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Where are the viable electric vehicles?

The battery on the Tesla S Sedan helps form the vehicle's floor pan (red arrow).
The battery on the Tesla S Sedan helps form the vehicle's floor pan (red arrow).
Mike Karagozian

With the price of gasoline again topping the $4.00/gallon mark it is time to take another look at electric vehicles. While viable all-electric vehicles are inevitable, we are years away from the time when electric vehicles can transform the auto industry the way digital cameras transformed film photography.

Parts not needed
Close your eyes and try to name all the component parts on a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine that are not needed on a vehicle powered by an electric motor. Here are a few thought starters:

  • Fuel tank
  • Fuel filter
  • Fuel line
  • Fuel cap
  • Fuel pump
  • Fuel injectors
  • Intake manifold
  • Intake valves/Exhaust valves
  • Valve springs
  • Cylinder head
  • Cylinder head gasket
  • Exhaust manifold
  • Exhaust pipe
  • Catalytic Converter
  • Muffler
  • Tail pipe
  • Oil
  • Oil Pump
  • Oil filter
  • Oil pan/pan gasket
  • Pistons, piston rings
  • Connecting rod
  • Crankshaft
  • Main bearings, front and rear main bearing seals
  • Coolant
  • Radiator
  • Fan
  • Fan belts/pulleys
  • Water pump
  • Thermostat
  • Radiator hoses
  • Transmission
  • Spark plugs
  • Ignition wires
  • Engine control module
  • Oxygen sensor
  • Smog pump
  • Starter
  • EGR valve

The auto companies have invested heavily in thousands of plant workers, engineers, machine tools, manufacturing plants, plus a vast network of vendors to produce components not needed in an electric vehicle. Is the lack of a viable electric car a conspiracy on the part of the auto companies?

In a word, NO, but everyone loves a conspiracy theory. Long before the Arab oil embargo, there were rumors that General Motors invented a secret carburetor (remember carburetors?) that would enable a Cadillac to get 50 miles per gallon. GM was rumored to be in cahoots with the oil companies to keep this secret carburetor under wraps and out of production. If, however, GM could build a 50 mpg Cadillac they would be selling a lot of Cadillacs and would never have gone into bankruptcy.

Electric motor advantage
The advantages of an electric motor versus an internal combustion piston engine are compelling. First, a piston engine produces lots of internal friction and waste heat. Without a cooling system and a radiator a piston engine will quickly overheat and seize. And without several quarts of lubricating oil and an oil pump, a piston engine will tear itself apart in seconds.

An electric motor, on the other hand, has only one moving part and no need for a cooling or lubrication system. Electric motors are "instant-on" and need no warm-up. Electric motors produce 100 percent torque from zero rpm so a transmission is needed only to provide a reverse gear. And, of course, electric motors don't burn gasoline so there are no direct hydrocarbon emissions - assuming one overlooks the fact that most electrical power in the U.S. comes from coal.

If electric motors are so great, why are there so few all-electric vehicles?

Ubiquity of recharging
The main reason there hasn’t been a feasible electric car is, as Bill Ford, Jr., scion of the company that bears his name put it, “the ubiquity of recharging” an all-electric vehicle.

No storage battery comes close to the energy density of gasoline. A one cubic foot fuel tank holds about 7.5 gallons of gasoline. At 30 mpg, that 7.5 gallons will propel a 3,000 pound vehicle at highway speed about 225 miles. A one cubic foot battery will barely nudge a 3,000 pound vehicle around the block.

In addition, batteries are notoriously inefficient at getting energy out of them as well as getting energy back into them. Over time, batteries lose the ability to take a full charge and this raises serious questions about the resale value of a used all-electric vehicle.

Technological breakthrough needed
The most obvious need is for improved battery technology. Engineers all over the world are working on ways to boost the energy density of batteries and we’ve certainly come a long way from the lead-acid batteries used to start internal combustion engines.

Lithium-ion batteries, used in cars like the Chevy Volt and Tesla models, have higher energy density than lead-acid batteries but they are heavy, expensive and life-limited. They can be problematic as evidenced by the temporary grounding of the entire fleet of Boeing Dreamliners due to fires caused by lithium-ion batteries.

Replaceable battery pack
Another possibility would be to produce a standardized vehicle battery that could be quickly swapped out with a fully charged one – like exchanging an empty propane tank for a full one at the supermarket. To make this practical all the auto manufacturers would have to agree on a standard battery configuration. Good luck with that. Also, a nationwide network of battery exchange stations would need to be established. Such a network would be costly and take years to create.

Another area where a technological breakthrough could revolutionize electric vehicles overnight could be superconductivity. Superconductivity is the physics equivalent of getting something for nothing - a free lunch. Briefly, at extremely low temperatures the electrical resistance in certain metals drops to virtually zero and vastly improves efficiency and capacity.

Superconductivity, if it could somehow be harnessed in storage batteries or in the magnets of a working electric motor, would represent a quantum leap in capability. It will be many years, however, before superconductivity can transform batteries and electric motors. But then that’s why they call them technological breakthroughs.

The cost
There’s another problem with all-electric vehicles. They’re too damned expensive and automakers can't sell them at a price that will allow them to recover development costs. According to a report by John McElroy in Ward’s Auto, manufacturers are losing thousands on every all-electric vehicle they build but they’re being forced to sell them in order to earn EV credits. Even in Europe, where the price of gasoline is double what it costs in the U.S., McElroy says all-electric vehicles are not popular with consumers. So even if a technological breakthrough solves the ubiquity of recharging issue, unless the cost comes down, electric vehicles aren’t likely to appear in large numbers anytime soon. Read John McElroy’s commentary on EV’s here.

Read more: All-electric Ford Ranger pickup operates on 60 cents per day.

Read more: How Ford vehicles might help solve Salt Lake City's public transportation inefficiency.

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