Monday, December 08, 2008

Dead Batteries

Electric-carmakers need cash today, tax credits to spur sales next year and every year thereafter and battery technology that makes electric cars perform like gasoline-powered vehicles.

Obama says he wants to hit taxpayers on this issue. Tax credits and other subsidies are part of his plan. Immediate cash is another matter. If GM, Ford and Chrysler are to get little from the Economic Stimulus plans whipped around these days, it's tough to cut makers of electric cars a slice of the pie.

Then there is the chief question: Why would someone buy a $40,000 Chevy Volt when a a dozen cars with internal-combustion engines sell for less than half the price?

Electric cars are not simple alternatives to gasoline-powered cars. If equivalent electric and internal-combustion models were available for roughly the same price, a real market would develop. But we are years from that point. Today, electric vehicles offer only a psychological advantage that matters to some people. But most car buyers do not care.

Who would pay $40,000 for a car with limited operating capabilities when lots of great all-around gasoline-powered vehicles are available for half as much? Furthermore, if the government pushes the public to accept electric vehicles, the prices of gasoline-powered cars will ease down, making them a better deal for anyone who considers the long-term cost of ownership.

There are 250 million internal-combustion vehicles registered in the US today. Consumers love their cars and they are not ready to switch to vehicles offering less for more money. Would more than a handful spend larger sums than they've ever spent on a car if the new high-priced model requires a lot of behavior modification to accomodate its limitations? No.

Personal computers stayed mainly in the hands of hobbyists, engineers, scientists and technology lovers until better software made them useful to millions of buyers. The Graphical User Interface did the trick. But the biggest accelerant was the Internet, a thing apart from the computers themselves.

Is there a similar advance ahead for electric vehicles? No. But if there were, it would appear as a battery that held a charge equal to the energy found in a tank of gas.

Or, perhaps, like gasoline, a universal battery pack might emerge. Every car can accept gas from any gas station in the country. Possibly the electric carmakers can create a universal battery pack that can be stocked at Recharging Stations and switched in minutes. Pull out the discharged pack, and drop in a fresh one. An operation that can be completed in a minute or two. But that means pricing the service for more than the cost of plugging in the car at home.

On the other hand, for anyone who barbeques on a gas grill, the consumer behavior is already in place. When the propane tank on the grill is empty, the barbeque chef takes the empty tank to Home Depot and exchanges it for a full one. Unfortunately, I doubt this idea will fly. That means we need batteries that hold a lot of energy. But those batteries are decades away from reality. In fact, given our understanding of chemistry and physics, we may never see batteries capable of powering electric vehicles like their internal-combustion alternatives.

Electric-Car Makers Struggle

Companies Face Similar Problems as Detroit Auto Makers -- And Some Others

The heads of the struggling Detroit auto makers aren't the only car makers looking for help from Washington. The electric vehicle industry has its hands out, too.

If anything, representatives of the electric and electrified vehicle business jumped ahead of the "legacy" auto industry in the transportation bailout queue that formed in the nation's capital last week.

The Future of Electric Vehicles

The electric-vehicle industry positions itself as the future of personal transportation. President-elect Barack Obama is now the industry's highest ranking advocate. He's said he wants to see one million plug-in vehicles by 2015, as part of his broader goal to end U.S. dependence on Mideast oil.

The credit crunch and the economic slump are slamming the crop of electric-vehicle companies that sprung up in recent years, fueled in part by Silicon Valley venture-capital money.

Tesla Motors LLC, once the darling of the green car movement, is now scrambling to stay afloat and is asking for a $400 million loan from the same $25 billion federal Energy Department program that Detroit's car makers are looking to tap in their own fight for survival.

Tesla is now taking some flak for seeking handouts from taxpayers, most of whom could never afford its current product, a racy electric sports car that starts at more than $100,000. Detroit's chiefs might say: Welcome to our world.

The electric-vehicle industry's need for government assistance doesn't stop with subsidized loans. Mr. Wynne says the government's existing tax credits for purchases of electrified vehicles – meaning all-electric and gas-electric hybrids – should be expanded. Currently the credits, which range from $2,500 for a plug-in hybrid vehicle with a four kilowatt per hour battery pack to as much as $7,500 for an electric vehicle weighing under 10,000 pounds.

The U.S. should also do more to promote development of advanced vehicle batteries. After access to capital, batteries are one of the biggest anxieties among U.S.-based electric and hybrid vehicle manufacturers – from the Detroit Three down to the smallest Silicon Valley EV upstart. Right now, there's no company producing advanced automotive batteries suitable for electric vehicles or hybrids in the U.S.

To the extent that such batteries are made in volume anywhere, it's in Japan, Korea or elsewhere in Asia.

Finally, U.S. electric-vehicle makers are hoping that the government can be not just the financier of last resort, but also a customer. "The federal government owns 600,000 vehicles," Mr. Wynne says. The government should be a buyer for electric vehicles – not just cars, but commercial vehicles.

Established auto makers, including Toyota, GM, Chrysler, Nissan Motor Co., all are talking about plans to field significant numbers of partially electric or fully electric vehicles over the next several years.

Not so long ago, the electric-vehicle industry's moment seemed to have arrived, after nearly a century of frustration and failure. Soaring oil prices, technology advances and the enthusiasm of deep pocketed investors appeared to be coming together to overcome the obstacles that have relegated electric vehicles to the auto market's sidelines since the days of Thomas Edison.

Now, oil prices have crashed, clouding the economic case for switching to expensive battery-boosted cars.

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