Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

04 July 2014

The Electric-Car Paradigm Shift

[There are reasons to publish this post on Independence Day. We Yanks will never be energy independent, not for the long term, unless we get our heads around the sun and wind as energy sources. And our human species will never be independent of needless conflict over energy until we do. China’s menace in the South China Sea, despite its consistent policy of non-expansionism for most of a millennium, proves that. Switching from oil to the sun and wind for personal transportation is one vital step in securing that independence.]

Why I won’t buy a Volt after all
Why I probably won’t buy a Tesla
The sweet spot for range
Ground clearance
Electric cars’ driving cost advantages
What some imagination could do for electric cars [NEW 7/5/14!]


They still don’t get it. The car makers don’t get it. The charging infrastructure builders don’t get it. Even Elon Musk doesn’t quite get it.

What don’t they get? They don’t get the fact that electric cars are not just a cleaner substitute for gasoline cars, with up to twenty times lower energy cost per mile. They don’t get the fact that electric cars follow an entirely new personal transportation paradigm, with its own peculiar advantages, needs and uses. They don’t see electric cars as a whole new animal.

It’s as if Apple had created the iPad and tried to market it as a desktop computer.

Few readers of this blog will remember what gasoline cars looked like in their early days, before Big Oil’s heyday. They looked like horses and buggies without the horses.

A typical model is pictured here. You sat in the carriage as if you still needed to hold a horse’s reins in your hands. The steering device looked like the yoke of a plow, or a sailboat’s tiller. The engine was in the back, nearer to where the exhaust had to be so as not to blow in your face.

That’s about where electric cars are today. Makers have yet to fully conceptualize what electric cars are, how and where they fit into people’s lives and our transportation infrastructure, and what optimizing them as electric cars means. Instead they work overtime to turn out electric cars that act like gasoline cars, which they are not, and to sell them as such.

It may be “natural” to make an entirely new product look and work like the closest old one. New products evolve like living organisms, albeit much faster. But in order to evolve on their own unique path, electric cars have to impress the people who make and sell them with their unique features and characterisics. That hasn’t happened yet.

So we can expect electric cars soon to look and act as differently from today’s offerings as the cars of the twenties and thirties (let alone later!) were different from the horseless buggy in the picture.

That’s the main reason I’ve been dithering for four years about what electric car to buy. I have my own solar array now. It has plenty of excess power to charge an electric car for my leisurely, rural retired lifestyle. My power company sends me a check every month, instead of vice versa.

But despite having lusted for an electric car for much of my adult life, I haven’t bought one yet. Here’s why.

Why I won’t buy a Volt after all

As faithful readers of this blog know, I once lusted for the Chevy Volt (1, 2 and 3). If I were young and single and could have only one car, I would buy one today. It’s a good car, and I actually promised to buy one in an early post on this blog.

Not only that. For half a century General Motors was one of the stodgiest and least innovative car makers in the world. But it started the whole modern electric-car craze by announcing the Volt. And though it literally crushed the EV-1, its first electric vehicle, GM followed through this time.

All things being equal, I would like to reward an old American company that suddenly got innovative after missing out on both the Wankel engine and the first hybrids. (My very first new car was a Mazda RX-3, with a Wankel engine. It looked like an old lady’s little sedan but could shut down all but the nastiest muscle machines. I loved watching people’s faces as what looked like an old Datsun from the outside left them in the dust.)

But all things are not equal. The Volt has a 40-mile electric range, and I’m seventeen miles from town. The 34-mile round trip is too close to the nominal range to reliably run on electricity alone. More important, the Volt is not an electric car; it’s a hybrid.

True, it’s a serial hybrid. That makes its design, simpler, cleaner, easier to maintain—and more efficient to operate—than those of parallel hybrids like the Prius. From an engineering perspective, the Volt seems a design improvement.

But then there’s that smog-belching, gas-guzzling internal combustion engine, which adds a substantial fraction to the car’s total weight. I don’t need or want it or the inefficiency or un-greenness that it brings. The engineer and Jewish Calvinist in me rebel.

