Quick Roundup 346

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Electric Cars

Via HBL and Joseph Kellard comes what I agree is, for a change, an "honest report" about the viability of electric car technology. Joseph posts a few key excerpts at his blog.

I have always found the idea of an electric car interesting, but have been frustrated by the impression that the Greens want to cram this technology down my throat whether it really works or not. The answer from this more level-headed article is along these lines: The technology, promising, but still young, could soon help you save money on gasoline if applied properly. Interestingly enough, General Motors -- and not Toyota -- seems to have adopted the approach best-suited to the current state of the art:

[W]here should we look, realistically, for a mass-market electric vehicle? Believe it or not, Detroit. In fact, the quick-fix approach that strikes me as the most promising comes from -- surprise! -- General Motors, the chief villain of "Who Killed the Electric Car?" The Chevy Volt, which the company wants to bring to market in 2010, is a plug-in hybrid that aspires to be able to travel 40 miles before switching to gasoline power. But the best part is that the combustion engine will automatically recharge the battery -- so it can switch back even while you're driving.
Forty miles is within the range of current battery technology and would work very well for short drives in the city. Were this car on the market now and I weren't facing the prospect of remaining poor because of my impending relocation to the insanely expensive Northeast, I'd seriously look at one of these. I hate throwing money away.

Live Free (as in Beer) or and Die

New Hampshire, whose state motto I have always loved, has tossed aside the principles that give it meaning to accept foreign aid from a tin pot dictator.
Two years ago, New Hampshire refused to accept heating oil from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the pro-Castro U.S. critic who once called President Bush "the devil." But with fuel prices rising, well, free oil is free oil.

With the state's blessing, New Hampshire residents will be receiving some of the fuel this winter.

New Hampshire becomes the last state in the Northeast to embrace the offer.


But the idea galled some New Hampshire Republicans, including Sen. John Sununu, who called the it a "disgrace" and an attempt at grandstanding by Chavez, and Democratic Gov. John Lynch squelched the effort.

This year, though, "the state's role is to make sure people are aware of the program," Lynch spokesman Colin Manning said.

A lot has changed over the past two years. Back then, heating oil sold for about $2.50 per gallon in the Northeast. Last month, the average price was $4.61, with predictions of $5 per gallon oil by winter.
No. The only thing that changed was the price of oil. I doubt that New Hampshire's state officials ever really understood the deeper issues here beyond the level of paying them lip service in order to grandstand.

Taking the oil is understandable, but it would be acceptable only if the customers, businessmen, and state officials involved vigorously called for the United States government to act (at a minimum) to recover from Venezuela the assets of American companies stolen by the Chavez regime.

There are similar moral issues for two kinds of parties to consider here. First, there is the moral question for each businessman and customer to consider when thinking about whether to accept the oil. Second, there is the question for the government officials of granting official state sanction to a foreign leader pandering to American citizens by offering them loot stolen in part from other Americans.

This is a very disappointing development.

Groveling and Pandering

Brian Phillips, who also attended John Conyers' farcical single payer testimonial meeting in Houston last Friday addresses an aspect of the proceedings I hadn't:
The participants were unanimously in favor of universal health care. Individually their testimony took one of two different paths.

The first path was one of overwhelming praise for the bill and its authors. America's health care system is in crisis, the witnesses said, and HR676 will address it. This was nothing more than blatant pandering to the egos of the politicians who were present. One in fact, pointed out that Lee was an excellent leader of a Boy Scout troop.

The second path was even more disgusting. While praising the bill, these witnesses said that it didn't go far enough. We need more money for training nurses, for mental health care, and for a number of other areas. These groveling witnesses wanted more for their particular pet projects. They weren't content to merely praise Lee and her cohorts, they wanted more public money thrown into their trough. [bold added]
People this scummy have no business dictating to you or me the terms under which we are to protect our health. This is pure evil.

You Have to Start Somewhere

Morgan Freeman is one of my favorite actors, and after recently watching The Bucket List, I remembered that among his first acting jobs was the role of "Easy Reader" on the PBS series, The Electric Company, a role he thought he played for too long.
It was my idea to just do The Electric Company for a couple of years and go on. But, you get trapped by that money thing. It's golden handcuffs. It gets a lot of people, including soap opera actors and commercial actors. Then, they don't want to see you in serious work. That was going to be me, having people come up to me saying "My kids love you!" I was there three years too long.
Be that as it may, I remember smiling when, as an adult, I realized that I was watching Easy Reader.

