The truth about electric cars
Note: The first section of this
page was written in 2006. I'm keeping it unchanged, for historical
reference. The second section is from 2018.
Much has been said and written about the fabulous future awaiting electric
cars. Some manufacturers are actively offering some electrical vehicles,
others are selling hybrid cars, and a lot of talk goes around about hydrogen
cars, fuel cells, and so on. Prompted by the ever increasing prices for
fossil fuels, many people are giving serious thought to the idea of replacing
their present, expensive-to-operate conventional car by a modern electrical,
hybrid or hydrogen-powered “environmentally correct” car. The companies making them
are aggressively promoting their products, promising much reduced operational
costs, almost complete environmental friendliness, and so on.
It’s interesting to note that electric cars hit the roads well before
gasoline driven cars did. But they fell out of favor, and gasoline won
over batteries and all else as the energy carrier of choice. Why? Pure
greed and power of the oil companies? Hardly…
I have kept silent for a long time, but I feel I must now contribute
a little bit to public knowledge and clear up some myths and misconceptions
surrounding these issues, and de-base the outrageous claims made by manufacturers
of electric vehicles! To avoid any misunderstandings, I would like to state
that I'm in no way connected to any fossil fuel interests, and that I would
most dearly to see the present cars replaced by something better and more
ecological. But I hate seeing ignorant people misled by other, more clever
people, who don't see anything wrong in misrepresenting some facts and
in obscuring others, in order to sell their products.
First myth: Electric cars have lower operational cost than gasoline cars.
Several companies that offer electric cars praise their lower operational
cost. A typical calculation goes like this:
Your present car needs 10 liters of gasoline to go 100 kilometers.
At 1.3 Euro per liter, that makes 13 cents per kilometer. Our super duper
electrical car needs only 15 kWh of electricity for those 100 kilometers.
At 8 cents per kWh (night time rate), that's only 1.2 cents per kilometer!
Look how much money you will be saving!
The calculation in itself might be correct, but it colors some facts,
and completely omits other, very important ones! For starters, the 10 liters
per 100 kilometers stated there are valid for a large, heavy car, which
can take five passengers and a significant amount of load, has air conditioning,
and is being driven fast. The 15kWh per 100 kilometers instead are for
a tiny minimal electric car that seats two people, with no cargo, and goes
at half the speed of the gasoline car. Talk about comparing apples to oranges.
Will you come home in your electric car, park it, then wait until midnight
or whenever the electricity rate drops (if it does at all!), and then plug
it in? Most people won't have the discipline to do that, nor the technical
inclination to use a timer, even if the latter is easy to do. Also, there
will be many cases when you will be forced to recharge your car during
the day, at high electricity cost. So the 8 cents per kWh might turn into
20 or more.
But electricity is not nearly the most important factor in operational
cost! What the electric car manufacturers try to hide from the clients
is the huge operational cost caused by battery replacement! Unfortunately
the batteries don't last very long, and they are expensive. A typical lead
acid battery used for an electric car might store 1kWh for 200 times before
its lifetime is over, and might cost 80 Euro. You need several of
those batteries for a small electric car, of course. Anyway, with 80 Euro
worth of battery storing a total of 200kWh over its lifetime, you have
40 cents per kWh of stored energy, in battery replacement cost alone!!!
So, the battery replacement cost for a tiny electric car is about the same
as the gasoline cost for a big conventional car! How's that for an important
fact hidden by the seller?
And that's considering lead-acid batteries, which are the least expensive
of all available options! They are heavy, use nasty sulfuric acid, and
so some electric car makers are tempted to use better battery technology,
such as one of several nickel chemistries, or even lithium. Nickel lasts
longer than lead, lithium lasts about the same or less than lead, but both
are more expensive than lead. As a result, nickel batteries cost more per
kWh stored over their lifetime, and lithium batteries cost very much
So, the very simple fact is that for an electric car, battery replacement
cost alone is higher than the entire operational cost of a similarly
sized gasoline car!
It comes as a minor, insignificant addition that the electric
car makers don't mention the losses due to charge efficiency of a battery
not being 100%. The battery needs more charge (amperehours) put into it,
then it will give back, and it needs to be charged at a higher voltage
than what it will give back. The two things compound to make a battery
about 70 to 80% efficient, at most. Also the chargers have some losses,
even if these are small. As a result, if the manufacturer states that his
car will go 100 km with a charge of 15kWh in the batteries, you will need
to buy about 20kWh of electricity to recharge the car after that.
The bottom line is that the total operational cost of an electric car
is easily 30% higher than that of a gasoline powered car of the same size
and weight, AND that the electric car can take only half as many passengers,
because the rest of its room and loading capacity are used up by the batteries!
Second myth: Electric cars don't pollute
It's true that a properly built and maintained electrical car doesn't cause
any detectable pollution as it moves along. It generates no exhaust, and
almost no motor noise. But where did its electricity come from? Was it
a coal burning plant, which churns out massive amounts of greenhouse gas?
Was it a nuclear plant, which uses a scarce resource not unlike fossil
fuel (uranium) and generates small amounts of extremely dangerous
and long lasting waste? Was it a hydro plant, which dramatically changed
the environment of a large valley, and usually not for the best? Or a wind
turbine, which causes lots of noise and kills birds by the thousands? Or
a solar plant, which took more energy to make than it will ever generate
in its lifetime? Seen that way, the ecological advantage of electrical
cars seems quite a bit diminished! The only real environmental advantage
they have is that they avoid polluting the crowded city areas where they
are mostly used, instead producing the pollution at less crowded places
where the immediate impact is less severe. That is certainly a plus point
compared to any car that burns fuel, but it's not nearly as good as being
non-polluting, which is what electric car makers love to make you think.
Now add the need for large batteries. These are mostly made from toxic
materials. The most common battery technology is based on lead and sulfuric
acid. Both of them are pretty nasty. Sure, in a properly managed system,
the worn batteries will be returned to the factory and recycled to a high
degree. Let's hope this cycle will work…
Third myth: electrical cars are sustainable
I'm sorry that I have to let my dear readers know that electricity doesn't
grow on trees. Today, electricity is generated mostly from non-renewable
sources: Coal, oil, natural gas, uranium. The only really significant renewable
contribution comes from hydroelectricity, but this form of generation also
has severe ecological impact and is strictly limited. Tidal, wind and sun
power are rather plentiful, but expensive to harvest, and in many cases
the installations required to harvest this power require a lot of energy
(usually fossil!) to be made in the first place! It doesn't look
like humanity could satisfy its present energy needs from renewable sources
alone, even if cost was basically no issue!
So, electric cars will mostly be using electricity generated from non-renewable
sources. Their advantage might rest in better overall efficiency.
It's possible that burning a fossil fuel in a modern, highly efficient
combined cycle plant, making electricity, charging batteries, and then
using the electricity in efficient motors, will end up being just slightly
more efficient than burning the fossil fuel directly in a conventional
car engine. In any case, the gain isn't much: Maybe 35% overall efficiency
instead of 32%.
The principle behind a hybrid car is that a conventional gasoline engine
is combined with an electrical motor/generator and a relatively small battery.
The gasoline engine can be a tad smaller than that for a conventional car.
During acceleration, the electric motor helps. During braking, it generates
electricity and charges the battery, recovering some of the energy that
would otherwise be lost. That's great news indeed – but is it worthwhile?
The answer depends on how the hybrid car is used. In city stop-and-go
traffic, certainly it helps in reducing gasoline consumption. After all,
a big part of the energy spent there is usually wasted by braking! Also,
someone driving often over hilly terrain might make a significant fuel
saving by recovering energy while going downhill and using it to help go
uphill again. So, at least in principle a hybrid car is a good idea. Of
course, the control of the system must be intelligent enough to make it
work well! If you are going downhill and your battery is full, there is
no way to store the energy and you have to waste it in the brakes anyway.