I want to kiss gasoline goodbye and ride on the sun, as much as I can and still live my life. So for me, the Volt is out, as much as I salute GM for introducing it and actually producing it in volume. I have to look elsewhere.

Why I probably won’t buy a Tesla

I admire Elon Musk immensely. He’s a real industrialist and innovator in a society of risk-averse, button-down, spreadsheeting lemmings, especially in the auto industry. He’s in the mold of Carnegie, Edison, Gates and Jobs—a true American hero.

I own stock in Tesla, as I have off and on for several years. It’s done well for me. But Musk has made his company profitable by showing that an electric car can be just like a gasoline car.

You can buy a Tesla Model S that can go over 300 miles on a single charge. It’s even a muscle car, racing from zero to 60 MPH in 4.2 seconds. Few but the most expensive and exotic gasoline cars can do that.

But what’s the price? The batteries. Not only do they jack the Model S’ cash price up beyond $70,000, a level far outside the reach of most consumers. They also make the car weigh over 5,000 pounds.

I haven’t owned a car that heavy since my parents’ hand-me-down 1950 Cadillac, or the Chrysler Nassau that I bought for $70 my last year in grad school and sold for the same amount a year later. (The Nassau got 11 miles per gallon, but that was when a gallon cost 26 cents.)

Again, the engineer and Calvinist in me rebel. As I get slim and trim for what I hope will be a healthy old age, I weigh in at 150 pounds. Why do I need a 5,000 pound behemoth to drag my 150-pound body around?

That’s a vehicle-to-payload weight ratio of over 33. Rocket ships do better than that, much better, as Musk, who makes them also, knows. Why not cars?

The Model S’ weight is excessive and extravagant, as is its price, and the lighter, cheaper Model X is now reportedly three years away. (There’s also the low ground clearance, but that’s a problem all electric cars share, as discussed below.)

So I’ll have to confine my personal love affair with Tesla to investment, as least as far ahead as I can foresee.

The sweet spot for range

For some reason I can’t divine, electric-car makers still haven’t internalized two key facts about their general line of products.

First, nearly every family has more than one car. Even some single people do. Many families have a car for every person of driving age.

So what’s wrong with each family owning at least one electric car, for clean and efficient near-range commuting and shopping? For a long time yet, every family will have one or more gasoline cars at their disposal for the occasional long trip. So for most families, range is not really an issue, unless everyone in the family scatters to the four winds on long trips daily. How many families do that?

If nothing else, an electric car will make sure that every family that owns one can still do essential business even in a sudden oil crisis, when long lines appear at gasoline pumps, as in Iraq today. So for the vast majority of families, it’s not a question of either/or, but both/and.

Second, people just don’t take as many long car trips as they used to, at least not in cars they buy and own. There are several reasons why this is a long-term trend.

The first is demographics. Our population is aging. As I can tell you from personal experience, we geezers don’t like long car trips. We have to stop to pee more often than younger people, and our backs hurt more from sitting long in one place. The last long car trip I took, from Orlando FL to Akron OH in sixteen hours, was a chore, even though a friend did all the driving. I’m not eager to repeat the experience.

The second long-term trend is changes in roads and traffic. As we roll along crowded highways, breathing carbon monoxide and diesel fumes and watching traffic, billboards and the blank high walls that keep noise levels in nearby suburbs bearable, people my age can recall what traveling by car was like fifty years ago, when the interstate highway system was just being built. The comparison makes you want to take the train or plane.

Advertisers can aggrandize driving all they want. But it’s not the same experience it was when there were far fewer drivers and far more empty open roads.

You no longer have the wind in your hair and feel light and carefree as you roar down an empty highway, savoring your freedom. You have to watch the guy who just cut in front of you, peer around big trucks for highway signs to spot your exit, and consult your GPS or mobile device to avoid the worst of the ever-present congestion, especially during rush hours. You thank Providence when you get where you are going and can relax again.

This is not a driving experience that encourages long trips. The “pleasure” of driving survives only in leisurely trips on blue highways, which few in our pressured, fast-paced society can afford the time to take.

