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Inconvenient Truths About Electric Cars

Make no mistake about it. We love plug-in electric cars. The electrification of the personal transportation device has the potential to bring about great change, with the promise of more jobs and less pollution. Economic renewal in a cleaner world is a lofty and worthwhile goal for all, regardless of political affiliation.

2010 is shaping up to be the year remembered as the launching point for high-volume production of highway-capable electric vehicles (EVs). We can expect to see the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Coda sedan enter production, among other vehicles. Other plug-in electric cars from major manufacturers will soon follow.

Governments around the world have committed massive amounts of funding to the electrification of the automobile. This influx of capital is allowing the business world to ramp up at a torrid pace. That said, this is a long road, with a tough grade to climb.

This post, which will be updated as conditions and information warrant, shares notes gleaned on the realities of EVs from a number of industry conferences. While we encourage the adoption of EVs, we are realists, not cheerleaders.

The Building Blocks:

Lithium – There is no worldwide shortage of the basic elements required for the state-of-the-art lithium ion battery packs. Lithium is abundant, although there are scant resources in the United States. The lion’s share of the world’s lithium can be found in Bolivia and Chile.

Battery Supply – Demand for finished lithium ion battery packs is likely to exceed supply until a sufficient number of factories are built and are brought online. Demand for lithium batteries may rise from 2-4x over the next ten years, due to EV production.

Battery Cost – The cost of the Lithium Ion battery pack can currently vary from 25-50% (approximately) of the total cost of a highway-capable EV, depending on vehicle range and technology. Stakeholders are betting heavily that increased production will lead to lower battery costs.

Battery Recycling – Lithium batteries are touted to be highly recyclable, both for their basic elements, as well as for use in less-stressful energy storage applications.

Battery Swapping – No EV manufacturers have committed to a domestic battery swapping scheme (a la Better Place).

Rare Earth – The DC brushless motors used in most electric cars contain rare earth magnets. All of the world’s current rare earth magnet production is based in China. The United States has not produced rare earth magnets in half a decade.

Electric Vehicle Charging – Electric vehicle owners must forget about the gas-and-go fueling convenience they’ve come to expect with their oil-based transportation devices. A stop to recharge will require a significant investment of time.

There are three tiers of charging:

  • Tier 1 – Home-based, via 120 Volt line. Charging takes place overnight, in a roughly 10-12 hour span.
  • Tier 2 – Home-, Fleet- or Public-based, via 240 Volt line. Charging in a 3-6 hour span.
  • Tier 3 – Fleet- or Public-based, via up to 500 Volt line. Fast-charging in 30 minutes or less.

(Times will vary, depending on factors that include the specific charging device and size of vehicle battery pack.)

While most home garages have 110V outlets, 220V outlets are not common. The installation of a 220V line and charger adds to EV acquisition cost. 500V quick charging is not practical for home use.

High-powered commercial quick chargers will be located in enclosed areas, to minimize the possibility of electrocution due to wet environments. It is likely that consumers will not be allowed to handle the quick charging equipment themselves. For safety reasons, conditions may suggest using robotic arms or attendants in rubberized suits.

Public-charging dramatically alters the refueling venue. EV drivers will not sit around waiting for half an hour (or more) at a typical service station. Quick charging may be handled with concierge-like arrangements at dining and shopping destinations, as well as at sporting and entertainment venues.

EV Infrastructure – For EVs to become hugely successful, we must have sufficient public infrastructure to encourage rapid adoption and minimize the effect of range anxiety.

EV Acquisition Costs – The majority of consumers will not be able to afford to buy EVs, given current costs and the economic climate. Battery packs may be leased separately from the vehicles to reduce initial acquisition costs. Government purchase subsidies will be needed for the near future to stimulate demand.

Geographical Considerations – EVs are best suited to temperate climates. EV drivers north of the frost line can expect significantly reduced vehicle range, due to environmental conditions. Cabin heating, seat heaters, defrosters, and the like will reduce range due to increased draw on the battery.

We are here to share truth, not spew venom. Plug-in electric cars are one – yet mighty – arrow in the quiver in the quest for domestic energy independence.