And if you are going uphill too long, the battery gets exhausted and you
have to drive on the small gasoline engine alone, with the penalty of having
to carry the heavy battery and electric machine along!
And of course, if you are driving at constant speed on the highway from
one city to another, the whole electric stuff in the hybrid car is completely
useless ballast. The fuel efficiency of a hybrid car on the highway is
than that of an equivalent conventional car. The makers of hybrid cars
just don't like to tell you this fact!
There is also that other basic fact already explained for pure electric
cars: The cost of replacing the battery when it wears out is more than the
cost of the fuel you can ever save! Every Euro you save on gasoline will
make you spend several Euro on battery replacement. This is because hybrid
cars use quite expensive batteries, which is a necessity due to the high charge and
discharge rates put upon them. A typical hybrid car might save 10% of the
gasoline in average use, and the battery will ideally last for about 150000km.
That means, the hybrid car might save 1200 liters of gasoline over the
lifetime of the battery. That's a saving of 1500 Euro or so. Great… but
the battery for the hybrid car costs 3000 Euro! Oops! Where has my saving
So, if anyone intends to buy a hybrid car in order to save money in
the long term, he's on the wrong track. If instead the idea is to cause
less pollution, accepting the fact that the operational cost will be higher,
then there is a good chance that a hybrid car is a good idea. It might
save 10% of the exhaust gas in typical use, which might be more significant
than the additional pollution caused by the making and disposing of the
battery, the additional electric machine, control electronics, the additional
tire wear due to the added weight, etc. With some luck, the total improvement
in environmental impact of a hybrid car over an equivalent conventional
one might be in the neighborhood of 3% or so. If that's worth paying perhaps
10% more money overall, has to be answered by each prospective owner.
I fear that many owners of hybrid cars will end up not replacing
the battery when it's worn, turning their flashy modern hybrid cars into
de-facto conventional cars with some fancy ballast added. After all, the
car will still move even if the battery is dead… Cars that get this treatment
will end up having all the disadvantages of conventional cars combined
with the disadvantages of hybrid ones!
What about hydrogen?
Probably more lies have been printed about hydrogen as a power source,
than about any other alternative energy. So, let me clear up this once
and for all time: Hydrogen is not an energy source!!!!!!!
It's just an energy carrier. Hydrogen does not grow on trees,
you cannot take it from the air, you won't find it in mines in any usable
quantity. If you need hydrogen, you have to make it, and to make
hydrogen, you need to invest more energy into it, than you will recover
when burning it!
Sure, the oceans are full of water, and water is about 11% hydrogen.
But the hydrogen in water is in its absolutely lowest possible energy state,
totally oxidized! To make hydrogen gas, you have to tear away the hydrogen
from the oxygen, and that needs a lot of energy. Later, when you burn hydrogen,
it simply binds to oxygen again, forming water, and giving back most of
the energy used to separate it from oxygen before.
So, hydrogen does not solve any energy shortages. It only provides one
more way to carry energy from one place to another.
Hydrogen as an energy carrier has, like most things in this world, advantages
and disadvantages. The main advantage is that you can either burn it to
generate heat, or power a combustion engine, or you can put it into a fuel
cell to generate electricity. Several other fuels have the same flexibility,
but hydrogen adds the advantage that the only combustion product is water,
so there is no pollution from using it – just a steam jet making everything
damp! Of course, there is the pollution generated when obtaining the energy
needed to make hydrogen…
The disadvantages of hydrogen as an energy carrier are mostly related
to it being a gas. It's very hard to liquefy and to keep in liquid state,
so that this option is not practical for cars. It's used in some rocket
engines, though, where cost and complexity are minor issues and energy
density means everything. In cars, hydrogen can be carried along either
at very high pressure in a heavy, thick-walled steel bottle, or adsorbed
into highly porous substances, or chemically bound as a hydride. In either
case, the relationship between energy contents and weight for a hydrogen
tank is hugely worse than for a tank containing a conventional liquid fuel!
Comparing the options
For a car, the amount of energy that can be carried along in a container
of given size and total weight is crucial. Let's compare batteries, hydrogen,
and liquid fuels:
A typical car's tank full of gasoline might weigh 40kg. That's about
10kg for the tank and inlet, and 30kg for about 40 liters of gasoline.
The gross energy contents of this amount of gasoline is about 380 kWh.
Now the efficiency of a gasoline engine is really poor, around 30 to
As a result, our tank full of gasoline will give us around 130kWh of
mechanical energy at the wheels of the car, plus all the heat we might
ever care to
have, and some more! That's 3250 Wh of effective mechanical
per kg of fuel plus tank.
Diesel fuel is even better, because the fuel has a slightly higher
density, and the diesel engine is noticeably more efficient! It might
get about 4000Wh/kg at the wheels. The diesel engine is heavier
the gasoline engine or a good electric motor, so that's a negative
for it. By the way, the more common and cheaper electric motors are
then either the gasoline or diesel engines of the same power!
With batteries the situation is much more meager. Gross energy
contents of a fully charged, new battery varies from about 40Wh/kg for
lead acid, to about 200Wh/kg for lithium. Considering a motor efficiency
of 80%, at the wheels we get from 32 to 160Wh/kg. Folks, that's 20 to 100
times worse than gasoline!!! This is why electric cars have such a severely
limited range. Even stretching the amount of batteries carried to the absolute
limit, electric cars have a hard time going further than about 80km before
the battery is empty. Any cheap, simple gasoline car can go at least 400km
on a single tank, many can go 800km, and should it be necessary, you can
easily add additional tanks to extend the range to a few thousand km!
Add to this that the battery has the rated energy density only while
it's new! As it ages, the energy density drops, until it's simply no longer
acceptable and the battery has to be replaced. A gasoline tank instead
is restored to full original energy density every time you fill it up!
This is another difference the manufacturers of electric cars hate to let
Hydrogen is somewhere in between. Per se, hydrogen has excellent energy
density, roughly three times as good as gasoline! The problem lies in the
tank. You cannot simply pour it into a thin walled container and keep it
there until needed. In the best practical hydrogen tanks, based on porous
substances that store hydrogen in chemically bound form, the energy density
per weight is a little bit better than the best batteries, which makes
it still at least an order of magnitude worse than a gasoline tank. Development
in this field continues, but it seems unlikely that hydrogen will ever
meet the efficiency of liquid fuels in this regard. For that you would
need a storage system that has at least one quarter of its total weight
in stored hydrogen. The technology might become “good enough”, though.
Many people are waiting for battery makers to come out with a new battery
type that can meet or even beat gasoline as an energy carrier. Well, if
you are among those hopefuls, I suggest you prepare for a very long waiting
time! I guarantee that you will never see such a battery.
The reason is quite simple: Gasoline is a complex mix of different chemicals,
which are all based mainly on hydrogen and carbon. Both the hydrogen and
the carbon are in a high energy state. When burning gasoline, you pull
lots of oxygen from the air, you break up the high energy ties between
hydrogen and carbon, and replace them by very low energy ties between hydrogen
and oxygen (water), and carbon and oxygen (carbon dioxide). The whole energy
difference is yours to enjoy. Every hydrogen and carbon atom in your tank
is used to generate energy. Only the tank itself, weighing a few kg, is
inert mass. That's more than compensated for by the fact that for every
kg of hydrogen you burn, you are using 8kg of oxygen, and for every kg
of carbon, you are using 2.7kg of oxygen. All of that oxygen is coming
from the air, and you don't have to carry it around! So, for a gasoline
tank that starts weighing 40kg and ends at 10kg, you are using the energy
contained in roughly 150kg of active reaction substance!