Finally, there’s the whole rental phenomenon. Why spend $30,000 to $40,000 on a big, long-distance car, plus waste several thousand dollars per year in depreciation, insurance and maintenance? For less than a thousand or two a year, you can rent exactly the size and type of car you want for the occasional long trip. And you can leave all the hassle of ownership, insurance, repairs and maintenance to the rental company.

This analysis applies especially to holiday travel, when people go long distances, often with friends or extended family who don’t normally drive with them. Then they need a bigger or more elegant vehicle than the one they ordinarily drive. So renting is attractive. When we drove with our friends and kids from Orlando to Akron, for example, we rented a van much bigger and more comfortable inside (but harder to drive) than either family would think of owning.

Other important trends reinforce this analysis. As gasoline gets more expensive and driving less and less pleasant, people who can afford to do so will start moving back from the far suburbs toward the city center. The grotesque suburban sprawl that cheap gasoline fostered has reached its high-water mark and is starting to reverse. Far suburbanites who bought in the outback because homes were cheap there are now coming in from the cold. Or, if they remain, they are having to spend more and more on transportation and becoming more isolated. They may well become the new poor—an integrated, equal-opportunity ghetto built upon, and abandoned by, cheap gasoline.

Anyway, cars’ most important use—by far—is the daily grind of commuting and shopping. When GM designed the Volt, its market research suggested that the Volt’s 40-mile electric range was sufficient for over half of consumers’ round-trip commutes. The Nissan Leaf’s and Ford Focus Electric’s longer ranges, about 70 miles, probably encompass two-thirds or three quarters of consumers’ commutes.

So something just a bit north of that may be the “sweet spot” in electric-vehicle ranges.

Take my case, for example. I’m seventeen miles from town, for a round trip of 34 miles. The Volt’s forty-mile electric range is too close for comfort, but the Leaf’s 70-mile range gives me almost a factor-of-two margin of safety.

When it comes to engineering safety factors and redundancy, I’m extremely conservative. At home I have two computers set up and running at all times, and two more old ones that still work stowed away. So I’d prefer an even greater margin of safety, say, a 100-mile range.

But I absolutely don’t need an 150, 200 or 300 mile range for the kind of driving that I do, especially as I’ll probably keep my gasoline-powered Hyundai. Therefore I don’t need a Tesla, with all its huge battery weight and high price. (I still lust for one—a tribute to Musk’s sense of style, flair and marketing—but my engineer’s craving for efficiency and my Jewish Calvinist soul overcome my lust for speed and style.)

Properly scrutinized, “range anxiety” is a bogus concept dreamed up by troglodytes to keep us all in caves. Choosing the right car for long-distance travel, out of two or several cars in each family, is easily within the intellectual capacity of the average driver. When there is no such car, the rental market beckons, with considerable savings over ownership. An electric car is the perfect second or third car because it uses no gasoline and offers a much cleaner and simpler alternative, which you can “gas up” at home, from an ordinary electrical outlet, or a special one if you want to charge faster.

Ground clearance

There is one aspect of electric cars that hasn’t gotten much press, but should. It’s ground clearance.

Designers of electric cars “manage” their ground clearance for maximum efficiency of energy use. In theory, the lower the ground clearance, the less drag from turbulent air rushing under the car, and the greater the car’s energy efficiency.

If roads were flat polished surfaces of glass, you could minimize undercarriage drag and maximize efficiency by putting the chassis mere millimeters above the road. But of course real roads aren’t like that, and drivers encounter occasional obstructions. Road debris crashing under the car and penetrating the battery compartment was the cause of some well-publicized, but ultimately harmless, battery fires in the Tesla.

So ground clearance is an important practical issue for drivers of electric cars, and for their designers. That’s especially so for rural drivers, like me, who have 600-foot-long rutted gravel driveways.

The problem is that electric car makers are coy about this problem. Try to find a specification for ground clearance on Nissan’s website for the Leaf, or Ford’s for the Focus Electric. I couldn’t.

