Wednesday, July 26, 2006

 

Gee Whiz!

According to this article, a bunch of the dot-com vets have designed a car that runs entirely on electricity, at a fuel cost of about a penny a mile. The car is based on a high-end Porsche, and goes from zero to sixty in four seconds. It can go several hundred miles between recharges. It sells for less than the Porsche on which it’s based, and looks better. It’s a zippy, nifty little machine. As they improve the battery technology, they plan to roll out a significantly cheaper four-door sedan in the near future.

This story didn’t appear in any of the major media.

The part of the article that raised my eyebrows was the mention of parts outsourcing. Since the Big Three outsourced most of their parts-making to other companies (or spun off the companies altogether, like Delphi), they inadvertently lowered the barrier to entry for new companies to make cars. Now, a new carmaker can commission a designer, set a few techies to engineering efficiencies, and have Delphi make the windshield wipers.

Hmm.

Granted, the technology still has a ways to go. I remember my high-school physics class back in Northern Town in the 1980’s. My physics teacher told us that if we wanted to win the Nobel Prize, all we had to do was to come up with a more efficient battery. If batteries could be made more efficient, all manner of things would become possible.

It stuck with me, even though I was a complete idiot in physics. (She gave up on me after I once calculated ‘force’ in ‘kilometers.’ In my defense, as an American, I have a constitutional right to ignore the metric system.) Batteries? Really? How mundane!

Apparently, this was the source of the breakthrough.

The Big Three, when they did electric cars (for about ten minutes), did so using variations on the Sears Diehard. So the things ran for about twenty minutes before conking out, topping out at low speeds. The dot-com guys had the blindingly simple idea – what if we used the same high-efficiency batteries we use for laptops? According to the article, if you stitch together enough of them, you can do zero-to-sixty in four seconds.

(Granted, it would also crash every few hours, but they’re working on that.)

While it’s still in the cool-toy-for-rich-nerds phase, I’ll say confidently that if I worked for Ford, I’d be pooping construction materials right about now.

Why do we expect the Big Three (or even Toyota or Honda, for that matter) to come up with the next great breakthrough? Has that ever happened? Did blacksmiths invent the locomotive? Did railroad companies develop the Model T? Rabbits don’t lay eggs, and huge path-dependent corporations don’t suddenly change their product lines. If history is any guide, the likeliest course of development would be the first gradual, then rapid displacement of the traditional carmakers with startups. That would truly suck for certain communities in, say, Michigan, but it might not be a bad thing for the country as a whole, in the long run.

With a few refinements, this technology could be massive. Imagine the glory of stopping at a gas station once every…well, never. A penny a mile! (That’s a farthing per kilofurlong, or something.) Sheet. At 25 miles per gallon and 3 bucks a gallon, I’m currently paying about 12 cents per mile. Charge that puppy up in the garage when I get home, and never stop for gas. Pop some super-efficient photovoltaic thingies on the garage roof to supply the juice, and we’re in bidness. Suburbia lives!

(Yes, we’d have to figure out how to handle folks who park outside – apartment dwellers, say. This strikes me as fundamentally doable.)

Imagine the impact on American foreign policy. If we could get our oil consumption down to the point that we could satisfy the remaining needs between our reserves and Canada’s, we could tell certain unfriendly regimes to go jump in a lake.* That would be sweeet. They would suddenly run dry of petrodollars, forcing them to do something productive, instead of just counting our money and calling us Satan. Bin Laden’s money came from oil; this would hit him where it would really hurt. Move away from the economics of resource extraction, towards actually adding value.** That wouldn’t be so bad…

Now if we had a government that could actually do some basic math, maybe we could redirect tax deductions away from SUV’s (yes, they get tax deductions) and towards, say, battery research, or photovoltaic research. Wouldn’t that be something?

Sigh.

Okay, back to my skeptical self. It’s fun to air out the ‘gee whiz’ side every so often, though. Wouldn’t it be nifty if we had a high-performing technical substitution for oil, just as oil is starting to peak?

*A few months ago, I read that one of the mixed blessings of global warming is that with the arctic ice sheet melting, it’s getting easier to drill for oil up there, so Canada’s reserves are increasing. This is further proof, along with the platypus, that God has a sense of humor.

**Tom Friedman argues that countries whose economies are based on resource extraction, rather than taxes on their populations, will tend towards tyranny, since a government that doesn’t need its citizens is free to abuse them. It sounds right, although I hardly consider Canada or Norway tyrannical.

Comments:
And here I've just bought a Honda Fit. Shucks.
 
I do believe that it was in the NYT:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/19/business/19electric.html
Zero to 60 in 4 Seconds, Totally From Revving Batteries

WASHINGTON, July 18 — In a new approach to making the electric car a mass-market product, a California company will unveil on Wednesday a model that is very specialized, very expensive and very, very fast.

Tesla Motors, a four-year-old Silicon Valley start-up, has raised $60 million and spent about $25 million developing a two-seat Roadster that will sell for $85,000 to $100,000...

Best.

JF
 
"The story didn't appear in any of the major media."

Depends on what you mean by "major media."

I heard this story on NPR about a week ago.

A google-news search on the entrepreneur's name (Martin Eberhard) turns up stories about the car in the NYT on 7/19 and CBS Evening News on 7/22.