Take a lead-acid battery now. You have an inert plastic container. In
it is an inert structure of very heavy lead grid plates. Smeared into the
grid openings is a paste containing the active substances: Lead oxide in
the positive plates, porous lead dust in the negative ones. These active
substances need to be bound in some way, so there is additional inert material.
All of this plate-and-paste assembly is immersed in the electrolyte, which
is composed by 80% of inert water, the rest being sulfuric acid, of which
a fair part is used in the reaction.
During discharge, sulfate ions from the sulfuric acid attach to lead
at the negative plates, while oxygen ions detach from the positive plates
and go into the solution to replace the sulfate ions. So, to get the energy
from just a few atoms changing oxidation state, you must move around a
of atoms which don't really contribute, and you can watch another huge
amount of auxiliary stuff sitting around and doing nothing! In addition,
the atoms you are moving around are pretty heavy ones (sulfur, lead!),
and they don't store a dramatically different amount of energy than the
much lighter carbon and hydrogen.
In other battery types the chemistry is different, but the basic problem
is the same.
So, that's why batteries have so much less energy density than a tank
full of gasoline. There isn't really a way to eliminate the problem from
the root. And there is only so much that can be done to improve batteries.
The active materials can be chosen to give the biggest energy storage for
the least weight. This is where lithium comes in. The auxiliary structures
can be reduced to the bare minimum. The electrolyte can be concentrated.
But even so, you end up carrying ALL the active substance, not just a third
of it like with gasoline, except if you use a metal-air battery, but these
are not presently viable for powering cars; you carry around lots of supportive
material that's not needed for gasoline; and even lithium has a worse ratio
of energy to weight than the hydrogen that makes up so much of gasoline!
That's why I'm pretty positive that batteries will never come anywhere
near the energy density of a tank full of liquid fuel.
By the way, a battery still weighs the same when it has been discharged.
An empty fuel tank instead has lost most of its weight! That's another
little point that improves the performance of conventional cars over electrics.
Oh, and I almost forgot: If you want heating in an electric car, you need
to drain additional power from the battery. The electric motor simply doesn't
produce enough heat. In a gasoline car, instead, you can take as much heat
as you want from the waste heat of the engine. It doesn't cost extra.
What should we do now, that Manfred has demolished electric cars?
I think there are many things to do. The first and most obvious, of course,
is reducing the use of our cars! I'm not a fanatic eco-preacher telling
you to scrap your car and go back to horses. But I hate to see so many
people commuting to work every day in their cars, when they could perfectly
walk or use a bicycle! The human body works best and lives longest when
it walks roughly 10km per day. More than that can cause premature wear,
while less than that makes people fat, weak and illness-prone. If you program
your life so that you walk an average of 10km per day, it's likely that
you will need the car a lot less! If it rains, so what! Use a long raincoat
and waterproof shoes, and that's it. Use the car only when you have to
transport really heavy stuff (I mean, more than what you can reasonably
carry in a backpack), or when the distances exceed several kilometers.
In the latter case, try to use public transport instead, or organize car
The same goes for your kids. Let them walk or bike to school. It's
healthy, really! Much, much better than dozing in mom's car.
Of course, it's nonsense to live at one edge of a city, work at the
opposite edge, and send the kids to a school in another town! Every family
should organize their lives so that daily commuting is shortened to reasonable
walking or biking distance.
Another point is speed. At the typical speed most traffic happens today,
excepting gridlocks, most of the energy is used to overcome aerodynamic
resistance. And this resistance rises dramatically with speed! I sometimes
look out of my window, and watch all those crazy people, zipping forth
and back at totally non-human speeds. Why not slow down drastically? Enjoy
all those little beautiful things we can see when going slow, but cannot
when speeding? Enjoy greater quietness, safety? Enjoy life? If we move
along at bicycle speed, we can save easily 70% of the cost, fuel, pollution,
and almost 100% of the risk we take for normal in our excessively fast life!
These simple measures can save more energy and pollution than any technology
change can. But we should also improve the technology of our cars. Quite
frankly, cars are a great invention and allow to do things that would be
unthinkable without them. But why, please, does a car intended for 4 people
have to weigh four times as much as these 4 people? I think we have more
than enough technology available to make small, lightweight cars that can
save two thirds of the fuel just because of being smaller and lighter!
And why always use cars for 4 to 5 people, when driving alone? Why use
pickup trucks when not transporting any heavy cargo? That's an absolutely
ridiculous waste of energy! In average, these days each car is occupied
by 1.3 persons. That means, the average payload of a car is at most 120kg,
but the average car is designed for a payload of 500kg and weighs 1200kg
when empty! What a waste!!! In average we are moving 10kg of car for every
kg of useful load! This figure urgently needs improvement. Electric cars
with their heavy batteries are not the way to do that. Modern, small, lightweight
cars powered by liquid fuels are a much better bet.
It's in this area where we can get good ideas from electric car makers.
Given the heavy weight of their batteries, these manufacturers start by
making their cars as small and lightweight as possible. So, why not take
such an ultralight car, remove the batteries to make it REALLY light, then
replace the electric motor by a tiny gasoline engine and install a small
gasoline tank? The result would be a lightweight car for two people, which
can carry a lot of load (unlike when it was electric), which has a range
10 times as far as when it was electric, has much better performance, and
which has a really low operational cost, one third of a conventional “big”
car and one tenth of the electric car.
It's strange to see that some people are perfectly willing to use a
small electric car, but are afraid of using an equally small gasoline car!
They claim safety reasons. Sure, driving a battleship is safest for
you, while at the same time it's most risky to those around you. How
far can egoism go? Now consider that the small car becomes much safer
after removing the heavy batteries. Really, I would not like to be in a
crash driving a small, weak car, with 300kg of lead acid batteries behind
my back! That sounds like sure death, even if the crash happens at barely
20km/h. Instead, a crash in that same car, at the same speed, but without
those batteries in the back, would be pretty easy to survive.
In the defense of some electric car makers, I have to state that many
of them do consider this risk, and place the batteries under the
people, rather than behind them. That's much better indeed. Still, driving
a car without such a heavy mass is safer.
Speaking of risk, a car crash with spilled gasoline is very dangerous.
But car makers have learned to place the tanks at the car's most protected
spot, minimizing the risk of rupture. Batteries instead are large and heavy,
so they cannot be placed in a sweet spot, and they will rupture
in the event of a crash, spilling their acid. If you ask me, I prefer getting
soaked in gasoline rather than in sulfuric acid! Soaked in gasoline, I
have a good chance of escaping with little harm, unless the stuff
ignites. Soaked in sulfuric acid, I will certainly die from the severe
By the way, nickel batteries don't use acid. Instead, they use potassium
hydroxide (caustic potash), which is chemically very similar to caustic
soda. You probably know that stuff and what it does to skin. Not nice…
And lithium? Well, crush a lithium cell and it will explode with a
surprising violence. After that explosion under your seat, it's pretty
irrelevant whether or not you get any of its electrolyte spilled over your
I know no cases of sudden explosions of fuel tanks in cars. Normally
it cannot happen, because there is no oxygen in the tanks. Just gasoline
and its vapor. It can't explode without oxygen! Batteries instead contain
everything needed for a nice, juicy explosion. Lead acid batteries form
oxygen and hydrogen. The amount is small, but if a spark jumps inside a
cell, which happens sometimes when a connection loosens because of vibration,
the explosion is violent enough to tear the battery apart and spill the
acid. And lithium batteries are particularly dangerous, because there are
many mechanisms by which the main active substance can explode! Just look
at the news of exploded laptop batteries, and extrapolate the damage to
the battery size needed for a car! Not nice, really…
So, is it gasoline forever?