One eager salesman went out and measured a Focus Electric for me, reporting that the ground clearance was “six inches.” Really? The Focus has a better (larger) ground clearance than almost everything but a Jeep and yet doesn’t advertise it in sales literature? I don’t think so. (I bought the Hyundai Elantra over the Prius in 2009 because the Elantra had at least an inch higher ground clearance, and both were well under six inches.)

I’m not sure what’s going on. Some components (such as brake-fluid lines) do stick out under a car obliquely, near the wheels. So maybe some lawyer told auto executives not to publish ground-clearance figures because someone might break a brake line by hitting a rock near a wheel and sue.

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time that lawyers made customers’ and engineers’ lives harder by elevating covering one’s ass above common sense. (Couldn’t they write a simple disclaimer that some components might reduce ground clearance near the wheels, which, after all, have to touch the ground?)

Another thing that might be happening is that ground clearance in these cars is variable. There might be some mechanism to change it—either jacks in the suspension system or little baffles to reduce undercarriage turbulence and drag—which extend as the car gains speed.

But whatever the answer, I and other drivers like me need to know. The alternatives are to bash the underside of my brand new car, leading to early and unnecessary repairs, or to have to pave my 600-foot long gravel driveway just to buy an electric car. I’m willing to do that if absolutely necessary, but I like the rustic look.

Anyway, car makers need to be a little more honest about a crucial dimensional characteristic of their products. Providing no information about ground clearance just doesn’t cut it, at least until cars become hovercraft or mag-lev vehicles that don’t need wheels.


Maybe I’m just different from most drivers. Probably I am. But I want an electric car because it’s an electric car, not because I really lust in my heart for yet another Rube-Goldberg device with a smelly, polluting, inefficient, noisy and vibrating internal combustion engine.

I want to drive on the sun, for less than two pennies a mile, including the amortized pre-tax-credit cost of my solar array. I want a vehicle-to-payload weight ratio much smaller than 33. I want a car that doesn’t make much more noise than a bicycle. And I want to thumb my nose at countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Venezuela and Russia that punch above their weight (let alone their character) because they have far more oil than they can use. I don’t want to pollute the planet and change our climate just to carry my puny 150-pound body around.

If I want another Rube-Goldberg device like a gasoline car, I’ll buy one. There are plenty to choose from, and many are cheap. But I think I’ll keep my little gasoline Hyundai for a while; it’s got less than 11,000 miles on it, and it still drives like new.

I’m retired, so I don’t commute. Like the vast majority of consumers, I don’t need even an 150 mile range for my normal driving. A reliable, all-weather 100-mile range would assuage my most paranoid range anxiety, and the Leaf’s or Focus’ 70-miles range would probably suffice.

But with my 600-foot-long, rutted gravel driveway, I need a car with ground clearance I can trust, at least until I get the car out onto paved roads. I think I’m smart enough to know that the wheels touch the ground and honest enough not to sue the maker if I’m careless enough to bounce a wheel or axle over a big rock and break a brake line or something else that needs to be in the way.

What I seek is an electric car maker honest and customer-friendly enough to tell me accurately how high the axles and low points of the chassis are off the ground when the car’s at rest. And I’d like the maker to do so in the technical specifications of its sales literature, as all car makers used to do, so I can rely on that information.

Is that really too much to ask?

Isn’t it strange that, more than three years after the Volt’s production announcement, and with well over a half-dozen major manufacturers in the field, and more to come, there is nothing on the market yet that fits this simple description? I guess I’ll have to wait until the new “electrically powered automobile” differentiates itself from the horseless buggy once again.

Electric cars’ driving-cost advantages

I’ve “done the numbers“ elsewhere, several times (1, 2, 3 and 4), so I’ll just report the results in a table. The following table compares the energy cost per mile of driving on electricity from solar photovoltaic arrays and on gasoline:

Comparative Energy Cost Per Mile of Driving
Source of energyBasic cost parameter and sourceCost per mile (cents)
My own solar array4.8 cents per kWh1.6
State-of-art commercial solar array1.6 cents per kWh0.53
Gasoline$3.60 per gallon12

The electric cost per mile is based on the Leaf’s and Focus Electric’s similar mileage efficiency of about 3 miles per kiloWatt hour, or 72 miles from a fully charged 23 or 24 kiloWatt-hour battery. The comparative cost of driving on gasoline is based on a 30 MPG small car burning gasoline at $3.60 per gallon. The solar electricity cost includes the fully-loaded cost of the photovoltaic array, before any federal or state tax credits or subsidies.

