Another View: The inconvenient truth about electric cars
The Obama administration's electric-car fantasy finally may have died on the road between Newark, Del., and Milford, Conn.
The New York Times' John M. Broder reported Friday that the Tesla Model S electric car he was test-driving repeatedly ran out of juice, partly because cold weather reduces the battery's range by about 10 percent.
Broder's trip turned into a nightmare, including a stretch with the conked-out car riding the back of a flatbed truck.
Tesla chief executive Elon Musk fired back on Monday, tweeting that Broder's report is a "fake" and that "vehicle logs" show he "didn't actually charge to max & took a long detour."
The Times is standing by its story. My take is that even if Musk is 100 percent right and Broder is 100 percent wrong - which I doubt - Musk loses.
Who wants a $101,000 car that might die just because you feel like taking "a long detour"?
President Obama repeatedly declared that, with enough federal aid, we can put a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. His administration has invested about $5 billion in grants, guaranteed loans - including $465 million for Tesla - and tax incentives to buyers.
Yet Americans bought just 71,000 plug-in hybrids or all-electric vehicles in the past two years, according to GreenCarReports.com. That's about a third as many as the Energy Department forecast in a 2011 report that attempted to explain why Obama's goal was not preposterous.
Federal billions cannot overcome the fact that electric vehicles and plug-in electric hybrids meet few, if any, of real consumers' needs. Compared with gas-powered cars, they deliver inferior performance at much higher cost. As an American Physical Society symposium on battery research concluded last June: "Despite their many potential advantages, all-electric vehicles will not replace the standard American family car in the foreseeable future."
If you don't believe the scientists, listen to Takeshi Uchiyamada, the "father" of the Toyota Prius: "Because of its shortcomings - driving range, cost and recharging time - the electric vehicle is not a viable replacement for most conventional cars."
Even Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn, whose commitment to the all-electric Leaf helped his firm get a $1.4 billion U.S. loan guarantee, has reduced his boosterism in the face of disappointing sales.
Nor do electric cars promise much in the way of greenhouse-gas reduction, as long as they rely on a power grid that is still mostly fired by fossil fuels.
As for Vice President Joe Biden's 2009 forecast of "billions and billions and billions of dollars in good, new jobs," the electric car factory at which he made that statement sits idle. Ditto the taxpayer-backed Michigan factory of battery maker LG Chem. Two Energy Department-funded lithium-ion battery makers have gone bankrupt.
There's simply no denying that the administration's electric-vehicle project was a mistake.
But it's worth asking precisely what kind of mistake (beyond eminently foreseeable and terribly expensive). As Bruce Springsteen once sang: "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?"
I accept the President's good intentions. He didn't set out to rip off the public. Nor was the electric-car dream a Democrats-only delusion. Several Republican pols shared it, too.
Rather, the debacle is a case study in unchecked righteousness. The administration assumed the worthiness and urgency of its goals. Americans should want electric cars, and therefore they would, apparently.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu, he of the Nobel Prize in physics, epitomized the regnant blend of sanctimony and technocratic hubris. He once told journalist Michael Grunwald that photosynthesis is "too damn inefficient," and that DOE might help correct that particular error of evolution.
The department has recently backed away from the million-car target, in favor of reducing battery costs to $300 per kilowatt hour by 2015 (from $650 today). Even this seems dubious, given the APS symposium's view that "only incremental improvements can be expected" in lithium-ion batteries.
Chu is on his way out but still dreaming. "For the engineers in the room or those who follow this, you might be saying to yourself, 'What are they smoking?'" he remarked at the Washington Auto Show. "We're not smoking anything. They are ambitious goals but they are achievable goals."
I might add that Chu does not own a car.
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post's editorial board.
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Ed Holdgate said:
What a sorry excuse for a government we have now: a Politburo full of public (mis-)education proteges, voted into power by low-info public (mis-)education voters, led by a Community Organizing Messiah from Kenya, all thinking (with a few exceptions) they can engineer up a futuristic green electric car infrastructure with a few decrees and pallets of hastily printed money. These Liberals puked up each June by the NEA and AFT unions infiltrated government and eradicated efficiency and genuine success everywhere from the Department of Agriculture (e.g. Meatless Mondays,) to the Department of State (e.g. Benghazi and WikiLeaks,) to even NASA (floundering with no manned mission capability in sight.) I'll spare you the myriad of pathetic examples in between. Their parasitic ancestry-in-spirit mutilated the Soviet empire and now they are leeching here, after finally slithering into positions of power and influence during the last 50 years.The Liberals cannot lead, manage, or even force a successful electric car effort, but by gosh they can usurp and fix our health care system, right? What could possibly go wrong? Comrades, witness the fruit of America's liberal unionized public education system: pandemic mediocrity and clumsy ineptitude!