Hopefully not. I would prefer something that stinks less! But indeed
I think that liquid fuel is the way to go for the foreseeable future. This
liquid fuel might be oil-derived, while oil lasts (apparently not much
longer). It might be organic and 100% renewable, such as vegetable oils
or alcohol. It might be synthesized from other energies; for example,
synthetic fuel compatible with gasoline engines was used in Germany as
early as the 1920s. So, the end of fossil oil does not mean the end of
gasoline as an energy carrier! This has to be kept in mind. I can perfectly
imagine the world 100 years from now, with fossil oil basically exhausted,
but gasoline driven cars, based on the same technology as ours, still going
strong, with their fuel being synthesized partly from coal and otherwise
straight out of water and carbon dioxide from the air, using solar, wind
and mostly nuclear energy.
Good or bad, I won't dare to say. But clearly there is more future
in this, than in battery or hydrogen-driven cars!
Now it's 2018, and the above text was written in 2006. Since then, huge
amounts of gasoline and diesel fuel have flowed into car engines;
lots of electric cars have been sold, and many of them
have been taken out of circulation and destroyed; frequently new
electric cars hit the market; hundreds if not thousands of new
models of fuel powered cars have also hit the market, and sold in
far larger quantities; battery technology has made significant advances
still far short of competing with liquid fuels; liquid fuels have
become more expensive; electricity has also become more expensive,
but the massive deployment of solar and wind power has a chance to limit
and Yours Truly has gotten mountains of hate mail about this
article, mountains of "well said" mail, and a few occasional mails
providing new facts. The most interesting about these mails are the
ones written by actual owners of real electric cars, who are using
them, and report the good and the bad things they discover. What follows is some
comments on what has changed, and what hasn't, in these 12 years.
There has been a general trend change in the type of batteries used for
electric cars. 12 years ago, electric cars were still mostly using
lead-acid batteries (I mean actual cars one could buy, not fancy demo
cars), with some using nickel batteries, and only a very few using
lithium. Today, lithium batteries have become the standard for
electric cars, and for good reason: At present they offer the best
combination of range, life expectancy and cost, even if the cost is
How good are they?
density seems to vary roughly between 120 and 170 Wh/kg, so there's no
dramatic improvement. This means that while cars using lithium
batteries can have far better range than the old ones that used other
chemistries, they still fall far short of the range any fuel-burning
car can easily deliver. To put it in clear numbers: A typical light car
might have a 40 liter fuel tank, holding about 380kWh of raw energy. A
normal car engine can turn about one third that into mechanical power,
so one tankload delivers about 130kWh of mechanical energy, plus
almost unlimited thermal |"waste" energy for heating the car. For an
electric car to deliver 130kWh mechanical energy, the battery needs to
have a capacity of about 140kWh, and would weigh roughly a ton. Of
course, a car that carries a ton of extra weight needs to be a bit
larger, and has more wheel friction than the much lighter fuel-powered
car, and thus its range is not as good. Energy regeneration while
slowing down or going downhill can make things slightly better for the
electric car, in case it's used in stop-and-go traffic or very hilly
terrain, while any need for heating makes things worse, because heating
power comes from the battery, in addition to the motor power taken from
But life span indeed seems to have
improved over the older battery technologies. When lithum batteries
started becoming widely used, the common knowledge was that lithium
batteries would live for
about 3 years or 300 full charge cycles, and today these figures seem
to be quite a bit higher, with batteries doing 500 to 1000 cycles
before degrading so much that the range is shortened too seriously. In
countries where cars anyway are driven for perhaps 200,000km and then
scrapped, such batteries can last the life of the car. But there
is always the doubt, because some lithium car batteries have shown
abnormally short live spans and have needed replacement after just a
few years, while others have done well over the life of the car.
The cost of lithium batteries has also been coming down. I just held a little
informal market study of many different types of lithium batteries,
both single cells and large battery assemblies, all of them made in
China, and the cost for anything usable for electric cars seems to move
very roughly between 300 and 400 dollars per kWh of rated capacity.
Assuming one can really get 10 years of service life from such a
battery, involving a quarter charge per day in average, making about
900 full charges over its life, and again assuming that the battery
will make it to that point before being ripe for recycling, we are
talking about a battery cost of 33-44 cents per kWh.
Compared to the 40 cents per kWh I calculated for lead-acid batteries
in 2006, that would bring lithium batteries down to about
the same cost, while in 2006 they were far more expensive. On the other
hand, of course, the cost of the battery is
still higher than the cost for gasoline to power an equivalent
conventional car for its entire life!
Two things are sure: That battery cost is still a very limiting factor
in the economics of electric cars, and that we need firm, reliable,
guaranteed performance data on the batteries, to be able to make any
reasonable buying decision! While the latter point has been improving
over these years, making the purchase of an electric car less of a
gamble, the cost is still too high to be attractive to most people.
And what kind of guarantee do we get? The makers of electric cars are
taking different approaches. A common one seems to be to guarantee the
battery for 5 years, and state an expected lifetime of 10 years, along
with a restriction on the odometer reading. Another approach
taken by several car makers is the refuse to actually sell the cars, but rather just lease
them to the customer. In that way, if the battery fails, the
manufacturer will replace it, and the customer won't even know how much
its real cost is. Now check the news about the electric car scene, and
see how many of these leases have been ended with the car maker
refusing to extend it, taking the car back and crushing it, and this
might give you an idea about how much money they were making on the
electric cars! Yet in other case the customer has to buy a battery-less car, and rent the battery, at a fixed monthly fee.
Several of the electric car makers are relatively small, very young companies. If
such a company gives you a 5 year warranty on the battery, how do you
know the company will even be around if you need to have them make good
on their word? And how do you know they even can?
There have been problems with at least one maker of electric cars
who lost the ability to replace the batteries, because the patents for
it changed hands and were locked away! And that car maker apparently
didn't want to invest in developing a new battery. Instead they
crushed the cars. They must have had reasons. And more likely than not,
these are purely economic. The batteries are too expensive, car owners
won't accept having to pay the real price of a new battery, and
car makers will lose money if they subsidize those batteries. So,
let's pull out, crush the cars, and forget the whole nasty thing, right?
One could think that as lithium batteries are improving and coming down
in price, old style lead batteries and perhaps also nickel batteries
should become very inexpensive, right? Unfortunately this hasn't
happened. In these seven years the prices for lead batteries have
increased, without any significant improvements made. Nickel-metal
hydride batteries have seen improvements, specially in the field of
reducing self-discharge, and also in increasing the energy density, but
not enough to be a truly good alternative to lithium. With lithium,
electric cars have a still quite short but often usable range, while with the other
battery types the range is so limited that they are only usable for city driving.
So, despite improvements in lithium battery lifespan, and
significant price reductions, batteries still are - and will remain
- the big, dominating problem in the electric car scene.
There has been a change in motor technology. Antique electric cars,
from the first ones built much more than a century ago, until those of
the 1970s and 1980s, the motor of choice was the universal
series-connected brush-type motor. It's relatively simple, inexpensive,
robust enough, and has a speed/torque curve that lends itself very well
to vehicular use, without needing any electronics. In old cars it was
controlled simply by connecting it in series with several switchable resistors,
while more modern cars used primitive electronics to control it by slow
pulse width modulation.
The Achilles Heel of these motors are the brushes. They cause loss, they spark, they are sensitive to dust, and they wear out.
If proper maintenance isn't done, severe damage happens. For all
these reasons such brush type motors were replaced by brushless types,
as soon as power electronics had come along far enough to allow making
the necessary, much more complex controllers, at a reasonable cost.