Overall, there were 155 hits, some obscure, but lots of biggies too--Forbes, Business Week, Toronto Star, San Francisco Chronicle, Detroit Free Press, an AP story that got picked up quite a few places, etc.

But I agree that this story could be the start of something very big. Silicon Valley has the money, the smarts, and credible access to capital markets. That's a very powerful combination.
 
I also meant to say that you made a very good point about the importance of Detroit's move to outsourcing, Dean Dad.

The money, the smarts, and credible access to capital markets might not be enough if Silicon Valley had to "reinvent the wheel," so to speak.

Thanks to all those outsourced suppliers, Silicon Valley doesn't have to reinvent the wheel--just the engine and power source!
 
The battery issue is huge. A year or two ago I read about a potential breakthrough in batteries that would allow them to be made in any shape and dimension. Flat, flexible sheet-batteries could be made, and so forth. (I think I read about it in Scientific American, but my brain is operating at half-speed today, so I'm not sure.)

The advantage comes when considering how much of modern engineering revolves around "finding space for batteries." If the batteries could be made in weird shapes and fitted any ol' place, it could radically shrink satellites and all sorts of cool gadgets.

Man, I love this stuff.

There's no such thing as too much science.
 
According to Who Killed the Electric Car?, in fact, batteries weren't really the problem. A man named Stan Ovshinsky had developed a NiMH battery that had a range of 100-120 miles by the mid-90s, but GM refused to use it for a long time. Eventually though, they did put that battery in the EV1 and the second generation had that kind of range.

You can read more about it at the movie's website. The website is all sorts of flash enabled, but if you go to "Questions and Answers" and then "Batteries", you'll see what I'm talking about.
 
OK, I don't have these facts at my fingertips, because I don't take notes on everything I read. But I seem to remember coming across something that said hybrids are much better than fully electric vehicles because mother nature is actually more effective at dispersing less pollution spread over a large area (a lot of cars all over a city) than it is more pollution over a small area (an electric plant providing charges to a city full of cars).

Also, there had been some talk several years ago about fuel cells that would create electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen, and a byproduct would be H2O. So you could fuel your car and have fresh water to drink at the same time. I'd love to know what happened with that research, I can't seem to find any more mention of it and it seems like the way to solve two problems at once.
 
There's no shame in a Honda Fit. It looks like a nifty little car, actually.

I probably shoulda checked before saying it was completely unmentioned. What I should have said was that the story got far, far less attention than I would have given it. My bad.

The part about parts outsourcing was the Eureka! moment for me. When the great vertical monopolies outsource their components, those components will look to other vendors to survive. Instant opening. I had never put it together that way before reading this piece.

If it were up to me, I'd ask Toyota to disable the chip in the Prius that prevents you from plugging it in. Apparently, folks who've hacked their Priuses are able to get 150-200 mpg when they charge it up overnight. Doesn't sound bad to me.
 
Rebecca-
From what I remember from Who Killed the Electric Car?, research is being done on fuel cell cars, but the research isn't far along enough for a practical, mass-market model yet (of course, the movie is probably a bit biased). The major problem (among other things) is that fuel cells are extremely expensive. My best friend from high school did a science fair project on producing hydrogen from reactions using a fuel cell and the fuel cell her group used was probably the size of a standard paperback and it cost $100. She you'd need one many, many times that size to produce enough hydrogen to run a car and even then, there's the issue of storing the hydrogen.

The movie showed a rep from Honda (or it may have been Toyota or BMW, I can't remember) driving a fuel cell car, but even he admitted that the car wasn't going on the market anytime soon.

By the way, Dean Dad, your comment about what your HS physics teacher reminds me of what my HS intro chemistry teacher said: "All you need to do to win a Nobel Prize is figure out how to get hydrogen to react with anything."
 
The electric car might perform better if it had a lithium battery instead of a lead-acid battery.
Lithium is lighter and has more energy. In the 1880's there were electric carriages that got power from an overhead wire, similar to the San Francisco MUNI 38 buses.
 
Your wish is their command. The Wall Street Jounal has a major story on this in the lead position of the "Personal Journal" page today.
 
I've been following this whole issue closely since I live in say, a certain community in Michigan.

A year ago, a fuel cell station went in near my home. It is still more of a novelty than anything.

However, I did find an article describing the very slow progress toward making fuel cell technology useful to a large consumer base. Suprisingly, it's getting the H2 that is so expensive.
 
The article says "recharge in 3 and a half hours using a special 220 volt 70 amp circuit". A back of the envelope calculation gives almost 54 Kwh per charge (which is more than my daily usage with a house and pool in California). At an average of 20 cents/Kwh, that comes out to about $10/charge, or 1000 cents/charge. So unless you have really cheap electricity, you're not going to get 1 cent/mile. By PG&E pricing, I'd end up paying 35 cents/Kwh, since this would be "extra" electricity above what I already already use - so $15/charge.

Admittedly, the cost per mile for energy is less than a 30mpg car and $3/gal gas, but it is probably only a factor of two or so, not a factor of ten.

Plus, lithium batteries are *dangerous* - when a cellphone or laptop battery goes off it's a spectacular mess. I really don't want to see a thousand go off at once.
 
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