from the sale of non-fuel related items and they are hugely dependent on high volume customer traffic to survive. when you combine rising fuel economy standards with mainstreaming of EVs and PHEVs the future doesn’t look good.

  • Lou

    Damn, I forgot to mention gas stations. Thanks for the reminder.

    In their current form — catering to hit-and-run (no pun intended) refueling customers — they have at best a dim and diminishing future post-BBB. But I think we’ll see faster charging options that drop the time to top off even a huge battery from multiple hours to under an hour, and some gas stations will convert to “EV cafes”, kind of a mini-food court with charging points where you can go for lunch, use free WiFi, maybe watch some TV or play vintage video games or run a couple of miles on a treadmill (hooked up to generators that feed the cars and display your lifetime progress in vehicle as well as road miles, of course), all while charging your car. (The possibilities for places where prostitution is legal and businesses can adopt names incorporating the word “plug” are simply breathtaking…)

    Economists like to talk about the market “sorting itself out” as it works through disruptions of one kind or another, and mass market EVs will be one of the biggest examples we’ve seen, likely second to only the rise of the Internet during the lifetime of most people alive today.

  • Perwis

    Note that Tesla Model S has 300 mile range today, see:

    They are on schedule to release a more affordable car in two years.

    I think we are seeing the beginning of a disruptive technology in the car industry.