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Unplugging the Next Big Thing

On Wednesday, President Obama traveled to Indiana to announce the recipients of $2.4 billion in federal stimulus money designed to help energize the US battery manufacturing and research business. Obama said the grants are “planting the seeds of progress for our country, and good-paying, private-sector jobs for the American people.” He went on, saying that they would help in the “deployment of the next generation of clean-energy vehicles.” Obama may be right. The next generation of vehicles may be the Next Big Thing.

Then again, the next generation of all-electric vehicles may be just like the last five generations of all-electric vehicles: the Next Big Flop.

It’s not fashionable to question the future of electric cars. They have many positive attributes: lower fuel costs, no air pollutants, and good acceleration. And the people who are promoting electric cars are being lionized in the press. Consider the case of Shai Agassi, the founder of an electric car company called Better Place. In July 2008, Thomas Friedman, the hype-loving columnist at the New York Times, called Agassi “the Jewish Henry Ford” who was launching “an energy revolution” that would end the world’s “oil addiction.” A few weeks later, Wired wrote a laudatory article on Agassi, which said that the entrepreneur had lined up $200 million in funding in his effort to launch “the fifth-largest startup of all time in less than a year.” It went on saying that “everyone who meets him already believes he can see the future.”

In May 2009, Time magazine declared that Agassi was going to “help the world end its addiction to oil by transforming cars from their climate-changing, lung-polluting, gas-guzzling design to one that’s clean, affordable and all-electric.” (The glowing article was written by a venture capitalist who had invested in Agassi’s company.) All of that fantastic press, and yet only one or two of the stories bothered to mention the size of Agassi’s electric car fleet, which consisted of exactly one prototype. Beyond that, Agassi’s company had no charging stations and no customers.

The hype around Agassi was hardly unique. Two other startup car companies — Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive – have been getting similar treatment. And while Better Place won’t say how much it will charge customers, Tesla and Fisker are both planning vehicles that will only be affordable by the wealthy. The all-electric Tesla Roadster retails for $98,000 and the plug-in hybrid-electric car being sold by Fisker, called the Karma, sells for $87,500. Despite that price, Newsweek declared that the Karma, a high-performance sports car, “will get 100 miles per gallon – and those who rarely travel more than 50 miles at a time will do even better.”

Before going further, let me be clear that I am not disparaging hybrid-electric vehicles like the Toyota Prius, Honda Insight, and Ford Fusion hybrid. There is no question that the technologies behind those vehicles and others like them is durable, reliable, and functional. For those reasons, as well as their relative affordability, hybrid-electric drive cars, that is, the cars that don’t come with an extension cord, are here to stay. And in the coming years, they will claim an increasing share of the automotive market.

But in the current craze, hybrid-electric vehicles are almost viewed as stodgy. The sex, the sizzle, is in all-electric vehicles. Thus, within the next year or two, General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and Nissan are all planning to introduce electric cars. By 2020, Nissan expects 10 percent of the vehicles it produces to be all-electric. In early 2009, a company official said that it sees “electrification of the transportation sector as our highest priority.” It hopes to produce an all-electric car that has a 100-mile range and will be functionally similar to conventional vehicles that sell for about the same amount of money. And earlier this month, Nissan announced that it would introduce an all-electric vehicle, the Leaf, which the company says will have a 100-mile range and cost $30,000. Nissan expects to start selling the car in the US in late 2010.

Sorry, but call me a skeptic. The history of the car business is littered with plans for electric cars. In 1911, the New York Times declared that the electric car “has long been recognized as the ideal solution” because it “is cleaner and quieter” and “much more economical” that gasoline-fueled cars.

The problem today, is the same as it was in 1911: the energy density of batteries. Here’s my prediction: without a huge increase in the energy density of batteries, and by huge increase, I’m talking two or three orders of magnitude, all-electric cars will be a small bit player – if that – in the global car business.

ROBERT BRYCE’s latest book is Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence” which just came out in paperback.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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