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The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

Posted September 15, 2008 8:55 AM by jloz

Earlier this year, Tesla Motors began production of its all-electric powered vehicle, the 2008 Tesla Roadster. Nestled in the hills above California's Silicon Valley, Tesla Motors is far from Detroit and America's Big Three automakers. Yet Tesla is traveling along a road that General Motors took once before. This time, however, the buzz surrounding electric vehicles (EV) is loud and clear. The electric car is back! Or is it?

Before EV advocates get too excited, let's take a trip down memory lane. In this case, it's an unhappy trail that runs from Detroit to California. After the re-call of GM's EV1 all-electric vehicles in 2003, the then-governor of California rescinded the state's 1990 mandate that 10% of all cars on the road be "zero emission vehicles" by 2003. The documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" provides an excellent analysis of the life and death of the EV1 in California.

General Motors, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), and the Golden State's elected officials lacked the foresight to understand that high gasoline prices would hit Californian consumers especially hard. Instead of looking ahead, they turned back and embraced the "quick buck" potential of sales of gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles (SUVs). It was an opportunity lost. What a shame.

Today, 18 years after California's 1990 mandate and a full 5 years after the last EV1 was sent to the scrapyard, the Big Three are scrambling to re-tool their manufacturing plants and reinvent their vehicles. Playing catch-up is an expensive proposition, and all three car companies are in a life-and-death struggle. Just a few months ago, Toyota topped GM as the automaker that sells the most vehicles here in the United States. Toyota has provided the Prius to U.S. consumers since 2001, but was preceded by another Japanese car company, Honda, which brought the Insight to America shores in 2000.

Both of these Japanese car companies are on track to join Tesla Motors by mass-producing all-electric vehicles here in America. But as history shows, it is human nature to ignore some problems until the quality of life deteriorates. Then we wring our hand and wonder aloud, "How could this have happened?" So will our interest in electric vehicles wane now that the price of a gallon of gasoline is below $4 again?

Some may argue that because GM once brought EVs to California, the car company will apply lessons learned and do a better job with the highly-anticipated Volt, its all-electric vehicle slated for release in 2010. But let's not forget how General Motors suspended its experiment with non-profitable EVs and ramped-up production of gas-guzzling SUVs. The Volt may be a new entry into the marketplace, but isn't GM just playing catch-up in a game it may not stick with?

Editor's Note: Part 2 of this story will run later this month.

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#1

Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/15/2008 5:27 PM

Hi JLoz,

Great article:

With all I heard over the weekend about the seriously troubled financial markets, and how the U.S. taxpayers are picking up the bill for accumulated years of bad management and trader behavior at Freddie, Fannie, Bear Stearns, and other private and quasi-private sector businesses "too big to fail", all I kept thinking as I read your piece was "moral hazard":

The boiled-down question seems to be whether the US taxpayer should guarantee loans to keep the US auto companies alive (hoping they build desired electric vehicles that consumers will want), like we did with Chrysler in the 70's, or should we simply allow these private sector auto companies to fail, and experience the consequences of years of bad management practice.

If we choose to guarantee those loans, won't that influence the decision-making of management at the car companies, enabling them to continue taking bad risks (e.g. making Super-Sized SUV's in the 90's for short-term profit), knowing the taxpayer will bail them out (the moral hazard) in the end?

As someone brought up with GM products (I'm 42) and feels they're part of my American identity, I'm struggling with this one. I know the Japanese government played(plays) a large role in Honda's and Toyota's success, and so their model is not a perfect free-market one.

My feeling is that smaller, more niche-product American auto companies, like Tesla Motors (great name!) that you describe in your piece, have a better chance of surviving in the marketplace, and so maybe that's where the taxpayer should focus attention, if they should get involved at all.

What all those folks are going to do after these big auto companies lay off even more workers, that's the bigger challenge. A flourishing US electric car market hiring some of the laid-off engineers and production workers would help, for sure.

Thanks for letting me share my thoughts.

- Larry

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#2
In reply to #1

Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/16/2008 8:36 AM

The combination of well entrenched ineffective management and very costly union labor makes it very tough for US car companies to compete with the Asian companies. I hope they can continue to compete as the US needs an indigenous heavy industry to survive in this uncertain world, especially if the world (God forbid) falls into serious conflict again such as in WWI and WWII.

Range is still a real problem for electric vehicles, but for some applications that is not a problem. Hybrid vehicles address this problem by allowing you to recharge your batteries using the engine. Right now I am intrigued by the European approach of very efficient turbodiesels, as they use a lot of proven technology. It will be interesting to see how the future shakes out.