Brushless motors can be made in many ways. A common one is to place
coils in a three-phase arrangement in the stator, and simply use
several powerful permanent magnets as the rotor. This forms a
synchronous AC motor, which is very often but incorrectly called
"brushless DC motor". To run, it requires an angular position sensor,
and an electronic controller that applies a controlled current and
voltage, at controlled times, to each winding. These motors are highly
efficient, very controllable, but the permanent magnets tend to make
them somewhat expensive. Specially if small size and weight is
demanded, very strong and quite expensive rare earth magnets need to be
used. Still, this was the motor of choice during some time.
But recently the electric car industry seems to prefer another old-fashioned industrial workhorse:
The asynchronous AC induction motor. Its construction is much like the
previous type, except that it uses no magnets. Instead its rotor is
made from silicon steel with a simple, robust shorted winding. These
motors are much less expensive than the synchronous ones. You will find
them in fridges, fans, water pumps, vinyl record players (remember
them?), all the way up to giant versions used in heavy industry. There
are many good reasons to use them in electric cars too, and several car makers are using them.
For the user/owner/driver of an electric car, I don't think that there
is much practical difference between synchronous and asynchronous
motors. Both need a controller of roughly the same complexity and very
much the same cost. The synchronous motor should be slightly more
efficient, while the asynchronous one should be lower priced.
Both are very robust, and if well designed and built, very
unproblematic and essentially maintenance-free.
In short, motors aren't a big problem. There are several choices, and
they can all work pretty well, and are 3 times as efficient as a gasoline
engine. The main challenge is to make a motor that is small and
lightweight for its power, far more so than what's required in
stationary applications, but motor makers have solved this problem
pretty well. Now if there just were cheap, long lived, powerful
Unfortunately many makers of electric cars continue to give
incorrect, overstated, or vague specifications for their cars. The most
classical overstatement done is that of range. For a given car, you
will see a spec telling that it can go 200 miles on a charge, or 300
kilometers, or whatever. And then there is a little asterisk behind
that number. If you have eyes sharp enough to be able to read the
fine print at the end of the page, you will learn what the asterisk
means: That this figure was computed from calculated performance
data, or that it is valid with an optional high capacity battery which
is not included in the price printed at the top of the page, or
anything like that. In short, it's not a real range you can expect to
get under actual, normal, everyday driving conditions. That actual
range is shorter, and often very much shorter. Many people who drive
electric cars report that with a fully charged battery, the
range estimation shown on the dashboard is much lower than the value
claimed in the advertising, and that while driving the car the
estimation of remaining range drops at a significantly faster rate than
the odometer counts up. The final range they can actually achieve is
rarely more than 60 to 70% of the claimed range. And on cold days, when
they want heating and in addition the battery performance drops, the
true range can melt down to 20% of the advertised value!
What's even worse: The fine print usually doesn't tell you at all that
as the battery wears out over time, this range will further reduce.
It's assumed that people just know this, so it's not necessary to say
it. But some people just don't think about this obvious problem. They
buy a car seing that it has enough range for their needs, and then they
find out that it doesn't, really, or that it starts out having just
enough range but after some time of use the range becomes
too short. Try a warranty claim in that case? The problem is that
the manufacturers give you a warranty on the battery, but often don't
tell at what level of performance loss they will consider a battery to
be bad! To me, a battery warranty is worth anything only if it
clearly states at what level of degradation, measured in what way, they
will replace it.
As it is now, buyers of electric cars assume and accept that the actual
driving range is much shorter than the one specified. At least that's
what I gather from mail exchanges with people who bought electric cars.
Yesterday I was reading through the "questions and answers" section of
an electric car maker. One question was "How much will the range be
affected by use of the heating or air conditioning systems?" and the
answer was: "As with all cars, heating and air conditioning will
affect driving range." Firstly, this doesn't answer the question
of "how much", and secondly, it's a lie that using the heating will
affect the driving range of a gasoline car. These use engine waste heat for
heating the passenger compartment, so there is no additional fuel consumption for it!
Instead for air conditioning it's right, using air conditioning will
affect the driving range of a gasoline car. Electric cars instead will
be affected in their range by both air conditioning and heating, and
often in a surprising amount. That's why manufacturers don't like to
give figures for this. And of course, it also depends on many factors
and so it's difficult to state. But one thing is easy: A car
manufacturer could perfectly well tell how much power is consumed by
the heater, to warm the cabin by a certain amount, say, 10 degrees
Celsius. With this power, and knowing the battery's capacity, anyone
can easily calculate how long it takes to run down the battery on the
heater alone, without even starting to drive! Or if somebody drives 20
km in one hour in slow city traffic, he can use these figures to easily
calculate how much he will run down the battery additionally by using
the heater during that hour.
In short, manufacturers of electric cars should give much more detailed
specs on everything, and should avoid making general claims that cannot
be reproduced by the user, such as "typical range"! It would be
much better if real, actually
measured range of test cars was published, along with the exact
conditions under which these ranges were achieved. And a statement
should follow telling what percentage of these claims is covered by the
battery warranty, in what time frame.
The charging problem
In the early days of electric cars, it was assumed that the user would
charge them at home. The idea was so nice and simple: Drive home in the
evening, park the car in your garage, plug it in, and the next morning
drive away in your fully charged car.
There are two problems with this approach: One is that most electric
cars these days have such high battery capacities that they cannot be
fully charged from a normal outlet in one night. So it's necessary to
install a special high power outlet to charge the car. In many cases
the electrical installation of the home is too weak, and an extra,
separate connection to the distribution network needs to be made for that
special outlet. In many countries, like mine, the power
required for those fast charge outlets exceeds the absolute legal limit for homes - it's 10kW in my
country. So, the owner of such a car would have to get a "commercial"
service. And that one comes with a charge for connected power, which
is so high that its cost is unreasonable for occasional car charging. Only if
you would be charging your car for at least 15 hours per day, every
day, at full power, would it start being cost-effective!
Of course this isn't a problem of the cars, but of politics and
commercial decisions. But for a would-be user of electric cars it can
be a real problem.
Another side of the charging problem is faced by people who don't own a
garage, and park their cars in the street or a public parking lot. They can't install an outlet
in front of their appartment building, nor run a charging cable out of
their 15th floor appartment down to their car! These people depend
fully on public charging stations. Also anyone attempting highway
trips in an electric car depends on such public charging stations.
In some countries a more or less dense network of such stations has
been deployed, with some charging stations really
being public, and others being restricted to a certain brand of car, or
to members of a certain organization. In other countries instead, like
mine, no such network exists, and this limits electric cars strictly to
city traffic and other short-range use. Fuel stations instead exist everywhere.
The price of electric cars has surely not come down. Optimists keep
promising a "dramatic price reduction" in three to five years, but they
have been doing this for as long as I can remember. Meanwhile the
actual electric cars one can buy continue to be shockingly expensive
when compared to combustion engine driven cars of about the same
size, safety and comfort level. This is at least partially a
problem of scale economy - if electric cars were manufactured in
numbers of several hundred million a year, they might be less
expensive! But certainly not as inexpensive as combustion engine cars,
because of the larger amount and more expensive types of raw material
they need. Combustion engines and their drive trains are mostly made
from steel, and some aluminium, with only small amounts of other
materials used. Electric motors instead use lots of copper, which is
far more expensive than steel, and the batteries use a large
amount of lithium, rare earths and other rather expensive stuff. The
price for it will not go down due to higher demand - rather the
opposite will happen! If so, mass production of electric cars might drive their price up rather than down.
Both the industry and the early adopters of electric cars have at least
partially turned away from promoting electric cars as a cost-effective
alternative to combustion cars. Instead they emphasize the fun factor
of driving a zippy, mostly silent electric vehicle, and the ability to
drive past fueling stations and laugh at the ever increasing fuel
prices. This is certainly a better strategy that trying to lie about
the total cost of ownership of an electric car! And in fact the people
I have been in contact with, who own electric cars, do not see them as
a cheap means of daily transport, but instead as a nice, fun toy, or as an experiment.