February 13, 2013 1:54 am
John Mercier said:
Ed Holdgate... That would make a lot of sense; if the proposal for the cars weren't in the 2005 State of the Union Address, and the first Ex-VP Lunt of GM hadn't outed Bush as the culprit.
February 13, 2013 5:35 am
Mr. Musk of Tesla complains that the car was not fully charged and took detours. But the car-buying public often commits both of these sins and might experience an equally unsatisfactory result. The point is, to Mr. Musk and to everyone bathing in electric-car Free Loot, customer satisfaction is suddenly not an issue. If carmakers were free to develop electric cars for their own profit and at their own risk, we would not have them (like airbags, MTBE, and compact-fluorescent bulbs) until they were good and had the bugs worked out. When government pushes a technology, we get it before it is ready--and we pay for it under implied gunpoint even if we don't get it.
February 13, 2013 7:12 am
John Mercier, versus Ed Holdgate, is correct that the Electric Car boondoggle does not prove the unique incompetence of Democrats. Not only did it have its origins in the Bush/Clinton years, but yesterday's news of the out-of-control program to give "Obama-phones" to welfare clients noted that this looting also began under Mr. Bush, one of his many attempts to position himself as a "compassionate" conservative. We should note that this is Karl Rove's way forward for the GOP following the defeat of Mr. Romney, a candidate who pioneered Obama-care and expressed approval during the campaign of some of its mandates. As we wrestle with an immigration bill that does right by the nation and not just by welfare caseworkers, let's not ignore the poison with which appeasement Republicans seeded this and every issue.
February 13, 2013 7:19 am
Chris Herbert said:
First thing to know is that the initial breakthrough in car efficiency will come from the use of carbon fiber composites instead of steel and aluminum. These materials allow the Dreamliner by Boeing to fly on 20% less fuel because they cut weight (the largest creator of energy inefficiency) by up to half. Manufacturers of these materials are ramping up in anticipation of their use in automobiles. As automobile weights come down the efficiency of all traditional powered and electric powered vehicles improves dramatically. As for battery strength, that technology is evolving rapidly but will have glitches that no amount of pre-testing is going to find prior to actual application. Also consider where this evolution is coming from: Electronics. As the consumer demands more and more power from smaller and smaller batteries in their handphones, ipads and the rest, the efficiencies wrung from these batteries will be applied to larger uses, such as those of airplanes and ground transportation. Running out of 'gas' when you have an electric vehicle is pretty much a function today of whether or not there's a 'gas' station nearby. We take for granted that there's a gas station on every corner, one day we will also take for granted that there's a fast charging station on the corner too. This article is perfect example of someone who misunderstands the future value of investment today. The author also makes a big mistake in assuming that the private market is the fountainhead of capital for this very risky, but necessary, experimentation: It isn't, and has never been the prime source of such capital. From the internet to Apple's Siri, the basic research and funding has initially come from government. Siri was the product of 40 years of government funded experimentation before Apple got it's hands on it. I'm reminded of Henry Ford's answer to a question about what his initial customers' wanted. "Faster horses," Ford replied. Put this column in the 'faster horses' trash bin. Ignore it, because it's horrible advice.
February 13, 2013 7:34 am
George LeMont said:
There are not many people who will give up being able to go 400 miles on a tank of gas to going 25 to 50 miles on a battery charge in a car that has been shrunk down to the size of a matchbox car to get such low mileage. As always the green crowd is forcing weak technology on us and driving up the cost of using the fuels we do have so they can claim theyre saving the planet from the fantasy of climate change. Ask them when this planet has ever stayed the same temperature and not fluctuated and they will most likely start calling you names and deflect the point to something else. Ten thousand years ago NH was covered in a sheet of ice a mile thick until the planet warmed up and it melted slowly away. The problem is the planet has not stopped warming simply because the democrat greeners told it too. Like many things that get tangled in politics climate change is the tool of manipulation for the gullible to cling too. Thats a much better way to force something on the public than doing actual research and developement until a real replacement for gasoline can be invented that will actually allow us to go on vacation 50 miles at a time.
February 13, 2013 8:25 am
Len Cannon said:
As bad as the Tesla car (a 1 percenter's toy) is/was, the Chevy Volt was/is much worse. Without the federal subsidy of $10,000 per car proposed by Obama, the car would sell at about a 100 per month rate. With the subsidy, the sales are dismally below minmum targets and getting lower each month. GM has already suspended production and laid off workers twice due to poor sales. This administration's energy subsidy programs to employ union workers to produce products nobody wants have been a complete failure.
