Electric vehicles still a long way off, other than scooters and motorcycles
I see that GM canceled the Cadillac Converj electric vehicle. More concerning to electric vehicle enthusiasts is that GM also canceled the engine plant that was going to make the internal combustion engine for the Volt and Cruze. We’ll see if the much-vaunted GM Volt is the next casualty. Note how little EV (electric vehicle) hype GM is generating now that the Volt is in the hands of real engineers rather than hype-slinging executives. If GM’s goal is really to get profitable, then they should be dropping the Volt any day now.
Even MIT thinks the pure EV will be a long time coming. We will see how the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt do, but don’t look for them to be more than niche cars driven by people that want to be aggressively green so they can maintain their smugness. High-dollar market-research firms conclude, ”… electric vehicles will have relatively little impact on light vehicle production until 2020, with global EV production forecast not to reach one million units until around 2017.” (pdf). Sure there are people converting Toyota Priuses to plug-in hybrids, but since this a garage mechanic and not an automotive engineer doing the work, I can promise you there are problems with reliability or liability, two huge factors for a real commercial product. The reason you don’t see Toyota doing this is that they have to guarantee the whole things functions for 50,000 miles.
It is interesting to note the people that loudly claim to be able to make practical electric vehicles have no automotive design experience. Software engineers might not be the best people to ask about high-power electrical design. At least that Agassi guy realizes we will have to swap batteries, since no wall outlet can charge a car in 10 minutes, that is just a flat-out lie.
And note that batteries still cost too much for a practical pure EV. Just because a silver-tongued grant-sucker at some university can build a shabby prototype system does not mean that it makes any economic sense to build these things. Engineering is that thin slice of the Venn diagram where scientific validity and economic justification intersect. Please stop quoting all the impractical scientists and companies with a vested interest in pushing their technology.
Batteries are just a pain in the butt. I wish people would stop listening to battery companies and braniac scientists bragging about their BS breakthroughs when anyone that has designed a charger knows how tricky it is to charge a battery properly. Li-ion can’t take too much current and self-discharges and NiMH have their own headaches, although we see that Toyota still prefers NiMH for hybrids and has gone on record saying the pure-electric vehicle is not ready for prime time.
And even if there is some miracle breakthrough in batteries, electric motors are still a limiting factor. Various companies claim revolutionary motor designs, but when you know as much about motors as the Parker Corporation, it is hard to believe these little outfits have invented anything new.
And don’t forget, if you want to get carbon out of the air you are better off switching coal plants to natural gas than drawing even more power from an electric grid that is fed mostly by coal. And before you start wailing about how all them evil middle-eastern countries are selling us their finite natural resources, realize that Canada, Mexico, and Nigeria all import way more oil to the US than Saudi Arabia. The joke about this rush to insensible technology is that while there are plenty of companies that will sell us oil, many of the exotic minerals in batteries are controlled by single countries and we won’t have enough of those minerals for all these great battery-powered vehicles.
Of course, GM did nothing but confuse people and discredit themselves when they claimed the Volt would get 230 mpg. As I pointed out, you have to compare cost of ownership, not some goof-ball number where you game the system for some empty marketing hype. If you want to see a promising technology, look at VW’s diesel hybrid.
As to fuel cells, well, hydrogen is a crappy fuel, an explosive that is hard to handle and hard to store, but burning it in an internal combustion engine makes a lot more sense than using it in fuel cells.
I don’t want to be a nattering nabob of negativity. I do see a great future for pure electric vehicles. Scooters and electric motorcycles are the logical place to start using the technology. It is easy to say you can make an electric family sedan that gets 400 miles range with 75kWh of batteries that you can charge in 9 hours. But it is just wishful thinking. If a Volt gets 40 miles with 16kWh, a 400-mile range car would need 160kWh. Carrying around a ton of batteries means that you would not get a linear improvement in range, ten times the battery capacity will not give you ten times the range. Also, a 15-amp wall socket would take 50 hours to charge a 75kWh pack (at perfect efficiency no less), much less a 160kWh pack that you really need. As my buddy Dave, who builds EVs notes:
I think he’s a bit off on the 75 KWhr pack, maybe 100 KWhr would do it. The EV-1 used about 200WHr/mi, (funny how a 10-year-old GM product outperforms the much hyped new Volt). Even $20k for a 75 KWhr pack would be the bargain of the century; his proposed $5k would be cheaper than lead-acid batteries are now. Completely absurd, and not gonna happen in our lifetimes. A 75KWhr pack using A123 or other safer ferric anode chemistries will weigh close to 750 Kg just for the cells, not counting BMS (battery management system), cabling, containment structure, etc, so you’re talking about a ton of batteries. 100 KWhr in a practical family sedan? Forget it.
My conclusion is that EVs look good on cost-per-mile, but fall apart when you consider the battery replacement cost. Li-Ion (Cobalt) looks good from a power density standpoint, but not when you consider safety. But its just chemistry, let’s hope they can come up with a breakthrough that will give us that $5k battery.
Look at the GM’s canceled EV1 compared to a Volt. When you look at the EV-1 specs, you will be astonished to see it was a lead-acid car with NiMh optional. So the EV-1 had 18.7 kWh and the NiMh had 26.4. (My Honda Civic that I converted had 8 kwh.) This means that GM has dealt with the weight problem by actually reducing the pack size for the Volt– to only 16kwh. Wow, the new Chevy volt will have less battery capacity than a lead-acid EV-1. The EV-1 specs claim a 75 to 130 miles range (with nickel). Also interesting is that they declare 26kwh/100 miles in lead and 34/30 Kwh/100 miles in NiMh (city/hiway).