If you're old enough, you may wax nostalgic. If not, try not to laugh too hard. This was, after all, the seventies!

-- CAV


z said...

From the article: "For an electric car to truly take hold, the country will need some kind of national electric car infrastructure — either a place where people can stop to charge the battery (although that still means waiting hours to get a full charge) or a system in which batteries can be exchanged like propane tanks."

The electric car strikes me as impractical. Electricity has to compete with gas not only on price, but also on where and how long it takes to fill up. I could see if you could stop at the "electric station" to buy electricity. But you're not going to plug in at my house. Plus, don't you still have to burn natural gas, coal, or whatever at the power plant to get electricity anyway? How does this cut down emissions?

Gus Van Horn said...

I don't care about emissions, but nuclear electricity, which is practical, could do that, for what it's worth.

I disagree that you'd need a huge infrastructure to make electric hybrid cars useful. In urban settings, you'd just plug in at your own home overnight and use the engine when necessary, such as when you run a huge number of errands or travel to another city.

The infrastructure argument is a fallacy we can thank the Greens for. The rational approach to this technology isn't making the whole country switch over at once or for every purpose. It's to make it more useful (i.e., cheap), without government coercion, than straight gas. I think that fo some common use patterns of cars that can be done.

Dismuke said...

I am certainly NOT "green" - but I am extremely frugal as a matter of principle. I also have a 35 mile each way daily commute. I have zero desire to live in the part of town where I work and, as long as I remain happy with my current job and company, I sure as heck am not going to risk trading it for one closer to home where I might end up not as happy to save a few bucks on gasoline.

If I could significantly lower my transportation costs by switching to hybrids or electric cars, I would be extremely open to doing so.

I am also fortunate in that I attach very little "prestige" or "coolness" value on what I drive. For me, having a "status" car would be owning one of those REALLY cool looking cars from the early 1930s. I cannot afford to drive what I consider to be a cool car from both from a price or a practicality standpoint. To me, all modern cars look like cheap econo boxes by comparison - so from an aesthetics standpoint, I can't really get any more excited over a Lexus than I can a Toyota or Honda. Nor am I in a job where it is necessary to maintain the appearance of a certain standard of living and "image" in order to look credible to potential clients. Not being fussy about appearances or status is actually a good thing when buying a car - you can focus entirely on what makes sense from a practical standpoint.

Based on all of the research I have done, the most frugal transportation is to buy a new conventional car with an outstanding quality track record and gas mileage (or a used one you KNOW has been properly taken care of) and keep on driving the thing until the cost of repairs gets to the point that it makes more sense to put the money into a new one.

Most people do not do that. Most people get bored with their cars after a few years and trade them in while there is still plenty of life in them.

I personally hate having car payments and drive mine as long as I can. I bought my current vehicle, a Nissan, brand new in 1997 and am still driving it after 271,000 miles. My preference is to continue driving it for many more years to come - though, because of its high mileage, I am keeping my eyes open.

If you do as I do and buy a vehicle for long-term use with frugality being the major buying decision, as far as I can determine, the hybrids make absolutely no sense.

First off, they cost quite a bit more up front than a similar conventional car. Yes, the hybrids get better gas mileage. But they aren't all that much better when you factor in the higher price you are having to pay up front - and, if you finance, unlike gasoline expenses, you have to pay interest on that additional cost.

Second, my understanding is that the storage cells on the hybrids have to be replaced after a certain number of years - and the cost of doing so runs into the thousands. The point that they need to be replaced is beyond the time frame that most people hold on to their cars. But for people like me, that is, in and of itself, a deal breaker. By that time, the value of the car has depreciated quite a lot. Since I never plan to sell my vehicles, I don't worry much about depreciation. But it does have an impact if you carry full insurance and get into an accident. If the vehicle is "totaled" you may not get enough to fix it or to buy very much in the way of a replacement. Even minor damage can result in an older vehicle being "totaled." If the car is only worth $3,000, does it make sense to spend roughly the same amount on a power cell?