February 13, 2013 8:49 am
Chris Herbert said:
George and Len. Maybe I didn't explain myself adequately, but the point is we waste hundreds of billions of dollars on energy every darn year. Carbon fiber composite use doesn't mean the car is smaller, it means the car is lighter. Sure, you can make small carbon fiber automobiles, but simply knocking the weight down saves money, and that's the point of the exercise. Both Toyota and BMW intend to start producing carbon fiber automobiles this year or next. Will they be inexpensive initially? Nope. But there are folks who always can afford the initial production, and then there are second tier folks to come in afterward, and finally scalability and improvements in manufacturing kick in and bring the price down to where many, if not most, people can afford them. Right now carbon fiber manufacturers can make a front end assembly within a minute. They weigh about 10lbs and are as strong, and more flexible, than either steel or aluminum. One design has an entire car built from 14 of these frame components. They snap together and then are bonded. Whatever color you want for the car is part of the frame manufacture. There is no need for the famously expensive 'paint room.' All this makes whatever power plant you install more efficient. That's the point. An additional benefit is that raising efficiency reduces pollution. So it's a win/win. It's going to happen. The first one through the door in size will be a huge winner in the market. Early adopters will come in, count on it. There's too much money to be made for this not to happen.
February 13, 2013 9:35 am
Chris Herbert said:
Google Zoltek, a US carbon fiber manufacturer, and visit their website for more specific information. This is going to happen George and Len.
February 13, 2013 9:40 am
Michael Morin said:
"real consumers' needs"What is the meaning of this, seriously. Consumers' real need is to commute/transport. The majority of consumers do not need to be hauling boats and construction material. They do not have moving companies in their private names. They're not hauling a space shuttle to a museum. Most consumers do not need trucks or 8-cyl behemoths that use more fuel than your home furnace.I don't own an all-electric vehicle because I know that technology has not progressed far enough for me but you don't see me driving a Charger everyday from Hudson to Cambridge for work. In November, I took advantage of great financing options for a plug-in Prius (no interest for 60 months). Save the infrequent blizzard, my car goes everywhere. OBTW, my other car is a BMW X3 - perfect for getting through another Nemo.
February 13, 2013 9:56 am
Rick Mitchell said:
@ Chris Hebert: Carbon fiber! That's the ticket! Of course, carbon fiber costs 10 times as much as already-expensive aluminum, and would push up the cost of the already-unmarketable Volt and Tesla by at least 50% (part of the reason a Dreamliner costs $250 million, but hey, what's money when you're planning to alter the climate of the planet?). And then there's the fact that over 70% of our electricty is produced by burning fossil fuels, making the concept of EVs an exercise in futility of not outright stupidity. But over time, carbon fiber will be cheap and we'll be less reliant on fossil fuels for affordable electricity, so EVs will make perfect sense --- sometime around 2075.
February 13, 2013 9:56 am
Ron Remillard said:
Let's see, the electricity these cars will use is, in most cases, generated by a coal fired power plant and the process of manufacturing the batteries leaves us with huge amounts of hazardous waste, almost as much as solar panels do. Add in the inconvenience of limited range and reliability issues and factor in that GM is losing more money per Volt sold than they actually sell for and tell me if you're still on board with these cars.
February 13, 2013 10:21 am
Todd Lockwood said:
It's a shame that this story has blown up into such a calamity. Both Tesla and the NY Times reporter contributed to this unfortunate turn of events. Had Tesla simply located its Superchargers closer together — 140 miles apart instead of 200 — Broder's trip would have gone without a hitch, with the heat blasting and the tunes rocking. Broder, for his part, allowed the car to run out of power, a move which added some drama to his story, but probably wouldn't have occurred if he was the owner of the car. The bottom line: the Model S behaved exactly as it was designed to do. Once Tesla gets more charging stations in place, the odds of such a situation happening again will be about the same as running out of gas.
February 13, 2013 11:14 am
Michael Layon said:
Is the problem really electric cars or is the problem the government taking YOUR money and trying to tell you what type of vehicle is best for YOU, your family and your neighbors? I am well aware this goes FAR beyond Obama, just as the seeds for the Iraq War were signed into law by William Jefferson Clinton (Iraq Liberation Act, HR 4655, 105th congress). Similarly Reagan signed into law gun regulations which prohibit the purchase of fully automatic weapons manufactured after May 1986 (S49, 99th congress). In each of these cases the government has overstepped its constitutional bounds and its role to secure the blessings of freedom for every person in this country. Home of the free refers to freedom, not handouts. If electric cars are YOUR thing, then vote with YOUR wallet. If enough people agree, we can expect to see electric recharging stations all over in the near future. That is unlikely as Obama has sought a policy to increase the cost of electricity, which allows him to fund both sides of the war on your wallet and freedom. Prescott Bush funded both sides of WWII and earned a very handsome profit. Heck, his son and grandson even became presidents! Finally, humor is the best medicine and this is nothing short of morbid humor: Our nobel peace prize president has started more wars and killed more people than his predecessor. Similarly his energy secretary is a nobel prize winner who joined the fray in 2008 stating, he wants gasoline prices to get to the European level, which is $9 or $10 a gallon. More government, restricts freedom. That is why I favor limiting government to promote more freedom.