The 1974 Honda Civic I converted to an electric vehicle a decade ago. It weighed 2200 pounds. The GVW of the 1974 Civic was 2400 pounds, so it could carry the driver and nothing else, unless you overloaded it. Li-ion cells would increase the range but the car still would have no payload and still could not cross the hills to Santa Cruz.
The engine compartment of the Civic, with a 9-inch Advanced DC motor and a 144V Curtis controller. Note the vacuum pump for the power brakes and 120-12V dc-dc converter by the battery to keep the 12V battery charged off the 10 battery 120V lead acid string.
My high-tech instrumentation would often show the current hitting 1000 amps. The car would do 90 mph but would die in 11 miles if you floored it at every light. Note the box of baking powder used to keep the battery acid from corroding everything inside the car. A sprinkle every few weeks seemed to do the trick. No air conditioning, no heater, no defroster. Yeah, build you own EV before you claim you know all about electic cars.
The EV1 claims 3.8 in lead and 2.9/3.3 miles/kwh in niMh. It must be the greater impedance of the niMh that causes the "mileage" to be so much worse than lead acid. I would hope lithium would get us closer, but I wonder if A123 cells have lower effective impedance than lead acid. To go from 5.36 to 3.8 is a 30% improvement. I do know that the ferric chemistry lithium cells have very low impedance. But it cannot be that low since the Volt has a water-cooled battery pack. It also shows how smart the Tesla people are — for a lot of reasons. Dave is right– the pack will cost 50 grand– so make it a sports car that costs $120k. And I thought it was crazy to use 6800 cells, but Tesla can put air around them and there is a lot of surface area to get the heat out. Pretty smart.
The design of the Volt is a little more complex than I thought—I figured it would be putting a ferric lithium battery pack in an EV-1. But with 40 miles range they also have to make that little 3-cylinder engine to charge the batteries when they die– so they do have a daunting challenge. I think they will just end up with a Honda Insight when they are all done, minus 2 billion dollars. I can see why Volt engineers are sweating bullets— they have a lot of engineering to do in very little time. Let’s hope GM does not cut corners to save face and then make a crappy or dangerous car that makes people think there is no hope for EV.
My buddy Dave knows of what he speaks. He has converted a recumbent bicycle to an electric vehicle, and as I pointed out about scooters and motorcycles, this is where a full electric vehicle makes sense. Dave tell me:
Yeah, an EV-1 has 26.4 KWHr, and gets a130 mi range, like I thought, about 200Whr/Mi (I find this a much easier metric, though it’s mixed units). Lithium is better than NiMH at retaining capacity at higher currents, but I wouldn’t have thought lead would best NiMH, must be internal impedance as you suggest. The A123 M1 cell is somewhere around 10 milliohms, don’t know how that compares with other chemistries, but look at the current you can suck out of them (40C?), at least for a few seconds.
I’m a big fan of the instant torque and quiet, mechanical simplicity of an EV, but I just don’t have any interest in a multi thousand pound family car or SUV. I don’t want an octave reduction in mass, but a decade reduction. My Go-One achieved 30 WHr/mile with some human assist and about 50 with none (wall to wheel). It weighed 95 lbs empty, 265 lbs with me in it, and cruises happily at 35-40mph. The entire powertrain and batteries weighed 25lbs (8 lbs of batteries, 17lbs motor and controller) and achieved a peak power of around 1.5Kw. And it was cobbled together. Imagine what a real company like GM or Toyota could do. Maybe I represent the extreme lunatic fringe of what someone might tolerate, but how about something on the order of 700 or 800 lbs, more like the Cree SAM or the stillborn Spark-EV Comet? (OK, or the goofy insect-body Aptera) If people insist on a vehicle with enough room for the soccer team that can tow a Mastercraft boat, forget it! Change your expectations or live eternally bound by the chains of foreign oil. Efficiency is efficiency, regardless of the power source. If it takes 9 HP to drive a Tesla down the road at 65 MPH, than it’s 9 HP if you put in a 2ZZ Toyota ICE like the Elise has (and ballast it up to 2700 lbs!). Yes, if we all drove an Elise that weighed 1000 lbs instead of 2000, and had a slipperier shape (the car, not us), it could get 80mpg and we could save as much oil as if we all bought Teslas. Smaller and lighter is the answer my friends.
What is interesting to note is the problems the Kokam li-polymer cells caused Dave. It was only a matter of months before two cells in the pack swelled up. That was $1400 down the drain. He also left off instruments and things that less hard-core bicyclists might want. Still his vehicle at least made technical sense, even if it is still too expensive to produce commercially.
My buddy Dave on the left, near the white Go-0ne (or Go-1) that he converted to an electrically-assisted recumbent tricycle.
And there always may be some blue-sky thing like pneumatic hybrid cars that changes the equation. I am all for new technology, but only when it makes sense. It astonishes me that people don’t realize that range figures are based on keeping the car just rolling along on flat ground at low speed, while the performance figures for EVs are all at regimes that use much more power. It’s analog folks, you can’t have long range and good performance at the same time, just like you can’t have low-current op amps that run at a GHz.