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Do we have enough time to build an electric car future?

The future of transport might lie with electric cars, but will we be able to build the market and infrastructure before carbon and oil constraints create insurmountable hurdles?

The answer isn’t clear just yet. While hybrid cars, which use both battery and petrol power, are appearing more frequently on roads around the world and all the  leading automakers are leaping into plug-in vehicle projects, other obstacles besides carbon and oil are making it difficult to roll out fully electric cars on a grand scale.

As Deutsche Bank researcher Eric Heymann notes in an analysis today, “rapid structural changes are unlikely as many general problems surrounding electromobility have yet to be solved.” Foremost among those problems: the high pricetag for plug-in car batteries, which today falls in the range of €10,000 to €15,000.

Complicating that is the fact that electric car batteries remain too heavy and too short-lived, and still offer only a limited driving range before they need recharging.

“Moreover, batteries take a long time to be recharged, not all security issues have yet been solved, the infrastructure (e.g. charging stations) is still in its infancy and power generation also causes CO2 emissions,” Heymann writes. “Should the currently very high expectations regarding electromobility be quickly disappointed, this would be counter-productive for the long-term success of this promising technology.”

Among those working to help the budding electric-car industry meet its high expectations is Shai Agassi, who created the organisation Better Place in 2007. Better Place bases its mission on a model of “building open network infrastructure to enable mass adoption of electric vehicles and delivering transportation as a sustainable service.”

So far, Agassi’s company is valued at $1.25 billion (thanks in part to $350 million in new funding — “one of the largest clean-tech investments in history” — this past January) and has development projects under way in Israel, Denmark, Australia, the US, Canada and Japan. Agassi has stated his goal of making Israel the first country in the world to use only electric cars.

Nissan, which is working with Better Place through the Renault-Nissan Alliance, is also hoping to make a dent in the world’s carbon footprint for transportation with its new Leaf, the first all-electric car designed for the mass market. Priced at around $25,000 (around €18,600), the Leaf is set to be released this year. A unique aspect of the vehicle is that Nissan has priced it affordably by selling the car but leasing the battery.

Nissan says it currently has the capacity to build about 50,000 Leafs a year.

Around the globe, though, an all-electric transport system has a long way to go before making a dent in the number of fossil fuel-driven cars out there. While global hybrid registrations last year reached 598,739, according to HybridCars.com — and, mind you, that’s increasingly affordable hybrids, not fully electric cars — that’s a thin sliver compared to the estimated 806 million cars and light trucks on the world’s roads.

Let’s do the math: nearly 600,000 hybrids and 50,000 new Leafs a year versus 800-plus million petrol-powered vehicles. Clearly, making our transportation systems cleaner and less reliant on oil remains a tall order. With all the resource challenges on the horizon — peaking oil production, increasingly scarce rare earth metals, carbon regulations, etc. — peak time might prove our greatest hurdle to overcome.

5 Comments

  • Uncle B
    Posted May 23, 2010 at 10:58 am

    Do we have time? Better question: Do we have a choice? Oil will run scarce! What in Hell else is there? China voted – they built Nuclear/Electric Power stations to power electric bullet train networks that serve their patriots as we speak! No Bull Shiite corporatist oil companies manipulating the facts there! Google Torrent, the documentary, “Who Stole The Electric Car” and study it this time, carefully! It is a more relevant piece now than when first published!The Gulf disaster makes this so! Americans think that the river of cheap oil they enjoy today will run forever, if they wish it so – not so Yankee Doodle! Oil is about to see dramatic price increases, fostered by burgeoning Asian demands for a larger share of this finite resource on earth! The “Flash in the Pan” that oil is in the history of mankind will soon be over! Coal is also finite, as is Uranium. Only Solar, Wind, Wave, Hydro, Tidal and Geothermal are renewable resources – Long after the oil is gone, a wind turbine will provide electric energy to mankind! As the oil diminishes in availability and as Americans adapt to the shortages of oil, Nuclear will have its moment, then the renewables must kick in along with massive paradigm shifts in American lifestyle to adapt to the new electric energy sources – this is not a threat to current living standards, but a challenge as the oil withers away. This is also inevitable by current knowledge of the facts and will occur weather we like it or not!

  • Doug Korthof
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    Interesting that oillies say that the upstream costs of making electric are part of the “exhaust” of EVs that have no exhaust!

    In reality, they are LYING, because they don’t include the upstream cost of GASOLINE. Did you know it takes as much electric energy to extract and refine petroleum that would take an EV as far as the REST of the barrel takes an oil-fired car?

    Not to mention OTHER upstream costs of gas — oil spills in Austalia, giant oil rig fire and spill in the Gulf, oil wars, oil diplomacy, oil transport, oil pipelines, high-cost oil rigs to drill out the last of the oil…ah, yes, refinery emissions. And then, pollution from old oil wells, oil trucks, and leaking gas staions. Oh yes, urban runoff of billions of particles of oil droplets…and, yes, permanent lung damage to kids, the closer they live to freeways, not paid for by Big Oil but cost-shifted to the Taxpayer.

    Oil companies like chevron want you to think that the oil just appears, in clean gas stations, no grease, no blood, no shooting peasants visible.

    So they lie about the “long tailpipe” of EVs, but leave out the “long oil pipeline” for PETROLEUM and its bloody genesis.

  • Doug Korthof
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Altair is still around, last I heard; but as just another one of the “miracle battery” companies that seem to be struggling — while Nissan is producting its version of Lithium.

    Not that Lithium is needed; the only proven battery chemistry for EVs is NiMH (lead works too) based on much lower cost and recycle value. Old NiMH batteries can be recycled, using the same metals, after 100K or 200K. The same can be done with much cheaper lead batteries afte 50K or 100K.

    PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT, if we start to make these batteries and use them for EVs, they will get better and better — but they are GOOD ENOUGH RIGHT NOW.
    @peter

  • peter
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Whatever happened to the Altairnano Nanosafe Battery that chrges in 10 minutes? The whole company went down the tubes after the Board of Directors got rid of the CEO that put everything together and made the company into a very promising company. Perhaps it was an inside job by competitors to stop progress and Altairnano from dominating the market.

  • Doug Korthof
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 12:32 am

    You perhaps don’t know that real EVs are on the road right now?

    We’ve been driving Toyota RAV-EV, last sold in Nov., 2002, on the same battery pack, more than 100 miles range and over 100K miles. Carries 5 plug 1000 lbs. of tools!!

    The Tesla?? The Mini-E? The EV1, HondaEV and RangerEV, S10-E were crushed, but we remember them.

    We can do whatever we have a mind to do!

    Ingenious American engineers CAN DO!

    Batteries are not a problem; after 100K or 200K miles, melt them down for new batteries, using the same exact metals and alloys!

    The problem is we need PRODUCTION, NOT DELAYS AND LIES.

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