Dude, where's my electric car?

 
 

Electric cars have, for many years now, been the way of the future. So why aren’t they popular yet, asks Alan Coughlan

It has been promised for longer than this writer at 26 has been alive, a wonder that could aid in the protection of the Earth’s environment. The evolution of the automotive industry, which relies almost exclusively on the finite resource of oil, should logically lead to electric cars – it would seem inevitable.

Alas here we are, eleven years into the 21st century and cars run on the same fuel they did at inception. The fly in the ointment as we all know is that oil really is running out and it will happen soon. So why are there still no viable competitive and alternative options to petroleum powered vehicles on our roads? The blame, as we will see, lies with several interests.

It could be seen as delusional, if it weren’t so sinister. Our reliance upon oil is so blind and total that we are set to be in a lot of trouble when oil runs out, as it is set to within our lifetimes. We are set to drain this resource dry, yet research on alternative forms of energy for cars seems sadly lacking. For something that is so widely used, motoring companies are seeming increasingly blind to the future of motoring.

In December 1996, General Motors launched what goes down in history as a technological wonder but commercial failure. In perhaps a case of self-sabotage, the product was doomed early on but it is still held as a beacon of hope by those who hope for a greener automotive world. Almost none of them exist anymore, save a few on display in mechanical engineering museums.

The car was the GM EV1 (standing for electric vehicle). It was not a hybrid but the first fully functioning, mass-produced electric vehicle to be designed and released by a major car company in modern times. A century ago, there were more electric cars on the road than petroleum powered vehicles, but this all changed when the price of oil came down.

At prototype stage, the EV1 inspired the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to introduce a mandate to be met by the major automakers in the US. If they wanted to market their cars in California, a certain percentage of them would have to be zero emission vehicles. The mandate also called for this percentage to increase in the future, slowly but surely pushing the concept of greener cars.

This mandate was fought tooth and nail by the car companies through the courts and resulted in them suing the state of California. Under this great pressure, the mandate was abandoned releasing the automakers from any environmental responsibility.

In what could read as a conspiracy theory, the EV1 never stood a chance with General Motors being accused of self sabotage and oil companies being implicated in attempting to keep electric cars off the road. Firstly, the battery that was used was not the best that was available and while its range was favourable (70-100 miles), it was immediately singled out as a limitation.

Interestingly, a better battery did exist at the time, the patent being owned by Stanford Ovshinsky. Tax breaks were offered to those first customers who leased the cars, which were heavily criticised by consumer groups. Some of these groups were suspected of being funded by oil companies who publicly opposed taxpayers money being spent building a charging station infrastructure.

General Motors, after buying a controlling share of Ovshinsky’s company, censured him for publicising his success in a newspaper. What came next is truly shocking, as when GM sold their share in the company, Texaco bought it up.

As a result of the fact that GM only ever leased the cars to consumers, they could take them back whenever they wanted and that is exactly what happened. Amid claims of a lack of customer demand and profitability, all EV1s were repossessed and crushed. As research engineer Wally Rippel puts it, there is still over a trillion dollars of oil in the Earth’s crust, which will net at the very least one hundred dollars a barrel. In the eyes of the oil companies, there is still plenty of business to be done.

A significant issue in all of this is the fact that cars, as one of the largest contributors to emission levels, are created to make profit. Companies will always market what sells and what costs them the least. With no incentive to change to alternative energies throughout their history, why would they bother spending billions in research ad development when they could continue making petroleum-powered vehicles? Governments of the world have to legislate against these practices, as the consequences of global warming are no longer deniable.

Two industries so intrinsically linked as the oil and automotive industries will protect each other’s interests as well as their own. Money has helped them fight greener technologies for decades and it is only the harsh reality that oil is finite that the environmental issue becomes significant. There is little regard for emissions when there is profit to be made and these profits will grow as long as no alternative exists. Even with oil prices sky rocketing, people are still paying. The profits of oil companies have never been higher.

Nicolas Sarkozy recently ordered the French secret service to investigate if China is behind an alleged case of industrial spying within the car company Renault. The information supposedly being procured is to do with the battery technology to be implemented in the electric car line that Renault hopes to launch in the next year and a half.

The technology in question is still in development and thus unprotected by any patents. This means there is no way to stop anyone from copying it. This case must be viewed in line with the reality that oil production has or may soon peak.

The vast profits to be made from petroleum-powered vehicles will diminish long before the fuel does, as it can only feasibly become a preserve of the rich. Oil prices will continue to rise as the wells run dry. The long-opposed alternative of electric vehicles must be embraced and as this scandal illustrates, automotive companies are getting desperate. After years of suppressing research into these vehicles, some of the bigger players may now be left behind by an industry that will soon go through the biggest change in its history.

If we are now truly seeing international corporate spying in regards to electric vehicle and battery technology then perhaps the future really is bright environmentally. It would seem that a high performance and long-range electric vehicle is now the holy grail of the automotive and mechanical engineering professions. While it could have been achieved long ago, with oil prices at an all-time high there is no other direction to go.

Amid claims that the hydrogen fuel cell could solve the entire problem, Joseph Romm (author of The Hype about Hydrogen) has plainly explained that there is no viability in the gas. As it stands, vehicles which can run on hydrogen cost upwards of a million dollars and there is no way as of yet to hold enough of the fuel on board a car to get the range people need in their cars. He places his belief firmly in either electric vehicles or the ever-improving hybrids.

Hybrids have an internal combustion engine along with a secondary power source, usually a battery. As fuel economy improves, more powerful batteries can be used with a possible view to a complete changeover to electric vehicles. They currently seem to be the preserve of environmentally keen celebrities and hip young folk. However, if they can manage to become mainstream, they can be the key to purely electrical vehicles. Indeed, if electric cars can harness the power of celebrity endorsement in our fame obsessed culture, perhaps this can be the key step in putting pressure on oil and motor companies.

What is shocking is that the technology already exists for purely electric cars to be economic and efficient. As can be seen from the EV1 debacle, the powers that be can decide what kind of cars the public buy and what they will want to use through the power of advertising. There needs to be a change of mass opinion and government legislation to encourage the production of vehicles that do not pollute.

The next step, of course, is to find cleaner ways to provide that electricity, as changing the fuel of the car, simply puts more strain on fossil-fuel burning power plants. Interdependent decision making, amongst several fields of science, is needed to solve these problems.

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