Electric Vehicles
by R. T. Saur

The federal government has required a small percentage of the cars sold in California in coming years to be "zero-pollution vehicles" (ZPVs). At first, major auto makers balked at this decision, saying it would require simply too much expensive research and testing; but, they said, if the government (read: taxpayers) were willing to help with the cost, they would see what they could do.

Well, after several billions of dollars and almost 10 years, their solution is finally ready: the EV1. This is their baby, their finest prize.

Not only have they removed the old pollution-prone engine, they've reinvented the entire car--with four high-efficiency electric motors, one at each wheel; regenerative braking, to reclaim power as the car slows down; complex electronic circuitry; and about a ton of high-density nickel-metal hydride batteries.

Here, they claim, is the perfect alternative: it's quiet, it does not pollute, it's energy efficient and it's environmentally friendly. That's all very nice, if true, but this electric marvel does not replace the major sources of vehicular pollution: all-day-on-the-road delivery and service cars and vans; heavily laden cargo trucks; and "mass transit" buses.

Even the most staunch proponent of electric vehicles will admit that these cars are not designed for those purposes and are more suited for driving "around town" and "running errands." Isn't this what retirees in Arizona have been doing for years in nonpolluting golf carts? And just how much has this reduced smog?

When pushed, these advocates will also admit that their claims for acceleration (0-60 mph. = 9 sec.) and mileage between charges (70-80) apply only to a brand-new, very Spartan vehicle carrying one person and no cargo. Those claims must, however, drop dramatically while using the heater or air conditioner. (It does have A/C, doesn't it? This is a must in southern California.) And how many speakers does the CD player have? (Answer: none and none!)

Manufacturers claim that in production these cars would cost about $45,000 each (stripped), but with government (read: taxpayer) subsidy, one could be had for less than $35,000.

Believe it or not, here's how it works: in addition to the billions America's working classes have unknowingly funneled to GM and other big-business prototype designers to invent something that will reduce our net smog levels by a factor of zero (give or take), we taxpayers are now forced to chip in $10,000 per car to discount the price of every one of these sold, just so that some pseudofuturist who wants new cocktail conversation will buy one.

And they say the U.S. government can't run a business!

None--not one--has been sold, however; at least not in California, because the EV1 is available only for lease.

The manufacturer (General Motors) says that this lease-only policy is to "protect itself and its customers," but it also helps to hide the real cost comparison with more proven vehicles. Estimated out-the-door lease price: a minimum of $550-$600 per month. Certain restrictions may apply, however...

Needless to say, consumer response to these curiosities since their introduction has been less than breathtaking.

Then there's fueling the thing. If the power is running low, just cruise on down to your local charging station (number in Orange County: 0) and top it off--assuming you have three hours to kill. Otherwise you'll have to recharge it at home--all night. No problem. The massive charger costs only about $2,000 and plugs right into that unused 220-volt line you have in your garage already. You know, the one with its own separate service and meter, so that charging doesn't affect the power to your house. Don't have one? No problem--installing one should cost less than $3,000.

And speaking of batteries, the salespeople might neglect to tell you that the ton or so of deep-cycle nickel-metal hydride storage batteries the EV1 uses can be recharged only a certain number of times; after one or two years, they must be replaced. Not counting the cost of recycling, or trashing these batteries in a toxic landfill, the owner must pay $4,000-$6,000 to replace them.

That would buy a lot of gas, oil and tuneups for a low-polluting Yugo. It would even BUY a used Yugo.

Let's stop for a moment here and reexamine our goal: lower pollution.

Efficiency is the ability to utilize the energy stored in a fuel (charcoal, gasoline or electricity) and convert it into work. The more power an engine can produce from a given amount of fuel, the more efficient the engine. Our old standby, the internal combustion engine, doesn't win any awards with an average efficiency of only 30 percent. The rest goes up in heat and unburned gases. Modern electronic controls have squeezed out another 5 to 10 percent, but that's about the best this type of engine can do.

By comparison, the electric motor seems to be a technical marvel: 80 percent efficiency, very little waste heat and no exhaust. Sound great? You bet, but that's not all of the equation. Where does the electricity that runs this motor come from? It comes from fuel. Fossil fuel. The same nonrenewable source that gives us gasoline. Most giant electrical-generating plants burn coal or oil to turn water into steam, which turns turbines that turn generators to produce electricity. This process, however, has an efficiency of only about 50 percent, which is why these huge stations need so much water to cool them and why they pollute more per gallon of fuel used than an average car or light truck.

A simple calculation: the 80 percent efficiency of the electric motor (in the car) multiplied by the 50 percent efficiency of the generator (at the power plant) gives this form of transportation a net efficiency of only 40 percent. Subtract another (realistic) 10 percent for losses in the power lines and transformers between the power station and your electric car, and the bottom-line efficiency of this type of transportation becomes 30 percent--approximately that of our bad old internal combustion engine.

We're back where we started, but it's cost us a lot more to get here. And we've added more pollution.

Here's a believable scenario: Imagine that just 25 percent of commuters want, can afford and are driving their electric vehicles to work this morning. They pull into their downtown parking structures and--assuming there are enough of those pricey chargers to go around (guess who'll pay for them)-- plug in to recharge their batteries for the trip home later. No problem? I think not. We're not talking about recharging a couple of Walkman double-A batteries here; we're talking thousands of deep-cycle, 100 amp-hour cells, sucking megawatts from an already overloaded system, during peak demand! Lights dim. Computers crash. Elevators stall between floors.

The only solution: build more smog-producing power plants.

If our goal was to reduce pollution, it has not been met: we have only traded cleaner air in one place for dirtier air in another, and we've done so at a very substantial cost. High-priced electric vehicles simply will not change smog levels. They will only, at best, temporarily subvert them and change the locations at which pollution is produced.

Maybe we should take another, harder look at energy-efficient alternatives.


I snagged this from the "Car Talk" web site, where it says, "Mr. Saur is a freelance writer with a background in the design of electromechanical systems. He lives in San Juan Capistrano." I have been unable to locate Mr.Saur for permission to redistribute, but somehow I don't think he'll mind.