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The Automobile’s Forgotten Secret

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In it lies the real key to the electric car’s success or failure.

The heart of the automobile (and of automobility) is its potential.

The automobile’s potential is its greatest secret—an open secret and yet, it often seems, a forgotten one. The big SUV in my garage may occasionally make a 10-mile trip to Walmart or 2-mile run to the volunteer fire station when the siren sounds. But it has the potential—the size, the power, the range—to take me, my friends, and our bicycles over the mountain to a distant bike trail, or 1,100 miles with a load of furniture and books to my son’s house in Florida.

A century ago, the gasoline-powered automobile revolutionized personal mobility. It did it so profoundly and swiftly as to make it a routine aspect of our daily lives. Wide-ranging mobility is so normal that many people, particularly in the anti-car crowd, have forgotten its importance. On whatever day you may happen to read this, Americans will travel 11 billion miles in their cars, going to work or to lunch with friends, shopping, visiting the doctor or dentist, picking up materials for a home project, transporting kids to soccer or a pet to the vet—compacting into a few hours tasks which, had they even been contemplated before the automobile, would have taken carefully planned days or weeks.

A century ago, the gasoline-powered automobile revolutionized personal mobility.

This marvelous potential, whether we use it a little or a lot, is woven deeply and invisibly into the fabric of our economy and of our lives. We Americans do not buy cars merely to get from point A to point B. We do not buy cars to meet average 20- to 40-mile-per-day travel expectations. We buy them with the idea that they can take us where and when we want to go, day or night, good weather or bad. What’s more, we buy them for their potential to carry not just ourselves but our families, friends, poker cronies, softball teammates, dogs and cats, antiques, tools, fishing rods, Avon deliveries, picnic lunches, easels and paints, Salvation Army donations, church bazaar cookies, saddles and tack, groceries, vacation paraphernalia, and whatever else we may dream of with some degree of comfort and safety across town or country. And, oh, yes, we might be dragging a boat or a couple of dirt bikes or a pony trailer behind us as well.

This powerful potential is at the crux of replacing internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles with electric vehicles (EVs). Can EVs ever develop the potential that ICE cars routinely deliver? This is not merely an issue of range, but range plus the sheer reserve power to carry real-life loads, deal with emergencies, and finesse the unexpected detour or delay.

Because of motorcars’ potential, Americans continue to embrace the most articulate, the most useful, versatile, and satisfying means of personal transport ever devised.

Take, for instance, the case of the celebrated and much-anticipated (coming to the United States in December) Nissan Leaf EV, with its projected range of 100 miles. This car has been touted as a breakthrough on range for a “decent”-sized EV with seating for five. We cautioned recently that its 100-mile range might not be realistic. Now, one of Nissan’s top engineers has warned that the Leaf’s range may be reduced by as much as 40 percent under what most drivers think of as typical driving conditions. Hidetoshi Kadota, the Leaf’s chief engineer, says, for instance, that if you are driving in heavy traffic on a cold day and using your heater you should expect your range to drop to about 62 miles. And that is predicated on your driving at about 15 miles per hour. At higher speeds the range will presumably drop more.

If you happen to be driving on a very hot day, using your air conditioner, you should expect a range of 70 miles—if you keep your speed under 50 mph. But on a really nice day, when you don’t need either your heater or your air conditioner, you may be able to drive more than 130 miles in your Leaf, provided you cruise at a steady 38 mph. Kadota’s estimates not only contemplate speeds the vast majority of drivers would find laughably unacceptable, they are also apparently based on the Leaf with a single driver. No passengers. No noticeably heavy cargo.

One of Nissan’s top engineers has warned that the Leaf’s range may be reduced by as much as 40 percent under what most drivers think of as typical driving conditions.

This is not the potential most Americans expect in their cars. While in some quarters it may be exciting to contemplate even a theoretical 100-mile range, let’s put that in a little perspective. Here’s a headline from Motor World, January 15, 1914: “Ford To Build That Long Looked For Electric Car.” A subhead notes that the car “Will Employ Special 100-mile Edison Battery.” The article reveals that the great Thomas A. Edison “has been developing a battery especially for the purposes of the Ford electric and has succeeded so well that a 400-pound battery, capable of operating 100 miles without recharging, is assured.”

Well, history tells us nothing was assured about Edison’s battery or the Ford electric, which was never built. It is sobering to consider that after almost a century Nissan—with its $18,000 lithium-ion “sandwich” battery pack that weighs 660 pounds—is promising the same range that had been “assured” with the Edison battery, back before the First World War.

The electric car industry of a century ago seemed instinctively to admit—without quite admitting—that it could not offer the potential of its gasoline-powered rival. Go back and review automobile advertising between 1900 and 1920. Ads for electric cars tended toward pictures of light, elegant, glassed-in carriages pulled up to a city curb with a stylishly clad lady at the tiller. Ads for gasoline cars tended toward roaring “touring” cars on the open road to somewhere, laden with passengers and with a raffish, goggle-bedecked man hunched over the huge steering wheel.

The early EV makers quietly offered “odorless” and “noiseless” transport to milady’s hair dresser, the department store, or garden club. The ICE makers offered power, glamour, and the limitless adventure epitomized in one of the most famous auto ads of all time, written for the 1923 Jordan Playboy, a two-seater roadster which was shown in blurred silhouette roaring “somewhere west of Laramie" with a “broncho[sic]-busting, steer-roping girl” at the wheel. Sure, it was a masterpiece of Madison Avenue hyperbole, but it spoke to the truth of the motorcar’s potential (not to mention that ineffable something that makes us love or hate our cars).

We Americans do not buy cars merely to get from point A to point B.

Because of this potential, Americans continue to embrace the most articulate, the most useful, versatile, and satisfying means of personal transport ever devised.

Now the Obama administration is backing a Congressional effort to dole out $6 billion more in subsidies to promote EVs through more battery research, building of home charging devices, and tax credits for EV buyers. The government has already poured $2.8 billion into battery research, begun doling out $25 billion in loans to auto makers for EV programs, and continues with $7,500 tax credits to EV purchasers. This is accompanied by vast and vague promises to wean us off our “petroleum dependency.”

These efforts may create a firmer niche for EVs in the American auto marketplace. In other words, we will be creating, at great public expense, another entitlement—a second or third “short trip” car for those who can afford it or simply can’t afford to miss those attractive tax rebates. But EVs will never supplant or even significantly augment ICE cars until and unless they can come near to matching the full potential that gasoline- or diesel-fueled cars have promised and delivered for more than a century.

Ralph Kinney Bennett writes the Automobility column for THE AMERICAN.

FURTHER READING: Bennett also wonders, “Is the Electric Emperor Naked?” He details America’s “Truckin’” obsession and examines “The Elegant Jeep.” Vaclav Smil’s new book reviews Energy Myths and Realities, while Kenneth Green discusses “A Green Economy, or a Sea of Red Ink?” and Steven Hayward criticizes “The Energy Policy Morass.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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