Last August included an exciting day with the arrival of my first electric car. From an early age I took an interest in cars and in particular their internal-combustion engines. I never expected to see a competing automotive propulsion technology in my lifetime.
At the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2009, Tesla Inc. stunned the world with a prototype of the car that would eventually become the Model S. The first electric car that looked like a car, not a glorified golf cart or something from a Sci-Fi movie set.
In one fell swoop, Tesla silenced all critics with a car that had the style, poise, and range to be anyone’s daily driver. Introduced to the public in June of 2012, by 2016 the P100D version of the Model S boasted a range of over 300 miles and enough horsepower to turn the standing start quarter mile at over 120 miles per hour, making it one of the most powerful mass-produced cars ever made.
The key technology that made the Model S possible is a lithium ion — or Li-ion — battery, a technology that’s been around for years powering laptop computers and cell phones and other devices that benefit from power dense batteries. The Model S became a reality because Tesla had the vision to see all the pieces of a modern electric vehicle put together with 1995 technology, and the audacity to take on the worldwide automotive industry.
Gas cars by default
The fact is the IC, the internal-combustion engine, was never the best propulsion device for a car, it was simply the only propulsion device that 19th century technology had to offer that provided the power and range to meet consumer demand.
The electric motor was always the best propulsion device, but the best electric energy storage at the time (lead-acid batteries) didn’t have anywhere near the energy density needed to compete with IC engines for range. Internal combustion won the day and went on to become the dominant — and then the only — propulsion device for cars for over 100 years.
Internal-combustion engine development progressed in every decade garnering significant research and development budgets. The 130-year effort to develop IC technology for vehicles showed the ingenuity and perseverance that determined people can put forward when challenged. Starting in the 19th century with noisy, smelly and inefficient engines that required constant maintenance, engineers plied their craft to make modern IC engines quiet, power dense, reasonably efficient and remarkably reliable.
Yet all that progress is easily eclipsed with a modern EV.
Future arrives EVs produce zero tailpipe emissions, have significantly fewer moving parts, are as reliable as your refrigerator, and operate at a fraction of the cost of an IC-powered car. EVs don’t require multi-speed transmissions or a reversing gear. To go in reverse, the electric motor simply spins backwards.
EVs use brushless motors that require no maintenance, and those motors also provide regenerative braking, which puts kinetic energy back into the battery and augment the mechanical brakes to a point where the mechanical brakes may last the life of the car without replacement, depending on how you drive.
The largest impediment today for wide scale adoption of EVs is cost, namely the cost of those Li-ion batteries. But those costs have been coming down from over $1,000 per kW-h in 2010 to under $100 kW-h today, and will continue a downward trend, leading soon to EVs being less expensive than IC-engine cars.
You can look at it this way, when the cost of the Li-ion battery is less than the cost of a multi-speed transmission, it’s really lights out for the IC-powered car. That cross-over point is expected to occur in 2025.
Efficient? Oh, yes
The easy way to look at EV mileage and make comparisons is to simply calculate the cost per mile. For a typical EV the average mileage may be 33.3 kW-h per 100 miles and at 18 cents per kW-h that works out to 6 cents per mile. A comparable IC engine car may average 20 MPG and the fuel may cost $2.40 per gallon, which works out to 12 cents per mile.
Of course the price of gasoline and the price of electricity vary from coast to coast, but at the end of the day, pound for pound, the fuel cost per mile for an EV in Connecticut will be about one half that of an IC engine car.
Critics point to EVs zero emission moniker to be misleading; that their electricity may come from an undesirable fossil-fuel source and that their Li-ion batteries have environmental issues of their own.
Both are true statements.
However, the use of coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, to make electricity is in decline and today is less than 20% of total production. The largest share of electricity production today is from natural gas. I can’t speak with authority to the environmental issues with Li-ion batteries, all I know is that we cleaned up the water and the air after 1970, and that same spirit of environmental protection should be enough to minimize pollution from battery manufacture.
And make no mistake, the future of electricity production is green. Although electricity from natural gas has the lowest carbon footprint of all fossil fuels, its use will also decline with the increased use of wind and solar.
And this, for me, is the most interesting aspect of EV development; the EV will be the driving force to improve electric energy storage capability, and electric energy storage is the last remaining piece of the renewable energy puzzle.
Wind and solar output is highly variable, and thereby problematic for current electric grid operations. One solution to that variability is battery storage on a grand scale. The aforementioned research and development budgets that auto manufactures maintained for IC engines can and will be diverted to energy storage development for EVs. Every car manufacturer will have a vested interest in developing and deploying the most energy-dense, safest, environmentally friendly and lowest-cost batteries going forward.
It will be that development, in my humble opinion, that will drive the cost of electric energy storage sufficiently down to boost grid-friendly wind and solar power.
Considered by some to be a necessary scourge, the automobile once electrified will have an opportunity for redemption. As an engineer, I always enjoyed the thought that my car was propelled by a heat engine, with its hundreds of moving parts all working in unison to convert heat to work. As a citizen, I will enjoy much more the thought that my car is an integral part of a green-energy strategy.
I’ll miss the mighty roar of a well-tuned V-8, but I’ll never look backwards, only forwards for guideposts to a better tomorrow. Maybe you’ll soon join me in driving towards our green energy future.
Stewart Peil holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Clarkson University. He took an avid interest in cars from an early age and has owned several performance cars. He works for a defense contractor and lives in Norwich.