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#5
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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/16/2008 11:16 AM

Hi rutleddc - I agree with you on your point about range. And I'm confident union labor costs have factored into Detroit's problems, but that can't explain the entire situation. Don't the production line workers in Japan have their equivalent union(s), demanding higher wages, just like in the U.S., U.K., and other western countries? I know the per-person cost of health care is cheaper in Japan, courtesy of a recent Frontline documentary I watched, so that likely helps them keep the cost of their vehicles low. Do they drive as many SUV's as we Americans (I'm guilty here - my wife and I own a RAV4) on the roads in their home market of Japan? I've heard that Japan has a "culture of engineering", and so maybe this is something that gives them a competitive edge? Looking forward to following this blog. - Larry

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#6
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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/16/2008 11:31 AM

Larry,

Many of the Japan-owned plants in the USA do not use union labor (at least as of a couple of years ago) and they get benefits for building here rather than importing vehicles. That is why so many Japanese and German companies now have plants in the USA. They get cheaper and more flexible labor.

I agree with the comment about the "culture of engineering" thought. You can see a level of craftsmanship in my used Audi that is higher than in most Asian cars, and far higher than in most American cars. However, I do not enjoy the higher repair costs!!!

The US car management seems more focused on cost, market placement, and marketing than in in craftsmanship. This results in a focus on high volume vehicles which have lower profit margins, e.g. American cars are more product rather than excellence, except for the expensive vehicles.

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#7
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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/16/2008 3:19 PM

Hi rutleddc - I was aware of how they operate in the U.S., but it's how the Japanese auto makers operate in their home market, and treat their own Japanese production workers, that is more interesting for me, to get a real apples-to-apples comparison. There are still many vehicles made in Japan (I've sought them out in the past so I know from personal research). I remember the old guarantee about Japan I was taught in high school in the early 80's - a job for life in exchange for company loyalty, so maybe no unions back in Japan (part of the cultural bargain)? I need more education on this, or maybe a trip to Japan someday . Germany is heavily unionized, both for white-collar engineers and production workers, and they still manage to make nice Audi's. However, I think a lot of their production moved to the former East Germany and other former soviet-block places. - Larry

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#8
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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/16/2008 3:25 PM

Audi's are very nice, but pricey in the US. In Germany I think they are still considered luxury cars.

VW in the US is more costly than their competitors, but nicer. The higher end is the European niche in the US.

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#3
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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/16/2008 8:46 AM

Excellent point(s)! I didn't like the idea of bailing out Chrysler back then, and I don't like the idea of bailing out the Fannie/Freddie Macs today. I recognize that our entire economy could be shaken as hard or more so than during the "great depression", but I feel that if there is no penalty for poor decision-making on the part of corporate executives (who by the way have scandalously high salaries these days!) then there will be no changes made in the way those decisions are taken. So, to almost keep this on-topic, I concur that Tesla Motors (and their like) is probably more deserving of support, perhaps in the form of tax breaks, than some or any of our more bloated and inefficient auto makers would be.

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#4

Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/16/2008 9:33 AM

Nobody forced the American consumers to buy great huge gas guzzling SUVs. The consumers insisted on buying them. The car lots were filled with small economical US vehicles while the SUVs flew off the lots. Toyota builds small efficient vehicles? When was the last time you were actually on a Toyota lot? The Toyota mini vans trucks and SUV models are their biggest sellers and every bit as big and gas guzzling as the US models. Even your precious Honda builds SUVs and trucks that are as big as the US models. The truth is that big vehicles are what the consumers want. Now days if you want a small fuel efficient vehicle I suggest you walk past the Japanese dealers and head straight for Hyundai.

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#9
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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/17/2008 2:58 PM

No body forced them, however, the option was never really there.

I have bought North American vehicles all my life, even though, they were not the most reliable vehicles. I wanted to keep Jobs close to home.

In 1999 when the limited fuel resource became an issue, I tried to get one of the new fuel efficient automobiles from a GM dealer. Answer was 'we don't have any of those but we have Humvee". I left disgusted and never returned.

They are not listening to the consumers, but are only greedy for the most $$$. They were pushing the SUV's because they could sell a covered $12,000 pick-up for up to $50,000 by calling it a SUV, They were also getting huge government rebates for them.

I did end up buying a used 98 Olds Silhouette minivan that gets 39 mpg highway.

Now it is 9 years later and the body is finally starting to die and after over 400,000 km I need a new vehicle. Thats 9 years of fuel shortages, price increases, exorbitant GM part prices, and over 85% of the population moving to cities. The best GM or North American minivan today does not get as good as mileage as the 1998 Olds Silhouette. Talk about 'Lack of Vision by the GM corporation'

I do not deny that some people need a large vehicle for construction and farm work, however, it has been undeniably apparent over the last 30 years that the population is moving from an agricultural society to an urban society. The brainwashing of the consumer to want a large status, or vanity vehicle was created and paid for by the North American auto industry.

Ever since the invention of the TV we have been brainwashed into believing that

bigger and faster is better , more power arh, arh, arh .

Today I (a consumer) want a fuel efficient minivan or TEV at least as good as one they built 10 years ago. Where is it?