The other factor is one that I haven't researched and am only speculating on: repair costs. My GUESS is that the repair costs on a hybrid vehicle are more costly due to the fact that they are a more specialty product and one that mechanics are not going to be quite as familiar with. Furthermore, the technology is new enough that we really do not have a long-term track record on how well they hold up. By contrast, conventional Hondas and Toyotas have a strong reputation for durability and the Korean cars are beginning to get a reputation for quality as well - and somebody like me is going to be VERY hesitant about buying an American car as they have a reputation for NOT lasting very well. How well hybrids hold up over the long term is anybody's guess at this point - and the fact that it says "Honda" or "Toyota" on the label does not really mean a whole lot in this entirely new context. And a GM hybrid - unfortunately, in my book, American cars are guilty until proven innocent.

As far as I am concerned, the ONLY rational reason for looking into hybrid and electric cars are the potential cost benefits - and, if cost is one's concern, I don't see how they are at the point of making the grade. If you buy your cars based on aesthetics, luxury amenities or mechanical performance - well, you certainly would not want to look at a hybrid. At present, I suspect that most people who buy them are those who have fallen for a sales pitch about how allegedly frugal they are OR they are politically correct types who wish to project an "green" image. If they actually ever get to the point of being a viable frugal alternative - well, even I might actually drive one.

Gus Van Horn said...

Your criteria for achieving frugality as a car owner are all good and, come to think of it, I would like to sit back and watch early adopters test out/establish the reliability of the Chevy Volt for a few years before I bought one.

In my case, buying that kind of hybrid -- not a Prius, which is a waste of money by almost any rational standard -- could hypothetically make sense if my criteria were satisfied. Our only reason for living in the expensive part of Boston would disappear a few years down the road -- while the car was still new enough to sell easily.

z said...

I too don't care about emissions, but I thought that was one of the reasons the greens pushed this.

Anyway, I have this reoccurring thought of my friends and family "plugging in" their cars for the ride home. If electricity takes off, won't it replace or reduce gas consumption? Won't this reduce the number of gas stations? With fewer gas stations, you'd have to be very careful not to forget to plug in your car at night. I'm sure all these problems could be solved eventually but my mind cant get past the "Hey, my car is a little low on juice, can I plug it in for a little while?

Gus Van Horn said...

I know, and that is why the Greens push this, so why are we even talking about emissions?

The article gives one possible solution (swappable batteries) to your concern about needing to re-charge. Having the ability to run on gas is another (and, for now, the best practical solution.

Sure. If electricity took off, gas stations would eventually have to adapt (e.g., by also catering to a battery market) or close. And innovation could take care of other aspects of such a problem.

Granted, we are dealing with a hypothetical situation in an economy already massively distorted historically and presently by the state. For example, what if the federal government hadn't killed rail transport by regulation and financing competition (e.g., the Interstate Highway System)? The problem of limited range might not loom so large because many of us would just take a train for trips too long for cars.

Not that I am worried about car exhaust, but if the state would get out of the way, railroads could be and probably would be the (or an)"infrastructure" fans of electric cars want. It's just that you wouldn't necessarily be driving them cross-country as a matter of course.

Mike said...

A viable electric car would be FANTASTIC. It's true that a lot of this country's electricity comes from coal or oil, and that's really ridiculous considering we could build more nuclear power plants. I live 50 miles east of the largest one in the world, the Palo Verde facility, and it powers practically the entire Southwestern edge of the country (and has to be guarded as a strategic asset accordingly). Add in applications such as solar, which are finally advancing to the point where they're viable in areas with abundant sunlight, and we could, by proxy, finally be powering "normal" cars by sunlight. There is a very distinct threshold of advantage in powering things with infinite sources of energy rather than with finite sources. This goes way beyond what the political "greens" even comprehend these days: to them it's all about state control, where to a true scientist, it's solving a problem by creating an application.

Gus Van Horn said...

The great advantage of a true electric car would be the same as for all other machines that use electricity: Indifference to the power source. Electricity is just a means of moving the power from burnt fuel, fission, chemical reactions and the like from on place another.

Joseph Kellard said...


Thanks for mentioning my HBL/blog post on electric car technology. I'm glad to see that the article I highlighted sparked an informative discussion here in the comments section.

Joseph Kellard

Gus Van Horn said...

And thank you for mentioning that article. The discussion was particularly interesting to me in that it seemed that left-wing advocacy of the technology caused the discussion to start out from points they're always babbling about -- such as carbon emissions (i.e., exhaust) and past damage to the economy makes it difficult to think about how such a technology could end up being widely-used (assuming a few major obstacles are overcome or circumvented.

Dismuke said...