What some imagination could do for electric cars

As always, this blog tries to provide solutions, not just review problems, suggestions and open opportunities. So here are a half-dozen ways that makers could design electric cars to do things—besides run quietly, cleanly and without gasoline—that gasoline cars can’t do:
    1. Cheap, reliable, fully independent four-wheel drive. The current complexity and expense of four-wheel drive derive from the difficulty of getting power to all four wheels mechanically. In a car with a single gasoline engine, that requires an extra differential and a trans axle, with all their extra weight and respective wear, tear and susceptibility to failure.

    An electric car can drive all four wheels much more simply, by putting a smaller electric motor on each one. In addition to driving each wheel directly, without the need for a trans axle or differential, smaller, separate motors can distribute the total engine weight equally among the four wheels, while leaving more space for the passenger/baggage compartments.

    2. Instantaneously responsive four-wheel drive. With a separate electric motor driving each wheel, it’s only a baby step to instantaneous, intelligent traction control for each wheel separately, using the same high-power, solid-state electrical controls that make regenerative braking possible, right now, in such hybrids as the Prius. Such a system could, for example, drop power to a wheel slipping on ice, snow or mud automatically and instantaneously, while distributing power to the other wheels for maximum stability and maximum traction. Dangerous “360s” would become, if not a thing of the past, at least much less common in winter.

    3. Two trunks (“boots” for Brits), not one. Electric car makers have already discovered that putting the heavy batteries below the passenger compartment lowers the car’s center of gravity, improves cornering, and frees up lots of passenger and cargo space. Small motors on each wheel, or just the two front ones (for front-wheel drive with electronic traction control), would free up more longitudinal space and make it possible to provide luggage compartments at both the car’s front and back, perhaps with different amenities.

    4. Trunks to fit the task. Trunks are now still mostly empty space, although a few car makers (like Hyundai) provide removable elastic webbing to hold shopping bags upright, and removable internal covers to hide your loot. With the big heavy batteries at the bottom, and especially with smaller motors on each wheel (or just the front two), it would become possible to design more useful trunks. For example, how about a trunk (front or rear), with a roll-out basket on bearings, so that drivers—especially older ones like me—don’t have to bend over and strain their backs to move bags in and out?

    5. A garage workshop to come with the car. One key advantage of electric cars has hardly been noticed so far. Besides producing no pollution or greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide), they also produce no carbon monoxide—a colorless, odorless, lethal gas, sometimes used for suicide, that can sneak up on you and kill you unawares.

    An electric car’s battery has enough capacity to run a small workshop all day without appreciable depletion. With no carbon monoxide effluent, you can run an electric car’s engine all day, inside the garage with the doors closed in the winter, with absolutely no ill effects. Try that with a gasoline car, and your name will be in the obits.

    So why not provide an external shaft access, appropriately concealed in normal use of the car, to which to attach a small all-in-one-machine shop, complete with a grinder/buffer, circular saw, drill press and maybe (in more expensive versions) a lathe and/or milling machine? A frivolous gimmick, you say? Well, where do most families have their workshops? Right in their garages, as I do mine.

    6. Perpendicular parking. The smallest Smart Car can drive straight into a parking space, perpendicular to the curb. So it can park in the remnants of parking spaces carelessly left by others. Or it can share a single standard space with a motorcycle, motor scooter or another Smart Car.

    In crowded cities, this is no small thing. In the 1970s, I often drove around the block for half an hour trying to find a space near Boston Common. God knows what it’s like today.

    According to the reviews I’ve read, the Smart Car is long on cuteness but short on engineering and quality. Imagine what Elon Musk could do in designing a small electric car for the same purpose: perpendicular parking, no skill required, just forward and reverse.


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