Understanding The Demise Of The Electric Car


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"Who Killed The Electric Car?" asks Chris Paine in his recently released documentary of the same name. The documentary ultimately lays the blame at the feet of several people/organizations. This commentary from CNN provides a nice recap of the film and the issues it raises. For the most part, the motives of the parties involved are clear. The most difficult to understand, however, is the automakers themselves. The movie makes the case for their motives but never really spells them out. Here's the reasoning that I inferred from the evidence presented/hinted at:

  • mandate - the companies were annoyed at being told they must sell these cars.
  • profit - they never saw enough demand to allow them to go into mass production.
  • maintenance - the cars required so little maintenance that the manufacturers and dealers saw no hope of making money from the service/parts side of the business.

However, the most damning evidence against manufacturers is that of pre-meditation. GM, for example, wouldn't sell the cars at all -- they would only lease them. Why? Well, for one thing, when they finally got the regulations killed, they were then able to pull them all off the road as the leases expired.

I think it is important, however, to move beyond the blame and take a hard look at the future. The vary end of the movie talks about the promise of a brighter future where perhaps we may have electric cars. While straight up electric cars remain impractical due to relatively short range. It seems we are not far from plug-in (or pluggable) hybrid cars, or PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle). These cars promise mileage in excess of 100mpg for the first 60+ miles and then normal hybrid mileage after that. Here are some people working on it:

  • Cal Cars - mostly developing prototypes.
  • Hymotion - offers conversion kits to turn existing hybrids into PHEVs.

Then, of course, there's the hydrogen question. There is a lot of buzz around hydrogen, but very little infrastructure to report it. Gas and Electricity are readily available using existing infrastructure (admittedly a sharp rise in electrical demand would require more plants even though most charging would occur off-peak.) A conservative estimate, from people within the industry, puts the cost of adding hydrogen to a single existing gas station at $253k. There are over 9,500 gas stations in California alone. Not convinced, check out the non-answers to cost questions in this manufacturer's FAQ


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