That's great, but won't convince "the masses", who are always looking
for the cheapest possible way to solve their needs for transportation.
These mainstream customers end up buying a small gasoline powered city
car, or a modestly sized diesel car, or a diesel pickup truck, and so
on, depending on how many people and how much cargo, if any, they need
to move, and on how much distance they drive per year. But they don't
buy electric cars for such best-price transport needs - simply because
electric cars aren't the most cost-effective solution!
There have been some voices claming that car owners will have to accept
that they have to pay a higher price for cars that pollute less. Better
environmental friendliness is the goal, and any higher cost that comes
with it is a necessary evil. But when doing the overall calculation of
environmental impact of electric cars, involving the pollution and
environmental damage created by electricity generation and transport,
and all the trouble with battery chemicals during mining, refining,
battery production, and recycling or disposal, often electric
cars end up being more polluting than plain but
modern combustion engine cars!
That tends to leave the fun factor, and the sense of modernity, as the
main attractions of electric cars. In short: Interesting,
attractive but expensive toys!
A very wrong trend to gigantism
Many people, including most politicians, think that electric cars should be a
means for more environmentally friendly, sustainable private
transportation. In various countries, such as Germany, there is a a widespread
claim for small, lightweight, efficient and eco-friendly electric cars.
Yet the car industry mostly ignores this, and seems to have an absolute
fixation on power, speed and acceleration! Each year sees even bigger,
heavier, faster, more energy-wasting, more expensive electric cars
hitting the market, following the trend of combustion cars, which are also getting larger and heavier every year. This is not what most would-be customers want!
Old style electric cars used lead-acid batteries, and given their very
low energy density these cars tended to be slow and clumsy. Apparently
the industry has decided to fiercely act against this prejudice by
bringing out many models of electric cars that have more power and far
faster acceleration than almost any combustion car. The industry wants
electric cars to be seen as fast and sporty. That's understandable,
given the lead-acid past, but I think that it's time now to curb this
development. Many people would like to buy electric cars, but small, lightweight, efficient, practical, inexpensive
ones. Not monsters that weigh two and a half tons, have 400 HP motors
and shoot from zero to 100km/h in 3 seconds. Several well-known companies
are missing the trend here.
Lack of variety and specialization
On the other hand, the electric cars available today are essentially
all intended to be used on good, smooth roads. They tend to have large
alloy wheels with very low aspect ratio tires on them,
which are inflated to very high pressures. This reduces friction and
helps conserve energy, but it also makes for a rough ride unless the
road is very smooth. The cars tend to have very small ground clearance
too. All this is fine for use in a country where all roads are smooth
and never have potholes nor speed bumps - but in most countries things
are very different! Roads do have potholes, speed bumps, or are just
uneven and cracked, and in many countries there are lots of rough
gravel roads. These low-riding cars with rock-hard tires are totally
unsuitable for such countries. They can only be reasonably used in
certain first-world countries, and in the metropolitan areas of some
I keep looking out for a practical, efficient, small all-terrain
electric car. Say, something like an electric Suzuki Jimny. So far I'm
not aware of any. Instead there are lots of big, very heavy, very
powerful, very fast electric cars optimized for perfect roads, which
are perfectly useless to me, and also there are some small electric citycars
which are equally useless to me.
And like me, there are many people waiting for an electric car that has
just the features each of them needs, and the industry just doesn't develop the
different types of cars needed to suit all needs. They keep
concentrating mostly on the biggest, heaviest, fastest and most expensive cars
they can build, crammed full of bells and whistles nobody needs.
Some companies in China, India and other countries have launched
electric cars that are only slightly more expensive than modest
gasoline cars. But they are hardly ever seen in the streets of western
The problem seems to be that they tend to fail even the most basic crash safety
requirements. In an attempt to reduce the weight and cost of the cars,
thus providing better range for the money, these cars are simply too
weak to resist impact, too small to accomodate crush zones, and they
can't include safety devices such as airbags for their price. And then,
of course, there is a physically small, very dense battery weighing
several hundred kilograms, that simply rams through everything, car and
people, in the event of a crash. So in many countries these minimalist
electric cars don't get approval to be legally driven in streets, and
can't be sold except for use on private land.
It will be a real problem to develop small electric cars that are
reasonably safe in crashes even while carrying a heavy battery. Many
people want small, lightweight, inexpensive, efficient electric cars -
but they don't want to be killed in a crash with one of the big
monsters that dominate today's streets!
The proliferation of lithium batteries, and the occasional news about
lithium batteries exploding or catching fire in all sorts of devices
from cellphones and laptop computers all the way to Boeing 787
Dreamliners, must seriously worry the electric car industry. Lately
several cases of electric cars catching fire have become public. The
most common cause seems to be mechanical damage to the battery, caused by
impacting it against the ground, or having some heavy, hard object on
the ground swirling up and into the battery. I don't know how high the
risk is, compared to a car carrying 300kWh worth of highly flammable gasoline, but there
is certainly a risk.
New battery types
It would be really
desirable to find a battery chemistry that offers comparable
performance to todays lithium-ion system, without being so prone to
going up in flames. Lithium iron phosphate batteries were
advertised as the solution to this problem, but their lower energy
density is a serious handicap that apparently has prevented their
widespread use in electric cars.
Regularly there are notices in the news media about some new and
wonderful battery technology that will solve all problems, but just as
regularly these news turn out to refer to some battery system that has just been
proposed as a theoretical possibility, or is under development in some
laboratory, far from market maturity. All these news have to be taken
with a good dose of skepticism. Too much can go wrong until the new
battery chemistry can be widely used. Many battery chemistries have
been invented, tried, developed, and then discarded, because either
there was trouble with energy density, or with safety, or with life
span, or with availability of raw materials, or because plainly and
simply they turned out too expensive to make.
The trend to complex systems
We are seeing a slight proliferation of hybrid cars, or electric cars
with range extenders. I can't believe that a solution as complex as
that one can be good. They have a combustion engine, electric motor/generator,
battery, drive train, and the whole electronics to
control all that. They must by nature be more expensive, more
failure-prone, maintenance-intensive and heavier (making them less efficient) than either
pure electric or pure combustion cars. And recent tests of hybrid cars
in actual daily use show only a very slight reduction in gasoline use,
when compared to a pure gasoline car of the same size, and that's only
in city use. On the highway the hybrid system is useless, and the
hybrid car is less efficient than a simple conventional car. In any
case, even in 100% city traffic, the very slight reduction in fuel use
is very far from compensating for the higher cost of the hybrid car.
I can imagine at least the possibility of making cost effective cars
using a sort of hybrid drive system: It would consist of electric hub
motors in each wheel (4 motors), powered by some sort of simple,
fuel-driven generator, aided by a very small battery with very high
power density (not energy density), or possibly a supercapacitor,
intended only to recover energy during deceleration, to use it in
aiding the next acceleration phase. Such a system, if
mass-produced, MIGHT be not much more expensive than a traditional
permanent 4 wheel drive system using a combustion engine, gearbox,
three differentials, and several drive shafts with cardanic or
homokinetic joints. It might end up more efficient too, if the prime
mover can be made highly efficient thanks to running at its optimal
speed. A flying piston engine, with no crankshaft, directly generating
electricity in coils thanks to a magnet installed in the piston, might
be usable. Of course, such a car might be offered in several
alternatives: Powered by that engine, or by a battery, or by a fuel
cell group, with the motors, battery, etc, being the same in all cases.
Even if the version burning liquid fuel (might be multi-fuel
compatible, burning methanol, vegetable oil, etc) could be the most
cost-effective, it would still be a real challenge to build such a car
to be competitive with conventional ones. When downgrading this
to 2 wheel drive, the whole thing becomes unattractive, because
purely mechanical competition is cheap enough to leave no chance to
such a wheel hub motor driven car.
