Battery electric vehicles were first developed in the late 1800s, at the same time as combustion-engine vehicles. They quickly succumbed to gasoline vehicles for the simple reason that batteries were too expensive, bulky, and heavy.15 They made an aborted comeback a century later in the 1990s, spurred on by air pollution concerns and support from electric utilities. California led the way with its 1990 zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) rule,16 calling for 2 percent of vehicles sold in the state to be zero emitting in 1998, increasing to 10 percent in 2003. Other regions of the world followed suit, especially France, which had huge amounts of nuclear electricity going unused at night.17
Battery electric vehicles have a rabid following. At periodic public hearings for California's ZEV rule during the 1990s and in the early years of this century, electric vehicle advocates noisily proclaimed the righteousness of their cause with raucous cheering of allies and booing of skeptics. But, alas, the rhetoric and enthusiasm for electric vehicles has still not transformed into reality. Although automakers were required to supply zero-emission vehicles to California, the state's population of battery electric vehicles peaked at around 3,000 in the year 2000. As this book goes to press, the only mass-produced battery electric vehicle is the GEM (Global Electric Motorcars) neighborhood vehicle. Chrysler's small factory in North Dakota produces fewer than 2,000 of these vehicles annually.18 But there are indications of a more substantial resurgence, with a spate of electric vehicle companies emerging in China and many international automakers expanding their investments in batteries, city electric cars, and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
The film Who Killed the Electric Car?, released to American theaters the summer of 2006, documented the recent rise and fall of electric vehicles in the United States. The long list of villains it fingered included car and oil companies and politicians. One reviewer called it "a quietly shocking indictment of our gas-guzzling auto companies and the petro-politicians who love them."19 But missing from the lineup was the one real culprit: the battery. It's true that the car companies never made an effort to market the vehicles, having convinced themselves that the cost was too high and the market too small. It's also true that the oil companies waged a fierce effort to defeat the electric-powered auto, even funding a few individuals to manufacture bogus "astro-turf" citizen groups whose sole purpose was to picket meetings and write hostile op-ed pieces.20 But the real problem once again was the cost and life of batteries. Ironically, battery electric vehicles faltered two centuries in a row for the same reason.
Battery electric vehicles are by no means doomed, however. One reason is that these vehicles do have some attributes that are very attractive to consumers. One attractive attribute is the possibility of home recharging.21 Survey research shows that a majority of people find fueling at gas stations an unpleasant experience.22 Plugging in will be difficult for apartment dwellers and some homeowners, but it's a comfortable experience for most people and a preferred option for many.
In addition, most people seem to find electric vehicles surprisingly fun to drive. After driving the prototype version of GM's EV-1 in 1995, Matthew Wald, longtime science writer for the New York Times, wrote, "If I only owned one car, this car wouldn't be it. But after driving the [EV-1], my Sable wagon and Camry sedan seemed noisy, smelly, and boring."23 These comments stem from the surprisingly high torque of electric motors, which means faster acceleration at low speeds. In drive clinics and test drives, most drivers affirm that they prefer the smooth, hard acceleration associated with the high torque of electric motors.24
Third, the energy and pollution advantages can be very large, especially in polluted areas. The magnitude of this advantage depends on the source of the electricity.25 If it comes from solar, wind, hydroelectric, or nuclear power, the life-cycle global warming benefits are huge—almost a 100-percent reduction. In California, most of the electricity comes from tightly controlled natural gas plants and zero-emitting hydroelectric and nuclear plants. In this case, battery electric vehicles provide huge improvements over gasoline and diesel vehicles (measured on a life-cycle basis, "from well to wheel"). Likewise, in France, where most electricity comes from nuclear power, the air quality benefits are huge. Battery electric vehicles are also highly attractive in very polluted cities, such as Mexico City, Beijing, Bangkok, and Katmandu.
Electric vehicles are less attractive where most of the electricity comes from coal, such as in Germany, China, India, and much of the central United States. In these cases, there can still be local pollution benefits since actual exposure to the pollution is limited. Air pollution is concentrated near coal plants outside the city, far from most people, and occurs mostly in the evenings and at night when the vehicles are being recharged and people are in their homes. But greenhouse gas emissions are very different. They don't dissipate overnight or across a few miles of land. Their effect is global. It doesn't matter where the plants are located. When electric vehicles are powered strictly by coal-generated electricity, they cause slightly more greenhouse gas emissions than a gasoline-powered combustion vehicle and thus aren't attractive from a climate change perspective—unless the gases are captured and permanently stored underground.26
In the end, though, the key to success is still the battery. Battery technology has improved dramatically since the nineteenth century and continues to improve. Through the 1990s, entirely new battery technologies were commercialized—nickel cadmium, nickel metal hydride, and more recently lithium-ion batteries—spurred by the energy demands of proliferating portable consumer products such as laptop computers and camcorders. These new batteries store more energy in less volume at lower cost. But scaling up these new and improved battery technologies for use in cars has proved formidable. Even with continuing cost and performance improvements, the high cost and physical bulk of batteries discourages their use in cars. Into the foreseeable future, batteries won't be cheap or compact enough to make battery-powered electric vehicles cost-competitive with full-sized, full-performance internal combustion engine vehicles.27
Where pure battery vehicles have the greatest potential to succeed is in applications that call for smaller vehicles with less power and performance. Vehicles used mostly within a city and on short fixed routes, such as local post office delivery or utility meter reading vehicles, are a good fit. Other good fits include neighborhood and city cars—vehicles with top speeds of less than about 65 miles per hour and ranges of less than 150 miles28— as well as scooters and motorcycles. Indeed, electric bikes and scooters in China are the first major success of battery-powered electric vehicles; sales zoomed from almost nothing in 2000 to 13 million in 2006. Infusing these alternative vehicles into the transportation system would help unlock our car monoculture. Smaller, less-expensive vehicles with fewer maintenance requirements, lower energy costs, less noise, and zero pollution . . . certainly a compelling idea worth pursuing!
Other early markets for battery-powered vehicles include off-road equipment, such as forklifts, where noise and pollution are especially offensive (especially within enclosed spaces). These vehicles don't need much energy since they don't need to perform at high speeds or with rapid acceleration, and thus a relatively small battery works fine. The additional cost of the battery in these cases—relative to combustion vehicles—can potentially be offset by the longer life of the electric power train, reduced maintenance, and lower energy cost, as well as by reduced noise and pollution.
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