Can EVs Last On America’s Rugged Roads?
There are some 285 million internal-combustion engines in America, each as crazy as the Tiger Woods International School of Driving. Our road-going engines offer a thermal efficiency of roughly 38% – a $15 million Mercedes-Benz Formula 1 engine ekes out 50%. If you purchased an aluminum ladder that operated comparably – fitted with five of its 10 rungs – you’d never clean the gutters.
Where does that wasted energy go? It’s dumped overboard as heat wafting into Mother Earth’s slim skin. Think of an internal-combustion engine as a campfire. Think of 1 billion of those campfires ignited daily worldwide, as indeed they are. And let’s not even mention the crud exiting a billion tailpipes.
Not only are our current automobiles inefficient, their Rube Goldbergian complexity surpasses any contraption that cartoonists could imagine. A hot lump of a V-8 might easily comprise 640 parts, each mounting its own frictional war against its neighbor. Further, the engine remains useless until connected to a starter, a fuel system, a cooling system, an exhaust system, and a transmission that might offer eight forward gears with a computerized mapping brain more complicated than Temecula chili.
Electric vehicles (EVs) are thus alluring… Vermont’s Thomas Davenport invented the electric motor in 1834, no doubt under the influence of maple syrup, and the device hasn’t changed much since. Most motors comprise a dozen parts. There’s no transmission, as direct drive works ably. They operate for ages with little maintenance. They don’t idle at stoplights but, instead, lie dormant. Yet from rest, an electric motor produces immense torque, right at the hit of the gas, of which there’s not a whiff. EVs work swell as golf carts and milk floats, that lovely clinking trolley that arrives at dawn bearing dairy products in rural British bergs. But they are easily overwhelmed by two tons of luxury, safety, and styling accoutrements, by extreme temperatures, and by drivers expecting unhindered 70-mph motion all day.
Remember the George Jetson-esque 1996 to 1999 General Motors EV1, which conspiracy theorists still today claim was killed because it represented “too great a threat to Big Oil.” Under Car and Driver’s lead feet, that first EV1 on a full charge lasted 12 miles. It was such a mess that GM would only lease them, then only after a suitability interview that recollected adopting a special-needs baby from Minsk. Big Oil’s CEOs threatened? The EV1 didn’t so much as wobble their Hugo Boss braces.
The problem? Batteries… always batteries. Today’s are lithium-ion and work better than they should, apart from occasional threats of spontaneous combustion and stubbornness to recharge. There’s also weight: A Tesla battery pack weighs 1,200 pounds, more than four times the heft of the average four-cylinder engine. By the way, it weighs 1,200 pounds whether it’s fully charged or empty – unlike a gas tank – which should make us all question electric pickup trucks. A standard GM Silverado gas pickup requires three times the power to maintain 75 mph than a Tesla Model 3. Does that imply a 3,600-pound battery must be hauled everywhere the truck goes? A truck that’s fully loaded before it’s fully loaded?
Is the potential mileage of EV’s encouraging (see list to the right)? Well, insofar as EVs perform brilliantly as around-town errand-hoppers, yes. But notice that average ranges haven’t varied much in years. A family vacation still suggests the 500-mile range that one tank of unleaded provides in a 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe or even in the spanking new Ford Bronco Sport Outer Banks 4×4, which everyone views as a truck, for God’s sake.
EV technology, by which is meant battery technology, hasn’t quite stalled but remains idling outside Saginaw. The business of obtaining lithium and cobalt, for starters, has gone ugly early.
Sustainable Energy, Finite Resources
In Argentina, Chile, and Australia, a half million gallons of water are required to fashion one ton of usable lithium, and there’s a vivid debate about how much remains. Cobalt mines, most in the Congo, have already elicited human-rights violations, and cobalt is fast becoming one of the so-called “conflict materials,” like tin, tungsten, gold, and George Michael records.
Lithium and cobalt are finite resources, just like oil, and are sourced primarily off-shore, just like oil, meaning we might engage in political conflicts to obtain them, just like oil. Mining anything invokes an environmental yowl. Ask astronauts their opinion of that monster tumor that is Alberta’s tar sands. Milton Friedman glorified the mnemonic TANSTAAFL, meaning “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” EVs qualify.
Current research now focuses on solid-state lithium-ion batteries that do not require liquid electrolytes. They offer higher-energy density, are made of ceramics and polymers (like the battery in your fat uncle’s pacemaker), resist bursting into flames, and are faster to recharge. VW and Toyota are early advocates, with the latter promising a prototype any minute. Such batteries are expensive, however, perhaps too dear for low-buck devices like smart phones, and they react unhappily to freeze-up. (Fargo residents may now stop reading.)
Research is intense in China, South Korea, and Japan (via Panasonic and Toyota, although the Japanese view hydrogen as a better fuel for their own market). Battery research was previously the domain of eggheads too nerdy for management, until their masters felt compelled to react to Elon Musk’s oft-peculiar exertions. Every major car company now views battery R&D as a propriety must-have. “We used to define a car company as a place that pressed its own metal and made its own engines, outsourcing everything else,” says auto journalist Aaron Robinson. “But in the future, they’ll effectively become software companies, with EV computer codes being the most important thing they do and own. The car is just the box the computers come in.”