If you are in the industry and seek to clarify any of these points, please jump in … we absolutely welcome the participation of those who truly know. This is, as the saying goes, a living breathing document, without political ambitions.

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11 comments ↓

#1 Mosqueda on 01.31.10 at 11:06 am

Excellent points.

So, could “Rare Earth” magnet production be resumed in the US? Is this an industry that should be restarted?

On the valet-charging, forgive me, but I have visions of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and the parking attendants joy riding my brand new Tesla S :-)

#2 mpg-o-editor on 01.31.10 at 1:45 pm

Seems like domestic rare earth magnet would be a good thing. Need to dig a bit to find the numbers.

A Valet setting might do the trick …

#3 KP 257 on 02.06.10 at 12:06 pm

At present we can exchange a empty bbq for a full one at a depot, could that be applied to electric cars by exchanging only a module?

#4 mpg-o-editor on 02.06.10 at 1:53 pm

@KP 257 – Indeed, that’s the “Better Place” business model.

#5 Lefty on 02.09.10 at 12:15 pm

@mpg-o-editor – The “Better Place” is exchanging empty batteries for full ones? I think KP 257 by “empty bbq” mean empty propane tanks for bbq grills, which are exchanged without needing to wait for refills.

#6 mpg-o-editor on 02.09.10 at 12:32 pm

@Lefty – Yup. Take a look … http://www.betterplace.com/

#7 grandp5x on 02.13.10 at 8:41 pm

This is all great ideas,but if you live in the rural areas of the country (I drive 80 miles a day round trip) ev’s are going to have to really improve, plus in the summer a/c is necesary and the winter requires heat. As mentioned earlier cost will be prohitive. Wait until all these hybrids batteries start failing and listen to the owners start paying $5,000+ to replace them, the premium price to buy a hybrid is the cost of the batteries.

#8 mpg-o-editor on 02.13.10 at 8:57 pm

@Grandp5x – Aye. Energy storage costs must plummet and capacities must rise dramatically for EVs to become cost-effective in rural applications. There are solutions best suited to different regions and locales. EVs make the most sense in more densely population areas with shorter commuting distances.

#9 WMM on 10.06.10 at 7:46 am

“Realists…We are here to share truth, not spew venom…
without political ambitions.”

Why can’t more media be this way??
Thank you mpg-o-editors for this approach. Stay with it.

#10 ImOnBoard on 02.05.11 at 6:52 pm

I just found your site and read through your article, and it’s GREAT. It is SO rare to find a discussion of these topics that is balanced, sensible, realistic, and doesn’t involve the ‘bambi’ world-view … bravo, GREAT JOB of explaining and ENLIGHTENING us! Really!

MCP is the stock symbol for Molycorp … they are re-opening a rare-earth mining operation in California that was previously closed, they are expected to double the original production over time, they are also expected to manufacture the ‘rare earth magnets’ as part of a vertical integration strategy. There are a couple of other rare earth companies several years out from production in both Canada, and the U.S. If you find MCP you’ll find the others.

An all-of-the-above strategy is needed, and EVs are part of that as are hybrids etc. What I’m looking for is an end to the choke-hold on Western Civilization by OPEC … we need more domestic energy on every front, cleaner where possible, traditional where it makes sense. I’ll be bookmarking this site to stay informed on developments … I got here researching the new Ford Fiesta … I’ve seen one and it looks fantastic. A hybrid with reasonalbe ‘oomph’ would be right up my alley.

Crazy question … anything happening with Motorcycles? I doubt it, but just wondering. You know, there was ONCE a rotary engine motorcycle that just about nobody remembers anymore … it was very novel but soon gone. I saw one and it was cool. I don’t think it was competitive in performance metrics, but was very smooth.

#11 mpg-o-editor on 02.06.11 at 9:17 am

@ImOnBoard – Thanks for the kind words! With China clamping down on exports, the landscape is changing rapidly. It’s great to see domestic operations like Molycorp moving to fill the need. You’re spot on with the all-of-the-above strategy.

There are a bunch of electric motorcycles in development. Check out zeromotorcycles.com, brammo.com, and ridemission.com … we plan to deliver reports and reviews on the two-wheeled front, down the road.

The Fiesta is a great little car. We’re finally starting to get the goods here in America …

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