Other than the propulsion system, the rest of a modern car also
tends to be too complex. This is a problem shared by combustion and
electric cars. Manufacturers tend to cram in every bell and
whistle they can. The result are cars that are really cute toys, but
are not practical. All that unnecessary stuff they carry around has to
be designed, produced, carried around, powered, and all of it can
fail, and in that case might require very expensive repair or
replacement. It makes cars heavier, less efficient, more
expensive, and more failure-prone. The list of unnecessary gadgets
includes stuff as unnecessary as electric motors to adjust the seat
position, a task that can be easily accomplished with a simple
mechanical lever, and it also includes potentially safety-improving but
complex and expensive systems such as ABS brakes. It also includes
outright annoying things, such as alarm bells that ring on every
conceivable condition that the car maker thought need the driver's
attention, or automatic traction control systems that interfere with
what the driver is doing. It also includes sunroofs that allow the sun
to shine into the driver's eyes, blinding him, and that never stop to
creak. Not long ago I read a car advertisement that placed emphasis on
the car having big, deep cup holders at every seat. Cup holders might
not be expensive to made, but... what's the point? Do you buy a car to
drive from A to B, or to you buy it to drink your coffee in it???
I would say that the number and deepness of cup holders are
pretty much the last things a potential buyer is interested in!
The irritating thing is that many car makers force a lot of unwanted
"features" on every buyer, and the "better" a car is, the more useless
and annoying features it has too. For example I have seen many cases of
combustion engine cars offered in 2WD and 4WD versions, and the 4WD
versions all come with a bigger engine, automatic transmission, ABS,
sunroof, and two dozen other unwanted features. Anyone wanting a simple
vehicle, but that has 4WD, has to look elsewhere. The stupidity goes so
far that in one model I looked at, all 4WD versions come with leather
seats (I hate them). The 2WD models come with fabric seats. WHY? I like
fabric much better than leather, and I need 4WD. So I can't buy that
model.In those cars 4WD seems to be added as a fashion item, just as
the leather seats. The car is aimed at people who want to show it off,
not to people who need to drive through rough terrain - who generally
prefer manual transmission anyway!
Speaking of transmissions, that's one thing electric cars solve rather
nicely, by not needing them. On the other hand, I think that in an
all-terrain electric car a simple two-speed manual transmission with a
lightweight motor is a much better choice than a huge motor that
delivers both the torque necessary for terrain driving and the speed
required on the highway.
Lack of maturity
The car industry seems to have a very hard time adapting to technology
change. So we see lots of cars shaped like a conventional combustion
car, complete with an engine bay - that doesn't contain an engine! Very
recently a German car maker brought out a big, heavy electric car, that
even has a drive shaft tunnel restricting the leg space of the rear
seats - but it has no drive shaft inside that tunnel! It's crazy
Form should always follow function. An electric car needs to be
designed around the technical requirements of its technology: A heavy
battery that needs to be located low for stability, and between axles
for safety. Small motors integrated into the axles. Possibly hub
doing away with any drive mechanics. Largely regenerative braking, with
friction brakes used only as an emergency backup for very sharp
braking. Good thermal insulation of the cabin, to save on heating
power. Extremely lightweight structure, to partially offset the weight
of the battery. The technical equipment should be properly wrapped
around and below the passengers, to combine compactness with comfort
and safety. This requires an electric car to have a different shape
than a combustion car! Companies that started life making electric cars
have an advantage in this regard over companies that are adding
electric cars to their existing combustion car lines.
When seeing pictures of the guts of various electric cars, I have been
very surprised to spot a conventional lead-acid car battery battery
inside an engine-less engine compartment! What's that for? I mean, when
you have a 50kWh lithium battery built into the car's underbody, what
the heck is an additional 0.5kWh lead-acid battery doing in that front
compartment? I haven't seen how they keep it charged, but it would make
my day if I found that they use a conventional car alternator, driven
from the car's electric motor! ;-)
I fully understand that it's practical to use existing and well-proven
12V-powered accessories in an electric car. Lights, wipers, fans,
radios, instruments, lots of other accessories are available
off-the-shelf for that standardized 12V system. But that doesn't
require the use of a 12V battery! Obviously an electric car should have
a switching power converter that provides the required 12V supply
directly from the car's main battery, without needing backup through a
heavy, lossy and obsolete lead-acid battery!
I still haven't ever driven an electric car, and have not even seen a
chance to ride in one as a passenger. That's because my country, with
its many unpaved roads, millions of potholes, a proliferation of speed
bumps, and a total lack of charging infrastructure, is just not fit for
today's electric cars. So all I know about practical use comes from
what various people have told me about their electric cars, and from
reviews published in magazines.
One thing that seems to be universal about all people engaging in long
distance travel in electric cars (that's anything taking them 100km or
more from home) is the permanent fear: "Will I make it to the next
charging station"? Even people in Europe, where the network of public
charging stations is densest, often run into trouble with stations that
don't work, or don't accept the type of card the driver has, or are in
use by another car, or sometimes are blocked by some fuel-powered car
whose thoughtless driver simply used it as a parking space. People
planning a vacation trip using their electric car often plan it around
the available charging stations, and arrange their eating and
sleeping around the times the car needs to charge. Some hotels
offer parking spaces with electrical outlets for their customers that
have electric cars, often without a surcharge - but this often forces
electric car users to stick to the more expensive hotels. All in all,
charging the car away from home always seems to be somewhat
problematic, although I haven't read so far of anyone who really needed
to be towed after completely exhausting his battery o the search for a
charging station. Combustion
car owners are vastly better off in this regard, as refilling their
tanks takes just a few minutes at any of the many fuel stations
available by the roadside.
Many owners of electric cars also own a fuel powered car. They
typically use the electric car either as a sporty toy, or for daily
commuting, and use the fuel powered car for all their longer distance
All this is rather predictable. But the REALLY interesting part comes
when I specifically ask people for the total cost of ownership of their
electric car. That means the purchase price, running cost, maintenance,
any repairs, taxes, all the way to the point where they get rid of the
car, either by reselling it or by junking it.
Most owners of electric cars whom I ask about the cost, either don't
reply, or tell me that they don't care about cost. They bought the
electric car as a novelty, to feel modern, to enjoy the silent ride,
the very sporty acceleration, and definitely not to save money. They
tell me that they have enough money, and that it's as well spent on an
electric car as it would be on any other enjoyable gadget.
There have been a very few people who gave me detailed information
about the actual cost to them, and who compared these costs to those of
an equivalent gasoline-powered car. The very best bottom line was
achieved by one person who bought a small electric car at half the
nominal price, because it was a close-out from a manufacturer who was
moving out of that country. After buying the car at half price, he got
a big reimbursement from his government, which incentivates the
purchase of electric cars in that way. So the final purchase price to
him was slightly lower than that for an equivalent gasoline car, and that was the
main reason why he bought the electric car. He then used it for typical
commuting, and carefully noted down all money paid for electricity,
taxes, maintenance, insurance, etc, and compared that to the
equivalent costs of the most equivalent gasoline car he could come up with. The bottom line
was that the total cost of ownership for his electric car was just a
very small bit higher than that of the gasoline car. The difference was
so small that it almost got lost in measuring inaccuracies. But this
good result was only possible because he bought the car at such a big
discount, and on top of that got a big government subsidy.
All other detailed reports I got showed much higher total cost of
ownership for electric cars than for fuel powered ones. And the reason
is mainly the high purchase cost. Even in countries that have high
government subsidies for electric cars, they tend to be much more
expensive to the buyer than unsubsidized combustion cars of comparable
size and type. The running costs tend to be similar or lower for
the electric, but this depends very much on the local prices for fuel
and electricity. In some countries even the running costs are higher
for the electric.
