Thinking Of An Electric Car? Bad Idea

28 Apr

Are modern electric cars more cost effective than older designs that use the internal combustion engine? Engineers who have studied electric vehicles don’t think so, when overall long-term costs are considered:

  • “By 2025 we see battery electric vehicles still with too long a payback, and inadequate range.” – Joseph Bakaj, VP for powertrain-engine engineering, Ford Motor Co.
  • The amount of energy/mass delivered by the lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars is close to zero, compared to gasoline and diesel fuels, which provide more energy at the least weight and cost. “The rumored death of the internal combustion engine is premature.” – Sam Winegarden, executive director of powertrain-engineering at General Motors
  • The batteries in electric cars cost about 3.5 times more than the internal combustion engine. – Chris Cowland, director of advanced powertrains at Chrysler Group

(from “Engineers Cast Wary Eye On Role of Electric Cars” by Joseph B. White, 26 April 2012 Wall Street Journal)

Okay, so electric cars are presently not economically attractive. But what about their environmental advantages? These may also be illusory. Just because batteries don’t emit pollution locally (if sealed properly), pollution is still emitted by the power plants that provide the energy to recharge the batteries. This pollution will vary depending on the fuel used by the utility (e.g. dirtier coal versus cleaner nuclear).

Bottom line: electric vehicles are another example of a poorly-analyzed faddish idea pushed by naive and arrogant politicians who (with very few exceptions) have no background in science. The end result is a very costly product with unproven environmental advantages.

-Ed Walker


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5 responses to “Thinking Of An Electric Car? Bad Idea

  1. The Nervous Cat

    April 29, 2012 at 4:52 am

    An electric car is not practical for me since I live in a apartment and have an assigned parking space with no home charging capability whatsoever. Condo associations and apartment complexes will be reluctant to add this infrastructure because they see no benefit with the added cost.

    However, don’t count out the problem with batteries in EVs since those problems are getting better with R&D. The key is to get the cost of the battery down futher and then the overall price of electric cars will drop. The Battery 500 project by IBM is a good start.

    • engineeringthinking

      April 29, 2012 at 4:06 pm

      Yes indeed, battery technology is advancing. However, so is internal combustion engine technology. Also, supplies of natural gas (which is clean) are exploding and prices are dropping, making it feasible to convert standard cars to use natural gas for fuel, rather than gasoline or diesel. In my view, the dynamics of the free market — hundreds of businesses competing for your dollar — will converge on the optimum solution, which almost certainly will not be the one proposed by government central planners, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.

  2. Robert DeDomenico

    April 29, 2012 at 7:45 am

    Yes, this is all true.

  3. Roger Blakesley

    January 7, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    The problem I see with any sort of electric car is the stages of efficiency loss between fuel source and end energy dissipation once the motor engages the shaft. If one burns natural gas at a power plant there is loss of energy from the heat of the gas burning to how much you get out of the generators; then there is the loss of energy over the power lines themselves, then the loss of energy when you charge the battery. No battery will ever put as much energy back out as one puts into it. Better to burn the natural gas (or gasoline) directly rather than lose energy by at least three step-down inefficiencies. There is a reason that the electric car was never adopted long-term in western culture, our transport needs grossly outpaced it’s thermodynamic short-comings.

    • engineeringthinking

      January 9, 2013 at 8:38 pm

      I agree. I think that’s why proponents of electric vehicles add pollution into the mix of considerations, in addition to efficiency. But even then you still have a net deficiency if you obtain power from regular fossil-fuel power plants, as opposed to wind or solar. In addition, with a shift to natural-gas powered vehicles, which are very clean, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to own an electric car, all things considered. It appears that the only reason they exist at all is that they are produced using our tax dollars through subsidies to the auto manufacturing industry; i.e. they are the result of unscientific wishful thinking by bureaucrats, rather than the reality of marketplace economics. Here’s a good reference on all this: How Green Is My Plug-In? by John Voelcker / March 2009


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