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Steve Hansen In rush to embrace electric cars, let's not forget flaws

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Steve Hansen

Posted: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 6:31 am, Wed Dec 1, 2010.

"What's that?" I curiously asked my dad.

"That's a 'Detroit Electric,'" he replied, as the vintage vehicle quietly rolled by.

At the time, I was eight years old and had never seen a car like that before. Its enclosed body looked like a horse-drawn carriage without horses. The early electric vehicle was a 1916 model, and it definitely looked out-of-place in 1953.

All the vehicles that went by our Ann Arbor, Mich. home made noises commonly associated with gasoline-powered engines, but not the Detroit Electric. It had an eerie and almost silent electric motor hum, as a well-dressed, little old lady drove it down Olivia Avenue.

I could see, through the carriage windows, that the car had no steering wheel. The matronly figure had her white glove on a horizontal pole called a tiller, which manipulated the direction of the front wheels.

The Detroit Electric was advertised as getting 80 miles per battery charge. On one reported test, the car ran 211.3 miles on a single "plug-in." Interestingly, today's "green" electrics only get about 40 miles per charge. So much for almost 100 years of electric automobile technology!

These cars never caught on like their gasoline counterparts. The Detroit Electric survived through the 1920s and most of the depression during the 1930s. The last model was built in 1939. The Ann Arbor car was the only one I ever saw on the road.

Why did the electric car fail? It was simply a case of no public demand. If a profit could have been made by expanding production of this type of vehicle, Henry Ford or some other industrialist surely would have done so.

But reality was that any combustion-engine model had a higher top speed, a longer range of travel and didn't need an extension cord at night. That's why the public back then (as well as now) overwhelmingly selected gasoline-powered automobiles.

During most of the automobile age, there were no government bailouts for electric vehicles. There were no mpg mandates. There was no robbing Peter to give Paul a tax incentive or rebate to buy one. There were no start-up companies to build electro-mobiles with public funds that were doomed by destiny to fail.

Today, electric cars are considered the wave of the future. However, few people have stopped to consider their long-term effects. For example, if roads were filled with millions of buzzing little boxes of transportation, doesn't that mean many more coal-fired power plants will have to be built? What would that do to the power grids and transmission lines? What if terrorism struck the grid? Would transportation come to a major standstill?

What about ozone pollution from electric motors? How about the effect of electro-magnetic fields generated by these motors on human health? What about the environmental impact of old lithium batteries? Do we have enough natural resources to make millions of these, along with millions of miles of copper wire for electric motors?

For those of us who have been around for a while, we remember the great government fiascoes of other countries, such as the Russian Moskvitch and the East German Trabant.

The Moskvitch 402 of the 1950s was a throwback for its time, using much earlier German technology from the 1930s. The 1970s Trabant was about as crude as they came, with 18 hp and a smoking, two-cycle engine. Needless to say, as exported items, both cars were complete failures. Western competitiveness and free-market-produced cars were far superior to these aforementioned bureaucratic nightmares.

Today, the question is: Are we giving up our right of choice and going down the same road as these other countries by allowing politicians and governmental administrative agencies to dictate future vehicles?

Perhaps an electric car is just fine for a little old lady on the streets of Ann Arbor. But unless there are major advances in electrical engineering, generated by worldwide competition, I seriously doubt that most Americans will find pure electric vehicles practical — even with governmental mandates, billions of taxpayer dollars and the passing of a century since the technology was first invented.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 5:15 am on Sun, Dec 12, 2010.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9405

    Kevin, I think you would enjoy the transportation here. The public transportation system is very useufl, convenient and economical as it is used by so many, the cost per person goes way down. In addition, especially females, motor scooters are dominate as they are inexpensive and great on fuel. So many use it (scooters) that heavier vehicals consistantly are on the look out. I drive a scooter (automatic) and love it. Since it is always warm or hot, you can use 24 hours a day. In bigger cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghi, there are monorails, subways, and sky trains that are convenient and always full, from 6:00am til midnight... not like Bart in SF where it is always half empty. In malaysia, I would buy a one day pass for 3 dollars which gave me access to all forms of transportation (bus, train, subway, and monorail), unlimited for a complete day.

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 3:07 pm on Fri, Dec 3, 2010.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2106

    Darrell, I'm curious. You said you are now in Asia. What is the transportation like over there? I always think it is mostly human power. bike or walking with more mopeds than we have here.

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 9:32 am on Fri, Dec 3, 2010.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2106

    Unfortunately we Americans have a very short memory. The only way that things will change is WHEN gas hits high prices and stays high.

    Then again it may only take one inovation to change the whole future of the alternative fuel vehicles. Like the park on mat for charging. A self charging engine (uses the spin of the tire axles to crank a generator giving a return on the power, don't know if it exists), Maybe it will be a single break through in solar tech that makes charging cars by parking them outside easier and faster so you car can charge while diving or parking.

    I firmly believe the tech is out there to make a very practicle (for 75% of us) vehicle. Maybe it isn't a single vehicle but a combination of techs in a few different vehicles. I can easily imagine a vehicle line that once you buy it replacing the wiper blades is the most common recurring cost.

    It is one of those, "if I won the lottery, what would I do with the money" things. I've already got the vehicles designed in my head. But I'm also slightly crazy ;-}

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 12:53 am on Fri, Dec 3, 2010.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9405

    Hope your right Kevin, would give me pleasure to be wrong on this one... time will tell.

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 10:15 pm on Thu, Dec 2, 2010.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2106

    Saw this and thought it relevant:


    Innovation only takes one dreamer.