I don't know how efficient various delivery methods of delivery are - but one possibility if the generation of electricity ever became inexpensive enough might be for very lengthy highways such as Interstates to have overhead power lines and for cars to be able to tether to them in the same way that electric railroads and street cars are tethered to overhead lines. That way, vehicles would not need to rely on storage batteries at all as they would be directly powered by the "grid." The owner of the vehicle would then simply receive a bill payable either by account or upon leaving the roadway for the amount of electricity consumed.

My guess is it would not be a problem for such transmission lines to power cars and trucks as they currently are able to power large trains. Obviously the vehicles would need to be built in such a way that they could continue to operate on their own power once they are untethered and on side streets and lower traffic routes.

What I don't know is if it would be practical to build power lines with enough capacity to deliver electricity to a large volume of vehicle traffic. Providing power to a limited number of trains might be a bit different than powering thousands of vehicles that may pass through an area in a day. I also don't know if the efficiency of electrical power delivery goes down when it sent though lines at long distances. If so, that might make it prohibitively expensive in regions further away from power plants. And, of course, for it to be beneficial and viable, the power would need to be significantly less expensive than what one could get from gasoline.

One of the things that goes into the price of gasoline is the fact that it has to be transported in trucks to its ultimate destination. I would think that a permanent, stationary power line would offer some potential cost advantage in that way.

I suspect it is possible that if nuclear energy were fully exploited, that we might get to the point someday that energy from nuclear power plants is so inexpensive as to make it desirable to convert as much over from gasoline to electricity as possible.

Gus Van Horn said...

Vehicles with pantographs on them could conceivably get around the battery problem, although I imagine that lane changes and the vastly differing heights of cars and large trucks would bring present challenges of their own.

Certainly, beyond concentrated cities like Boston or New York, the battery problem will require some radical change beyond the cars themselves to make electric cars viable.

Dismuke said...

"Vehicles with pantographs on them could conceivably get around the battery problem, although I imagine that lane changes and the vastly differing heights of cars and large trucks would bring present challenges of their own."

Since I am already engaging in sci-fi fantasy, I might as well go whole hog.

Maybe lane changes would not be necessary as all tethered vehicles could simply occupy the center lane while those who are driving a shorter distance or are about exit soon would be in the outside lanes under their own power.

The reason, in my little fantasy here, that lane changes would not be necessary is because, in addition to the tether to the electrical power, the computer in one's vehicle would be connected to a powerful computer that all other tethered vehicles in that lane would also be hooked up to. The vehicles would be operated entirely by the central computer. The driver could literally become a passenger and read a book or just look at scenery. The central computer would make sure all vehicles are traveling at the same exact speed and at a safe distance from one another - and if there is a need for them to stop, the breaks on all vehicles would be applied instantaneously.

Those vehicles wishing to exit would send a command to the central computer which would automatically direct the car to the second-to-the-inside lane which would exist strictly for transition purposes. Once in that lane, the vehicle would still be under the control of the computer while it transitions to its own power. The tether would then detach and retract. The driver would then manually move the vehicle into the very next lane which would be for vehicles entirely under their own power. The same could be true in reverse. Vehicles under their own power could use the transition lane to automatically tether up and then be safely inserted into the inside lane by the computer.

I have seen futuristic projections dating back decades of "smart" highways where all vehicles travel at rapid speeds very close to each other guided by a central computer which knows what ever other vehicle is doing and virtually eliminating accidents caused by driver error. If we have tethered electric cars, might as well have them computer controlled as well.

Gus Van Horn said...

At which point, the question becomes: Are they really cars anymore? (And that's the "problem" the Greens are really trying to solve.

The lefties would like this, except for the nagging remnants of personal autonomy your scenario still allows.

What distinguishes this joke from the leftist fantasy is that a real liberal wouldn't end the fantasy at remote control of the cars. That's passe.

He'd have computer chips and radio transceivers installed in the skulls of the drivers for remote control on the highway, off the highway, in restaurants that don't use trans fats, at the recycling center, and from cradle to grave.


Inspector said...

Don't get too exited there, Gus.

With a $40,000 + purchase price - which will still lose money for GM - the Volt certainly does not bode to be an economical form of transportation...

[more here]

Gus Van Horn said...


That sort of gets close to mass-market territory, but it ain't there yet!

Gas remains a great bargain.

Inspector said...

It sure does, Gus! Especially when you consider the falling value of the dollar against other commodities.

Gas is a bargain - dollars are a rip-off.