Electric cars take over

By Bryan Walker 29/06/2010

I recently watched the video of a TED talk by Shai Agassi. It dates from a year ago. I’m late catching up. But there may well be other readers who haven’t caught up with him either, so I’ll report my experience. He jumps straight to the point in his opening sentence: ’So how would you run a whole country without oil?’

Agassi doesn’t intend his question to be hypothetical or far off. He’s talking about the near future.  And he considers the answer lies in electricity, preferably renewable, as a fuel for vehicles. Not a few vehicles, but 99% of them.  And cars as good as any that we have today, preferably more convenient and affordable. There’s no need to wait for further technological development. We have all we need already.

You can listen to his talk below. He sets out a compelling case, and an optimistic one. He is founder and CEO of Better Place, a company that works with governments, businesses and utility companies to accelerate the transition to sustainable transportation. Their website repays attention.  I’ll extract a few items from it here.

Electricity-powered transportation fits very well with the development of renewable energy sources.  Better Place accepts fully the imperative to stop the burning of fossil fuels.:

The economics of renewables create an extraordinary opportunity for transportation.  But the economics of transportation also create an extraordinary opportunity for renewables.

First, an electric vehicle (EV) system can take advantage of underutilized electricity, reducing oil consumption and providing resources for renewable development provided the EV system is complemented with a ’smart grid’ that optimally manages the flow of available electricity. Second, EVs can alleviate the problems of intermittency, unpredictability and off-peak generation that have hindered the progress of renewable energy in the past. Third, because EVs offer energy efficiency up to three times greater than that of gasoline-powered vehicles, EVs reduce the overall burden on energy resources.

The transition is already under way:

The electric car is becoming inevitable.  Nearly every major automaker has an active program to develop and introduce EVs, ultimately providing the consumer a broad range of options.  Better Place is currently working with the Renault-Nissan Alliance, which will be among the first to introduce EVs, and is also in discussion with major auto manufacturers around the world.

These electric vehicles will be distinctive in more respects than their zero tailpipe emissions.  EVs inherently provide instant torque, delivering smooth, seamless acceleration.  EVs also offer ultra-quiet operation.  And since these cars typically have half the moving parts of their gas combustion engine counterparts,  lower maintenance costs are expected.  All this means that in the coming decade, EVs will be at the center of mainstream personal transportation. (my italics)

The lithium-ion batteries are adequate to the task, and some of the details are discussed here on the website.  On performance:

Now, a 24 kWh lithium-ion battery (about 200 kg) in a competitively priced medium-sized sedan provides a range of about 160 kilometers on a single charge.

But EVs will need the same freedom to go anywhere that drivers of combustion engine cars enjoy today. That means battery switch stations:

At Better Place battery switch stations, drivers enter a lane and the station takes over from there. The car proceeds along a conveyor while the automated switch platform below the vehicle aligns under the battery, washes the underbody, initiates the battery release process and lowers the battery from the vehicle. The depleted battery is placed onto a storage rack for charging, monitoring and preparation for the another vehicle. A fully-charged battery is then lifted into the waiting car. The switch process takes less time than a stop at the gas station and the driver and passengers may remain in the car throughout.

Battery charging provision at places such as homes, offices and public areas is important to broad adoption of EVs. Better Place develops, installs and manages large networks of charge spots that will aim to give consumers the convenience and services they need to confidently make the transition to EVs.

I’m in no position to comment on the feasibility of what Agassi proposes. But I see he was considered worthy of inclusion in Time’s 100 most influential people list in2009. And I certainly enjoyed the buoyancy of his talk and of the website.  I took pleasure from some of the comments of a featured guest blog on the site from Gary Kendall of Sustainability:

A great indicator that disruptive innovations are nearing the all-important tipping point is when powerful incumbents start peddling nonsense masquerading as facts, to sow doubt about the viability of the emerging technology or business model… By scrambling to erect roadblocks to new market entrants that threaten their hegemony, oligopolies are only doing what comes naturally to an organism under attack by an existential threat. And if your job is to find, extract, refine, distribute and sell liquid fuels, then electric cars certainly qualify…

’You EV guys are very well meaning — and we wish you well — but until the world stops burning coal, allow motor manufacturers to continue tinkering with incremental efficiency gains while we drill, baby, spill!’.

Back in New Zealand I ponder a vehicle fleet powered by electricity from wind farms or wave power. Bad news for petrol stations and perhaps for oil companies undertaking the expense of deep sea drilling operations. Perhaps food for thought for the Minister of Energy?  Or is that expecting a bit much?

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