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 10:13 pm on Thu, Dec 2, 2010.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2106

    Darrell, I have to disagree with your last statement. When computers first started they were very expensive, impractical and (as my kids saw as we watched the original Tron) BIG. Why did all that change? Because not only did technology change but the COMPETITION to be the best computer designer fired up.

    For electric cars to catch on and develop with the same fever that computers did then competition growth, not regulation demise, will fuel (pun intended) the industries growth. What the electric car industry needs is an IBM to get things going. Right now it is hard to tell if Tesla motors is that IBM or simply ABC computers (go ahead and cross reference those). The other thing that is going to have to happen is the first consumers are going to have to say "I believe enough in this to buy one". We're out there (I'm a few bucks shy right now and don't need a new car), when the time comes I am fully willing to put my money where my mouth is and buy electric. It will be charged with solar panels on the garage roof, if I have enough land by then then maybe a wind turbine as well. I'm sure the LNS will have fun writing about my odd house.

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 4:23 pm on Thu, Dec 2, 2010.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9405

    Obvious consideration is cost.... If you really want to go green, change the rules and regulations that determine cost for green technology but keep the same factors in play for non green technology. This is done in the school system as there are different rules that effect cost of building a charter school over building a public school. Until you deal with the factors that make it so expensive, we are wasting time. If I could make the rules, costs would easily go down. I very much like the idea of any technology that will improve the environment and reduce cost, but we really are not serious about it. All interesting and positive constructive comments in this blog... but it’s a pipe dream until we change the rules and what makes it so expensive.

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 2:51 pm on Thu, Dec 2, 2010.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2106

    Speaking of fuel efficient cars. I'm going to be getting my motorcycle L. this coming year and this (http://www.twike.com/english/home/home.html) definitely will be a consideration for a future purchase. US laws require some modifications but I'm willin'. If I had the capital I would start a dealership here and sell US modified versions and kick the gas man right out.

  • Marion Zaugg posted at 12:10 pm on Thu, Dec 2, 2010.

    Marion Zaugg Posts: 1

    Mr. Paglia has it exactly right. Mr. Hansen could have done at least ten minutes of research before camouflaging his attack on "government subsides" in the form of his distorted, inaccurate maligning of electric automobiles. I will give him some credit for imagination, as specious arguments go his are right at the top.

    * More electric vehicles means more dirty coal electric generating plants.
    That is right. There is no such thing as off peak power when most of us are
    sleeping and would be charging our EVs. Evidenced based research has
    repeatedly estimated that we have enough EXCESS off peak power to
    accommodate over a million EVs now. As more renewable energy comes on
    line every one of those EVs will pollute less and less. Once built, no gas engined
    auto can make that claim. EVs are more efficient and pollute less than ICE's
    period. And every component from the copper to the batteries are recyclable. And
    none of them every need an oil change or tune up.

    * Every EV is tethered to an electric cord.
    Yes, and every gas engine is tethered to a gas hose. The difference, every house
    in america already has it's own plug, and unlike everyone with a gas car, if you get
    tired of paying for fuel, you can install your own solar panels or wind generator and be your own fuel company, refinery, distribution retailer all at once.

    * What if terrorists attack???
    I mean really, what if they blow up a couple refineries? Any one who watches the
    news understands that the oil pipe line starting in the middle east or other hostel
    local is much more vulnerable to attack than a power plant in Iowa.

    No, Mr. Hansen just doesn't like subsidies for EVs. All the subsidies he doesn't mention are ok presumably. Like the one the Bush administration made for gas cars and trucks, a tax credit for up to $100,000 for Hummers and the largest SUVs. That was some forward thinking there. My first GPS cost me over $4,000, my first PC cost over $6,000 and now I can get ones that out perform these by a factor of at least three for a fraction of the cost. Same will apply to EV technologies. And each of these technologies was subsidized in one form or another, by the government..

  • Manuel Martinez posted at 11:26 am on Thu, Dec 2, 2010.

    Manuel Martinez Posts: 641

    The Nissan Leaf does seem practical in my opinion. If you only have to commute a short way, or handle city traffic, an electric car is nice, and it slashes your fuel budget considerably. If you want to drive it long distances, say, from here to San Diego, you are dependent on new electric transfer stations going up(which luckily, California, San Francisco in particular, are pioneering). The new thing that owners will have to get used to, is the recharge time(can be a couple hours for a full charge).

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 10:17 am on Thu, Dec 2, 2010.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2106

    The only reason Americans don't find electric cars practical is because people keep telling them they are not practical. I'd guess the average family drives less than 50 miles a day. Easily done inside most electric car ranges. Telsa motors has unveiled plans for a car with a 300 mpp. 0-60 in under 5sec and seats 7. A little pricey now but as the market adapts to high gas prices more competition can show up dropping prices.

    As for the hassle of plug in every night. Please! when you get home how many devices do you plug in? your phone, mp3, laptop your work phone. It gave me the thought of why not expand on the idea of the charging mat we've seen for these devices. It shouldn't be that difficult with the tech that is out there now to make a mat you just park your car on and it charges for you. no need for the extension cord at all, always leave the garage with a full charge. Maybe you can roll it up and take it with you when you go to visit family.

    And a solar charger on the roof will provide enough power for you car even on day like this. Coal plants are a thing of the past. my generation and my kids can expect more like this http://news.discovery.com/tech/wing-waves-power-electricity.html to power our way.

    And seriously, you fear the electromagnetic field created by these, you mean the same field the Earth uses? That surrounds us on a daily basis? You fear this more than the toxic chemicals pouring out of all our cars?

    My point is that dismissing electric cars is like the people that dismissed computers as never catching on. The tech is out there, it is developing and the more we embrace it the faster developments will come.


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