With advertisements touting ever-greater range, even when it’s a myth, EVs introduced a year ago now feel outdated, as home computers did in the 1990s. At least for the American Big Three, switching assembly lines to EVs poses minimal pain: fewer parts, fewer fluids, a cleaner build, and an outsourced powerplant that pops in and out like toast in a toaster.
The malodorous elephant in the room, of course, is the recharging infrastructure that so obviously will be required. Such stations must be as ubiquitous as existing gas stations, of which America boasts 115,000. A further hurdle is that Americans are opposed to any inconvenience – wearing masks, lifting a finger to activate a turn signal – and will not tolerate a recharging experience one erg more tedious than pumping 15 gallons of unleaded. How to recharge an EV in that same five to 10 minutes? Free Big Gulps? No one yet knows.
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EV manufacturers typically quote recharging times that represent only 20% to 80% of actual capacity. If you guess wrong and need to obtain 40 or 50 extra miles to finish your errands and drive home, a public DC fast-charger might do it in 30 minutes. But a full charge in your garage takes more like seven hours. Ever try to kill 30 minutes at a Kwik Stop?
Our federal government, having once created transcontinental railroads and the interstate highway system, is the most likely candidate to fashion this new recharging infrastructure. Up to now, the feds’ $7,500 rebates have raised EVs’ market share to just beyond 2%. When did 2% last wag the free-enterprise dog? Sometimes it takes presidential decree – in this case, President Joe Biden’s recent American Jobs Plan: $115 billion for bridge and highway repair, $100 billion to bolster the existing electrical grid, $50 billion for added research, and $174 billion for 500,000 recharging pumps by 2030 (that’s roughly four rechargers per existing U.S. gas station). It’s a big deal, because private investors previously knew there weren’t enough EVs to justify their billion-buck throwdowns, and potential EV buyers knew there weren’t enough recharging hubs to justify a $60,000 Polestar 2.
But remember what Friedman said. To wit, corporate tax will rise from 21% to 28%, punishing the very folks we hoped would build the new infrastructure in the first place. And even if the government does it for us, who shall then infuse all that bonus juice into our three electrical grids – which, by the way, were mostly built in the ’50s and ’60s and cause more power outages than any other developed nation?
Our usual sources for generating electricity are coal, nuclear, renewable (roughly 20% each), and natural gas (40%). Fracking makes a mess. Coal is worse. If nuclear is our choice, for which Americans post-Fukushima have little appetite, that positively means the feds will be the builders, via new taxes. You want Elon Musk running a nuclear reactor? At least we’re already collecting gasoline taxes (which must be applied to recharging your Tesla, too), and they currently collect $39 billion annually. So, a start.
Despite idealistic assertions, it’s far-fetched that wind farms might energize 285 million American EVs traveling our current average of 13,500 miles annually. And if you’re yet hoping that private investors will supply new generating stations, know this: Electricity from post-deregulation retail companies cost Americans $19.2 billion more in the last decade than from incumbent utilities. Somewhere, a trillion hamsters will have to be taught to march in lockstep. We’re still even arguing about whether EVs should produce some sort of artificial sound – this in the face of studies proving that traffic noise increases risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, and a third elbow.
GM and Toyota: The Software Companies of Tomorrow
Everyone’s dream, of course, is that this new electricity, bolstered by economies of scale, will come cheaper than drilling and shipping crude from all four corners of the Earth. We don’t know that for sure, but put a name to any other option.
What might tip Americans toward EV romance? Gas at $5 to $7 per gallon has been suggested, but our fuel remains among the cheapest in the world and has tended to stay so. Our stupendous glut of rotten-mileage SUVs might do it. At some point, $180 refills for your GMC Yukon will have to include six Ambien. Our fascination with 4,500-lb land bruisers must cease. In the EV world, fat does to batteries what it does to human aortas.
What’s funny is that GM and Toyota, as partners, could turn us into EV addicts, simply by skewing their output in that direction. GM says it will produce nothing but EVs by 2035. Toyota says half its output will be electrified by 2025. Ford just unveiled the Mustang Mach-E, a styling abomination that will taint the Mustang’s reputation, yet Dearborn risked it in the name of electrification. Why? It’s the corporate carrot of reduced assembly-line costs, fewer employees, and fewer global-warming accusations.
The company – indeed, the country – that invents the perfect battery will engender a corporate empire the likes of Microsoft or Exxon Mobil. It might require a highly unlikely R&D trifecta in which China, Japan, and the U.S. are equally emersed.
It’s been 25 years since GM unleashed its EV1. Our greatest accomplishment in that span has been the refinement of the computers managing the batteries. If Biden’s recharging stations get built, and if solid-state batteries fulfill their promise, we’re probably two-thirds of the way to an electric touchdown.
John Phillips III is the former executive editor of Car and Driver. He will release his third book, Four Miles West of Nowhere, this summer.