(3BL Media/Justmeans) - In the year 1906, Ray Stannard Baker wrote the following passage about automobiles in the book The Boy’s Book of Inventions: Stories of the Wonders of Modern Science.
“The electric vehicle which has had its most successful development in this country has its well-defined advantages and disadvantages. It is simpler in construction and more easily managed than any other vehicle: one manufacturer calls it ‘fool proof.’ It is wholly without odor or vibrations and practically noiseless. It will make any permissible rate of speed and climb any ordinary hill. On the other hand, it is immensely heavy, owing to the use of storage batteries; it can run only a limited distance without recharging…”
He goes on to say, “Indeed, all the manufacturers of electric vehicles speak with the confidence of the day when the whole of the United States will be as thoroughly sprinkled with electric charging stations as it is today with bicycle road-houses.”
A hundred years ago we were at a crossroads similar to the one we find ourselves at today, with electric vehicles vying against gasoline-powered cars. Back then, the choice was made, influenced by a good deal of lobbying and maneuvering by the oil industry. The fact that gasoline powered cars were also cheaper and didn’t have the range issues of electrics also helped to tip the scales.
So, the question is, how much have things changed? Electric cars are still more expensive and still confront the range limitation challenge that seems to be inherent in trying to store adequate energy in electrical rather than chemical form.
What has changed is the realization that widespread usage of fossil fuels has put our planet and everything living on it at risk of a destabilized climate that threatens every aspect of our life-support system.
With so much of our day to day life built around a gas powered car that can be quickly and (of late) inexpensively filled up at any of the thousands of gas stations that cover the landscape, the challenge of switching over to a completely different energy is huge.
Yes, EV prices are coming down (see Chevy Bolt) and charging stations are popping up everywhere. According to DOE, there are currently 8,983 charging stations and 22,387 charging outlets in the US. Whether that’s as many as there were bicycle roadhouses back 1906 is not clear, but unless people are convinced that it’s enough to assuage their “range anxiety,” they will hesitate to buy an EV. Roughly 120,000 electric vehicles were sold in the US last year, bringing the total up to around 280,000.
There are a couple of other dimensions to this question. One is that, unlike gasoline, people do have access to electricity at home, which is where much of the vehicle charging, at least for local trips will take place. That’s why there needn’t necessarily be as many charging stations as there are gas stations. The other dimension is the fact that not all charging stations are created equal. What varies is the amount of time required for a charge, though what is true in all cases is the fact that it will take longer to charge your car with electrons than it did to fill it with gasoline.
Most people will come to recognize that it will be worth the wait in order to maintain a livable climate, but that doesn’t mean it will be an easy adjustment.
Is there another way to do this? In a word, yes. Some areas, like Denmark, for example, are experimenting with the idea of a charged battery as a service. This is how that works. Instead of owning the battery as part of your car, the battery is a shared resource. When your charge is getting low, you pull into a station, where they lift out your battery and replace it with a fully charged one. This doesn’t take any longer than filling up a gas tanks, but it’s a different ownership model that is more in line with the sharing economy. Not all EVs are configured for this but several Nissan models are designed to work with a robotic battery switching station designed by Shai Agassi of Better Place. That same approach, by the way, was used by New York taxi companies in the early 20th century when electric cabs made a brief appearance. The other option would be to go to hydrogen fuel cell, which is being vigorously pursued by Toyota.