So far I haven't heard any report from Norway, and that's bad, because
Norway has the highest percentage of electric cars on its streets. With
its electricity grid being mostly hydroelectric, that makes sense, and
the Norwegian government strongly supports electromobility. If anybody
in Norway who owns an electric car could tell me how the economics are
working out, I would love to hear that.
A few people reported about breakdowns. Some were covered by guarantee
and didn't cost any money to repair, just time, but several other people seem to
have run into big trouble: They reported that their electric car had
broken down and was shipped to the manufacturer for repair (!). I then
asked them to report back when the car returns, and tell me what the
cost was - and so far I haven't gotten any further reply from people in
such a situation. What's happening? Is the repair so expensive that
people prefer to forget the whole thing, and not reply? Or is it that
manufacturers offer a deal and repair the problem for free, on the
condition that the customer won't talk about the problem? I just don't
On the matter of environmental soundness, so far I know of nobody who
bought an electric car to protect the environment. Many people just
don't care about the environment, and those who do know pretty well
that electric cars are more environmentally friendly than combustion
conditions are met, among which is charging the car mostly from green
energy sources. And for most people in most countries this condition is
impossible to meet. Truly environmentally conscious people don't use
cars at all, preferring a bicycle and public transportation. And those
who want to reduce the environmental cost of their car driving tend to
notice that a small, lightweight combustion car is better for the
environment than a heavy electric car packed full with raw material
that was mined at high environmental cost, and which requires more
power to move!
A small but increasing number of countries have decided to support
electromobility by banning the sale of combustion cars after a certain
date, in some cases as early as 2030. Politicians are forcing
electromobility, regardless of whether it's technically and
environmentally sound or not. This is fully in line with the
increasing trend toward technically unfounded, purely political
decisions, that are increasingly common in many places of the world.
We are living in a strange age when technology and science are as
highly developed as never before on earth, but at the same time the
people making all-important decisions are increasingly incapable or
unwilling to understand even basic technology and science, and decide
by feeling, belief and fashion instead of hard facts.
Other countries instead haven't forced anything in this matter, but
influence (and distort) the market by subsidizing the purchase of
electric cars, or by waiving taxes on electric cars, or giving them
various other privileges such as free parking. These are indeed softer
measures than an outright absolute ban of certain technologies, but the
core issue remains: They are aiding the massive deployment of a
technology that might be worse than the one it replaces, in terms of
global pollution, resource use, and sustentability. And they are
charging the cost of it to the general population - the much cited
taxpayer. I, as a tax-paying citizen, would object very much to my
government using part of my tax money to subsidize the expensive
electric car bought by somebody else, which will be powered by a
coal-burning power plant located near my home and polluting the air I
At the same time, I would love to drive an electric car myself. After
all, I do have green and "free" electricity available to charge it,
thanks to my microhydro plant. But I need an electric car that can be
used on dirt roads, gravel roads, pothole-strewn pavement, that has
four wheel drive to negotiate the steep climbs on loose gravel roads
that make up part of the road from my home to the next town, and that
makes economic sense. In addition I would want a reasonably dense
network of charging stations, so that I can actually drive a little
farther too, and not just downtown and back. Living in a rural area of
Chile, it seems unlikely that I will live to see anything like that.
Engineers won't be able to make an electric car that can work as well
as a combustion car in this environment, at comparable cost, and the
roads in this part of the world won't be paved while I live. Instead
politicians might force me to give up my combustion car, by banning its
use, or the sale of gasoline - and if that happens
before affordable all-terrain electric cars show up, I would have
to resort to a horse-drawn carriage!
The year 2021 has begun. Since the last update even I can see a trend towards increased use of electric vehicles.
I got a report from a person in Norway, who explains why and how
electric cars have become so common there: He reports that they
actually end up having a slightly lower total cost of ownership than
comparable ICE cars, thanks to a combination of various government
incentives for electromobility, combined with increased taxes on ICE
cars. So this TCO advantage is obtained artificially, while in reality
electric cars still are more expensive. Only the burden is transfered
from the electric car owners to the ICE car users and to all taxpayers!
Such a political decision might actually make sense in a country like
Norway, that gets the vast majority of its electricity from renewable
sources. It should lead to a cleaner environment, while the higher cost
can be covered thanks to Norway being one of the highest income
countries in the world. The same approach isn't workable in poorer
countries, and wouldn't make sense in countries that get much of their
electricity from fossil fuels.
In my own country, Chile, there are also some signs of beginning
electromobility. Some charging stations have been installed.The Chilean
oil company COPEC installed a chain of 50kW charging stations along the
main north-south highway, covering from La Serena to Temuco, allowing
an electric car to travel along that route. There are also various
lower power charging stations, mostly in the cities, installed at
hotels, companies (for their employees), and some public ones. But the
network isn't dense enough yet to allow freely traveling all over the
country in an electric car. Any electric car user in Chile at this time
would probably only use the car in his city, and charge it at home.
Which isn't really an option for the large number of Chileans who live
in high-rise appartment buildings.
Only a few car dealers offer any electric models here. The typical
purchase cost for an electric car is roughly 3 times as high as that of
an equivalent (in size and shape) ICE car. There is no government
incentive. Gasoline and diesel fuel are less expensive in Chile than in
Europe, while electricity is relatively expensive, so that the energy
cost to a private user is only slightly lower when using an
electric car than with a diesel one. Even with intensive use (long
daily commuting) this probably doesn't offset the much higher purchase
cost. Commercial/industrial users fare better in that regard, because
they get electricity at somewhat lower prices.
I don't know anybody in Chile who owns an electric car for private use.
The only electric cars in Chile I have heard about are demonstration
vehicles, advertising platforms, rental cars (much in demand for
weddings), and a few used by companies.
In Santiago, which has a large public transport network using about
7000 buses, several electric buses are already in service. The first
goal is to introduce 100 electric buses (1.4% of the fleet). The others
burn diesel fuel.
Recently someone contacted me who works in a company in Santiago that
retrofits existing diesel buses for electric power. He claims that
their customers actually achieve lower TCO. Those customers are
involved in urban transport, and underground mining, involving very
slow stop-and-go traffic, at which diesel engines are very inefficient.
The battery size on those buses is matched to the rather short range
they need, allowing cost reductions relative to "long haul" electric
vehicles. I don't know at what prices they get the batteries - my
contact wouldn't say, due to company policies - but at the prices I
have seen for LiFePO4 batteries, I don't think this is possible. I
would expect the users to discover that the TCO isn't as low as they
thought, as soon as the batteries start failing... But as the saying
goes, "those who claim it can't be done should abstain from interfering
with those who are doing it"! So I wish them the best success.
I still have doubts how much environmental sense it makes, if any, to
use electric vehicles. Looking again at the situation here in Chile,
the percentage of electricity generated from renewable sources has been
going down over the years. In 1997 it was 62%, almost all of that was
hydropower. In 2013 hit a low extreme of only 33%, and since then it
has been improving again, but not enough. In 2019, the last year for
which I found data, it was only 46%. Starting a decade ago, an
important number of solar, wind and biomass generating plants have been
built, but at the same time hydropower has been steadily reducing its
participation in the energy matrix. Chile intends to get completely out
of coal burning (not of the other fossil fuels!), but at this time
still about one third of all electricity comes from coal! This is far
from the situation in Norway with its nearly 100% renewable generation.
The problem is that in most countries the situation is
even worse than in Chile. Renewable electricity generation in the
world is still less than one third of the total, and although this
is planned to increase strongly, it remains to be seen whether results
will meet expectations. At the present time, using an electric car
means mostly producing the pollution somewhere else instead of
producing it locally. It's not pollution-free transportation.
Back to homo ludens philosophicus.