I (a consumer) also want an electric vehicle for commuting, that I can plug in or hook up to solar panels. I would even settle for a hybrid as long as it gets significantly better mileage then the model T ford

Only drug runners, pimps, someone making moonshine in the woods, or testosterone challenged males needs a Humvee to improve their self worth.

When the costs of going to work out-ways the money coming home, changes have to be made. The North American Auto Industry is behind because of greed, and lack of vision. After 34 years of driving a North American vehicles, it is questionable if I will ever drive one again... even if they smartened up and actually listened to the customer instead of the investors. They deserve to go under. They are as obsolete as a wooden nickle

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#10
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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/17/2008 4:49 PM

You're entitled to rant and rave a little! I voted you a GA for doing so...

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#11

Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/17/2008 10:51 PM

The main drawbacks of EVs are price, range and recharge time. All IC engines are polluting and require expensive power-consuming pollution controls, use oil-based fuels and average only about 12% efficiency. Steam engines take about 30 seconds before being able to move, can hesitate under quick accelleration and can freeze, but they are cleaner than IC engines and have fewer moving parts. None of the three is really suitable by itself to power an automobile.

My idea is to build a plug-in EV that will go 50 miles on the batteries alone, which takes care of about 80% of driving. Add to that a small steam engine to run a generator that will keep the batteries charged. The Lamont water-tube boiler, Lysholm expander and generator would easily fit in the space occupied by the IC engine. [Perhaps even less.] The condenser would be the same size as a radiator. Such a car could easily be driven up to 400 miles on the spur of the moment, then refuel for another 400 miles. In overall use though it would use 80% less fuel since most trips would be short distances. Using AC or heat drains the batteries, but with this configuration there is never any worry about dead batteries. The forced draft open flame of the boiler produces almost no pollution. Water tube boilers do not explode. It can be built to use any liquid or gaseous fuel desired. Since the batteries would be short range the cost of the batteries would be less.

Also the car could double as an emergency generator during power outages. Wish I had the money to build one.

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#12
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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/18/2008 6:21 AM

I wish you had the money to build two. Then maybe you'd sell me one...

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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/19/2008 12:51 AM

Enviroman-

I wish!! Not bloody likely though, being on pension and working part-time. Plus having two left thumbs and painful arthritis. I keep tossing the idea out in hopes someone with money will get inspired and do it. I don't want any monetary reward if they do [although it would be nice], just a mention that it was my idea that got them started. Feel free to pass it on to anyone you know too

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#14
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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/19/2008 1:18 PM

Maybe you should send a PM to Blink - he seems the most likely candidate...

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#15
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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/22/2008 11:51 PM

He is talking about a Doble steam car! Howard Hughes had one

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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/23/2008 7:03 AM

Fascinating - Abner and his brothers built some fine automobiles back in the day!

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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/24/2008 10:20 PM

The Doble was a fine steam car, but it had the problems of a steam car, 30 seconds + to build up pressure to move and freezing weather. I am not talking about a steam car, but a short-range plug-in electric vehicle which uses a small steam engine to generate electricity to charge the batteries while driving. The reasons for using steam power to run the generator is that you can use any fuel that can be conveniently fed into the boiler, although liquids or gases are easiest, the forced draft open flame is very clean and the steam engine is about twice as efficient. The electric side prevents freezing and provides immediate starts. Combined in one vehicle you would have about 80% fuel savings over time as most trips would be on electric power.

Insufficient data to choose the engine type; compound clyinder piston uniflow, the Green Steam Engine which is a rotary piston/cylinder engine, a Tesla Turbine or a Lysholm expander.

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#17
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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/24/2008 10:45 AM

What a great idea! It definitely would work. This might be a good time for a start-up. Companies like Tesla and another U.S. start-up (I can't remember the name) seem to be getting alot of attention and from people who are looking to invest in those companies these days.

The ZENN electric car company in Canada might be on the verge of getting into the market, as well, even though today they only make neighborhood electric cars. Anybody hear any word on that?

(I like the idea about using your car as a generator, too.)

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#19
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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

09/24/2008 10:28 PM

jloz-

Thanks for the support. Help spread the word and maybe someone with cash will establish a start-up company. Could do custom conversions at first, then begin building cars the general public would buy. I put out the idea for free use. I would like to have my name associated with it and a little money would be very nice, but the idea is free to anyone who wants to use it.

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#20

Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

11/19/2008 11:40 AM

All electric and Prius based cars. A question, What will happen to all those batteries when they end their lifespan ? Do they get shipped to a third world country for dsisposal, If owners of these cars are not prepared to pay the high sum of battery replacement, what will happen to all these cars? I believe the projected life of The batteries are about 10 years, and the cost in the thousands.

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#21
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Re: The Electric Car in America (Part 1)

11/19/2008 12:15 PM

True, the service life is limited, but most cars are not driven by the original owner for anything near 10 years. True, they are expensive, but so are 10 years' worth of full tanks of gasoline. And disposal? No problem - they are approximately 100% recycleable, and will become new batteries.

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