February 13, 2013 11:20 am
Peter Gosselin said:
Todd, the Telsa article really just brought the electric car debacle to the forefront again. This is not about Telsa, it's about the government interfering with and causing distortions in the free market. Science has said for years that electric cars are not ready for prime time. We didn't just discover this. So what we have here is money waisted which could have gone to research on how to further clean up fossil fuels. Truth be told, we have massive amounts of fossil fuels returning reasonable efficiency with an infrastructure already built in. In my opinion, it's a fool's errand to poor billions into electric cars now or in the near future based on the reality of battery design. Let the free market determine when. As far as carbon fiber goes, yes it would decrease weight, which will be necessary to to new EPA standards. But these cars will run on clean burning fossil fuels, for very obvious reasons.
February 13, 2013 2:04 pm
John Mercier said:
Spike... Actually, we had CFLs long before the government chose to interfere. I bought my first ones in 1995; of the six, four are still functioning. The problem with the electric car is a mixture of battery technology; and some false market myths. Peter Gosselin... The new standards shouldn't require any change in materials. Its largely achievable through a mixture of transmission and alternator technology.
February 13, 2013 2:49 pm
john martin said:
I know someone with a Volt and after an all night charge the battery goes dead in 17 miles. Overpriced and taxpayer funded. Taxpayers bite the dust again.
February 13, 2013 5:12 pm
Bob Smith said:
Electric cars: what energy source will be needed to power the plants that provide the electricty needed for all these cars. What happens to all the batteries in these cars? Its like the new light bulbs, you drop one and you have to call in hazardous material people to clean it up
February 13, 2013 5:30 pm
SANDRA GOLDEN said:
Electric cars represent yet another contradiction in environmentalist ideology: They consume electricity at a time when environmentalists scold us for energy consumption... just like they encourage us to buy CFL light bulbs that contain mercury (over 300 million households in America with untold numbers of light fixtures)while they want to limit mercury emissions from power plants. Dams kill fish, wind farms kill bats and birds, and nuclear is dangerous because of the rods, and yet environmental groups must realize that the power needed for our future must come from SOMEwhere. They oppose everything (and many have valid concerns) but as with everything there will have to be a trade-off, and most Americans have rejected the electric car idea. Even if you see someone driving a fast sports car or a SUV or a v8 pickup truck it is not your place to say whether or not that person "needs" it; that is what they have chosen to drive. I agree it is a waste of taxpayer money, but I feel that they should be offered for sale and the public will choose which vehicle best suits their needs. Those needs will be different for each person and each family... and that is OK in my book!
February 13, 2013 5:46 pm
Ron Remillard said:
John Mercier, as a life long automobile aficionado I can say with some certainty that you have no idea what the hell you are talking about. Don't take this personally, it is the one quality (???) that makes you perfect for your low expectation/low performance government job.
February 13, 2013 9:06 pm
John Mercier writes: "The problem with the electric car is a mixture of battery technology; and some false market myths." No, John. The problem is when choices are made coercively by third parties in government. Separately, I know we had compact-fluorescents before the government started to ban traditional light bulbs. CFLs didn't perform well back then either. New ones are both light on the mercury and don't take two minutes to brighten. The threat of armed force was never necessary. Sandra Golden: I agree but only quibble that you assume "environmentalists" have any fixed set of principles by which there is a right and a wrong choice--you assume there is any way to satisfy them, other than give them ever-expanding power over our personal choices.
February 13, 2013 9:06 pm
Peter Gosselin said:
John Mercier, cars are a hobby of mine. You state "The new standards shouldn't require any change in materials. Its largely achievable through a mixture of transmission and alternator technology." I've never heard this before. Are you saying transmissions and alternators are so inefficient (presumably turning friction energy to heat) that by modifying them we will achive another 25 mpg the new CAFE standards will require in the future? Why don't the car companies just do this now? Why waiste billions on green energy when you could give a few million to the car companies now to double everyone's MPG?
February 14, 2013 12:12 pm
Jim Peschke said:
Ron Remillard, you needn't be a car aficionado to say with certainty that John Mercier doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. Basic knowledge about education, energy production, or economics can also reveal this truth. Have a look 'round the UL articles if you don't believe me. I just don't understand why John doesn't market his 25mpg-to-50mpg magical alternator, or lecture at MIT about the futility of carbon composites. If you really want to see some bad automotive thermodynamics, the next best thing to a John Mercier post is a low budget film called "Gashole". It has similar characteristics - a complete lack of understanding of chemistry, physics, aerodynamics and basic economics, plus the usual "Its Bush's fault"(TM) Mercieresqe tripe.
February 14, 2013 8:33 pm
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